March 15 (UPI) -- Chinese authorities have detained two South Korean Christian pastors who were assisting North Korean refugees.
The arrests come at a time when Beijing has not stopped placing selective sanctions against South Korean companies for a joint U.S.-South Korea decision to deploy the missile defense system THAAD on the peninsula.
Pastor Peter Jung, who heads Justice for North Korea in Seoul, told Yonhap news agency Wednesday the two South Korean nationals were "protecting defectors" but were tracked down by Chinese police who promptly arrested the religious clerics and their families.
Jung said one of the pastors was arrested Feb. 18 in the Chinese city of Qingdao in Shandong province, at the city's airport, with his wife and two children.
The second South Korean national was arrested with his wife at a hotel in Qinhuangdao, a Chinese port city in northeastern Hebei province.
Chinese authorities released the family members of both men after two days of interrogation, Jung said.
"The arrested pastors openly stated to Chinese authorities they were helping North Korean defectors out of fear they would be subject to inhumane treatment if repatriated to the North," Jung said.
Beijing has previously sent back North Korean refugees within China's borders.
Jung said Chinese police are seeking to charge the South Koreans for operating a human smuggling operation.
The two pastors have been transferred to the Chinese city of Benxi in Liaoning Province, where they are to await a final decision while in custody.
In February, Chinese authorities arrested four Christian missionaries near the North Korea border.