By ROHIT KUMAR
The Grace Road business empire set up by a South Korean Christian group within a short span of 9 years has impressed many in Fiji, but they have also attracted controversy due to the Korean governments ongoing investigations against the church and their desire to get their leaders exiled in Fiji back home to face charges and possible prison terms.
It was reported recently that Grace Road President Daniel Kim’s application for Fijian citizenship has been rejected and he remains in custody while the case on whether to deport him back to Korea continues.
Grace Road was founded as a religious group by a woman named Shin Ok-ju, and began their operation setting up churches and business chain in Fiji in 2014 during rein of the former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.
Grace Road established a church and a business, primarily focused on agriculture and exporting products like organic ginger and paprika, promising their followers a better life and urged them to move to Fiji for a supposed “promised land.”
Close to 400 South Koreans arrived working in their Grace Road chain, it was not till 2018 when their founder Shin Ok-ju was alleged of exploitation and abuse by holding followers captive in Fiji and subjecting them to violence.
Shin Ok-ju was arrested in South Korea upon her return and sentenced to prison on the charges of violence and brainwashing.
Circulation of videos showed her beating followers and cutting off their hair saying “knocking the devil out of them “.
However, behind the scenes, reports started emerging about the group’s allegedly abusive practices and its leader’s authoritarian control over its members, where people who joined were reportedly subjected to strict rules, isolation, and forced labor.
But this did not bring an end to Grace Road in Fiji. It is believed the groups close ties with the previous government led by Prime Minister Bainimarama shielded their existence here.
But, there is the unending saga of human rights violations, as the Grace Road group started getting labeled as a religious “Cult”.
In 2018, the Fijian authorities had began investigating Grace Road and its activities. But it was not until the fall of the Bainimarama government in December 2022 that court cases against the church became very public.
The investigations have uncovered distressing stories of members enduring abuse and forced labor, with its leader Daniel Kim, facing allegations of being involved in these activities.
As a result, Kim and several other members of Grace Road were arrested and face charges related to human trafficking, physical harm, and other offenses. The Fijian courts took the case seriously, aiming to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
The case brought international attention and raised concerns about the influence of religious groups and the protection of human rights in different parts of the world. It’s a reminder of the importance of upholding human rights and ensuring that vulnerable individuals are protected from exploitation and abuse, regardless of where they are in the world.
Kim, who was evading authorities after the Korean Government invalidated his passport making him a “Fugitive wanted for Prosecution”. The Fijian Government claimed that they were struggling to locate him as Kim was on the run.
The Korean Government sought the extradition of seven individuals associated with Grace Road in Fiji, including Kim, Acting Grace Road President Sung Jin Lee, Nam Suk Choi, Byeong Joon Lee, Jin Sook Yoon, Beomseop Shin, and Chul Na. Jin Sook Yoon is also on the run.
Minister for Immigration Pio Tikoduadua, recently revealed that the Korean Government had nullified the passports of these individuals due to charges laid against them and the Interpol had issued Red Notices in July 2018, labeling them as fugitives wanted for prosecution.
However, the previous government under Bainimarama did not act on these notices.
Using his authority under the Immigration Act, Minister Tikoduadua declared these individuals as Prohibited Immigrants, making their stay in Fiji unlawful with a task force initiated to remove them, resulting in the successful apprehension of four individuals: Acting Grace Road President Sung Jin Lee, Nam Suk Choi, Byeong Joon Lee, and Beomseop Shin.
However, Fiji Airways declined to transport Sung Jin Lee and Nam Suk Choi due to a court order where legal processes were in motion for review in Fiji.
Meanwhile, Byeong Joon Lee and Beomseop Shin left Fiji for Singapore under proper escort.
The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration had considered legal options, considering the Interpol Red Notice, despite the absence of an extradition treaty between Fiji and Korea
The Ministry remained committed to monitoring and addressing this complex situation within the bounds of legal procedures.
The previous Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum under the Bainimarama government, clarified saying Grace Road Group President Kim couldn’t be sent to South Korea in 2018 when his passport was invalidated due to a court order that prevented his departure.
Tikoduadua, had previously highlighted that these critical matters were overlooked by the former government.
Sayed-Khaiyum explained outside the court that the Fijian courts had issued a stop order in 2018, emphasizing the need to adhere to it and restrict their departure.
Addressing questions regarding the South Korean government’s decision and Interpol’s declaration of Kim as a fugitive, Sayed-Khaiyum noted that anyone can label someone as anything, underscoring the complexity of the situation. Thus, he said, the government followed court orders.
Grace Road businesses spanning from rice farms and mills, to retail, restaurants and barber saloons employs thousands of local staff. They united to present a signed petition to the Ministry of Immigration, urging for the release of their President, Kim who was held in immigration custody due to the nullification of his passport.
Accompanied by about 10 Grace Road staff and Kim’s family, they handed over the petition to the Minister for Immigrations Personal Secretary demanding local voices to be heard.
Kelera Delai, a staff representative, conveyed their concern that the smooth operation of their business could be compromised without their President by their side.
Delai emphasized that while no one had been coerced to sign the petition, they felt it was essential not just for themselves but also for their fellow Grace Road family members.
Many viewed this act that locals were threaten for their employment and were used to take the petition to Minister of Immigration office as it might carry weight for the release of their president Kim.
Grace Road has also initiated a protest campaign under hashtag #Justice for Grace claiming religious persecution in Fiji. Many of their staff wear t-shirts bearing this hashtag.
But the Fijian government says they are not acting out of their own interest; instead it was on the directive of the Korean Government and a request by Interpol where 7 executives were declared prohibited immigrants.
Meanwhile, the Grace Road saga continues in the legal arms of the country and the Grace Road business continues scooping gains out of Fiji.
Rohit Kumar is a final year journalism student at The University of the South Pacific.