|Choe Hwang-kyu, founder and pastor of Seoul Chinese Church in Daelim-dong, Seoul, poses in front of his church, Saturday. He has saved Chinese people from human trafficking, domestic violence, and other abusive practices. / The Korea Times|
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Rev. Choe Hwang-kyu, 57, has risked his life to save the needy and abused Chinese nationals ― mostly Han Chinese migrants ― for the past two decades.
Death threats and blackmail by human traffickers and thugs have become part of his life. They have tried to coerce him to hand over to them people he was protecting, such as Chinese women who fell victim to human trafficking and a man who was almost beaten to death after he failed to pay fees to his broker in exchange for their helping him enter South Korea illegally.
They threatened his life would be cut short.
But the fearless pastor didn't back down.
Choe has been dealing with such life-threatening moments many times for the past two decades since he launched a human rights campaign initially for illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers from China.
In 2003, he founded the Seoul Chinese Church in the capital's western area of Daelim-dong which is home to South Korea's largest "Chinatown." Since then, the church has been a shelter for Chinese immigrants and dissidents.
"Illegal Chinese immigrants are the most underprivileged ethnic group in South Korea," he said during a recent Korea Times interview. "In China, Korean Chinese are a minority and are discriminated against by the majority Han Chinese ethnic group. But now they (sometimes called 'joseonjok' here) are calling the Han Chinese 'ttoenom' (Chinese supremacists), for the very same treatment they received when they were in China."
Such a rift inside the Chinese community makes his human rights mission tougher.
At his church, the vast majority of its some 100 members are Han Chinese. But a small number of Korean Chinese and Koreans trying to learn Chinese also attend Sunday worship.
Due to the lingering coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, these days fewer members ― some 20 people ― attend services.
"I've met many undocumented Chinese over the past two decades. I bet I am the person who has met the most illegal Chinese immigrants in South Korea," he said.
It was after 2006 when Korean Chinese were allowed to work in South Korea as guest workers. Before then, according to Choe, "unspecified but many" Chinese immigrants were illegally employed in the manufacturing sector or other "3D" industries grappling with a shortage of workers.
In the early years after he founded the church, Choe met many illegal Chinese and protected them from various human rights violations.
"Before the Korean Chinese were included in the guest worker program, many risked their lives to illegally enter South Korea by sea through arrangements with Chinese and Korean brokers. It was a perilous journey because as we remember, in the early 2000s some of them were thrown into the sea by the brokers and drowned after their attempted illegal entry was discovered by the Korean Coast Guard," said the pastor.
"But this was what happened before the Chinese were allowed to work in Korea. These days, few Chinese enter South Korea illegally because the government eased tourist visa rules to encourage foreigners to come to South Korea for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Under current regulations, Chinese nationals can stay in South Korea for up to five years if they renew their tourist visas every three month. Some Chinese take advantage of the legal loophole and find jobs."
Choe, however, predicted Chinese illegal immigrants by sea will increase in the near future. He speculated the supposed Chinese nationals who illegally entered South Korea by sea off Taean Beach, May 20, could be seeking jobs, not hitmen or assassins hired for a special mission as some YouTubers speculated.
According to police, eight Chinese, including a broker, were aboard the boat and they left the waterfront city in an SUV that was parked near the area.
Police are investigating the case.
Choe said the incident could be a signal for a flood of illegal Chinese by sea. "Last year, the Chinese economy grew 6.1 percent," he said. "But the thing is only the top 20 percent of Chinese enjoy the benefits of China's economic growth. The other 80 percent are financially strapped. The working-class people, for example, earn less than 500,000 won ($450) per month and they find it tough to make ends meet because prices are relatively high."
The working-class people who live in the shadow of China's economic growth turn their eyes to countries outside China to make a living, according to the pastor.
Choe said the intensifying U.S.-China trade war has made things worse for poorer Chinese, claiming the Chinese economy has suffered the worst of it.
"I've heard a lot about the worsening situation in China. Factories in Guandong and Shandong provinces are closing down one after another and people are losing jobs. The poor Chinese, particularly, are feeling the pinch as the U.S. government has stepped up efforts to place sanctions on Chinese companies."
Choe began his humanitarian work for the Chinese "refugees" after an accidental encounter with Chinese dissident Xubo, who was later granted refugee status in South Korea at a symposium on North Korean defectors' human rights in Seoul in 1999.
Thousands of Han Chinese have attended his church over the past 17 years since it opened.
His church members have diverse backgrounds. Some are students who came to South Korea to study. Some are marriage migrants and their spouses. Seamen, chefs and people who work legally in South Korea are also members of the church. Some are illegal immigrants or asylum seekers.
Choe's humanitarian work has not always been well received.
His protection of undocumented Chinese pits him against South Korean law enforcement agencies. For them, the pastor is a headache as he refuses their requests to hand over illegal immigrants to them for deportation.
Choe is a hero for many Chinese as he has saved many people from human trafficking, domestic violence, delayed payments and other abuses.
But there is still some criticism from within.
Inside the church, some "patriotic" Chinese are complaining about his protection of Chinese dissidents who seek asylum in South Korea. They say the asylum seekers are traitors who betrayed their home country, encouraging Rev. Choe to rethink his support for them, a request to which he turns a deaf ear.
His presence complicates matters for Chinese diplomats based in Seoul. His image of a patron lending his helping hand to the desperate Chinese is something laudable but his promotion of Chinese dissidents embarrasses them.
|Pastor Choe and his church members gather at Seoul Chinese Church to celebrate its 15th anniversary in this 2018 file photo. / Courtesy of Choe Hwang-kyu|
Choe believes such divisive views about his humanitarian campaign are unavoidable, mainly because he is helping two different groups of Chinese who have conflicts of interest with each other.
He says protecting the underprivileged people, regardless of their backgrounds and political orientation, is what God has ordered him to do.
Choe urges his fellow Koreans to be more tolerant of Chinese immigrants, saying they are an asset for China's democracy in the future.
"Born and raised in China, the Chinese learned socialist ideology. But they chose to come to South Korea, not North Korea, to make money," he said. "Living and working in South Korea, they learn democracy and the capitalist way."
Choe says his mission is long term.
"Imagine what would happen years or decades after these Chinese who have lived in a free democracy for many years go back to their home in China," he said.
He uses a "river valley civilization" analogy to explain the long-term effect of his humanitarian mission on building peace in East Asia.
"The Chinese, particularly Korean Chinese, witnessed the Han River civilization which boils down to urbanization, miraculous economic growth and free democracy," he said. "If and when they go back to their hometown, they can serve as agents of change for both North Korea and China. Many of them have relatives in North Korea. Their experiences and fortune they assembled in South Korea are destined to trickle down to their North Korean relatives."
He said ethnic Koreans can also change the Chinese mainstreamers.
He said Korean Chinese's cultural base is the Haeran River that was mentioned in the 1933 song "Pioneer." "The song pays tribute to Korea's independence fighters who were based in China's northeastern region during the Japanese colonial rule. So the river is sort of a cultural root for Korean Chinese," he said.
"We have about 40,000 people connected to the Taidong River valley civilization. They are changing North Korea as their family members and relatives are benefitting from the money they send. Together we can change the future of East Asia to a more stable and democratic one."