By Rohit Kumar*
SUVA, Fiji | 10 November 2023 (IDN | WANSOLWARA) — The Grace Road Business Empire, a South Korean Christian group established within a short nine-year span, has impressed many in Fiji. However, the group has also attracted controversy due to the South Korean government’s ongoing investigations against the church and its desire to bring its leaders, who are exiled to Fiji, back home to face charges and possible prison terms.
Recent reports said 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. They began operating by setting up churches and a business chain in Fiji in 2014 during the reign of 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. They promised their followers a better life and urged them to move to Fiji, a supposed “promised land.”
Close to 400 South Koreans arrived at work in their Grace Road chain; it was not till 2018 when their founder Shin Ok-ju was accused 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, after which her son Daniel took over the leadership of Grace Road Group (registered as a local company) in Fiji.
Circulation of videos (some aired on South Korean television) 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 labour.
However this did not bring an end to Grace Road in Fiji. It is believed the group’s close ties with the previous government led by Bainimarama shielded their existence here.
But, there is the unending saga of human rights violations, as the Grace Road group started getting labelled 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 labour, 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 offences. 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 where vulnerable individuals need protection from exploitation and abuse by foreign investors.
Kim, who was evading authorities after the Korean Government invalidated his passport, making him a “fugitive wanted for prosecution”. The Fijian government claimed they struggled to locate him as Kim was allegedly on the run.
The South 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 South Korean government had nullified the passports of these individuals due to charges laid against them, and Interpol issued Red Notices in July 2018 labelling them as fugitives wanted for prosecution.
However, the previous government under Bainimarama should have acted on these notices.
Using his authority under the Immigration Act, 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 South Korea.
The previous attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, under the Bainimarama government, clarified in a media statement that Kim couldn’t be sent to South Korea in 2018 when his passport was invalidated because a court order prevented his departure.
Tikoduadua had previously highlighted that the former government overlooked these critical matters. But, 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.
Thousands of local staff
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 situation’s complexity. Thus, he said, the government followed court orders.
Grace Road businesses employ thousands of local staff, from rice farms and mills to retail, restaurants, and barber saloons. In September, they united to present a signed petition to the Ministry of Immigration urging 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’s secretary, demanding that local voices be heard.
Kelera Delai, a staff representative, told Wansolwara that they are concerned the smooth operation of their business could be compromised without their president present.
Delai emphasized that no one had been coerced into signing the petition, but they felt it was essential for themselves and their fellow Grace Road family members.
Many viewed this act that threatened local jobs, so much so that they took the petition to the Minister of Immigration’s office to apply pressure for the release of their President Kim.
Grace Road has also initiated a protest campaign under the hashtag ‘#Justice for Grace’ claiming religious persecution in Fiji. Many of their staff wear t-shirts bearing this hashtag.
But the Fijian government says it is not acting out of its own interest; instead, seven executives were declared prohibited immigrants based on a directive of the South Korean government and a request by Interpol.
Meanwhile, the Grace Road saga continues in the country’s legal system, and the Grace Road business continues to scoop profits out of Fiji.
*Rohit Kumar is a third-year journalism student at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji. This story is transmitted under a collaboration between the journalism program of USP and IDN. Wansolwara is the journalism students’ newspaper and portal at USP. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: One of the Grace Road Group’s restaurants in upmarket shopping mall Demodar City in Suva. Credit: Wansolwara.
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate