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One legislative candidate’s seven-word Facebook biography attempts to capture his complex life in the simplest terms: “Freedom Fighter, political prisoner, received death penalty.”
Jae Chin, a small-business owner from Mesa vying for a seat in Arizona Senate, said he was a victim of harassment and worse by the former South Korean military government after fleeing to the United States.
It’s a backstory that he said involves an attempt to frame him for conspiring to assassinate a U.S. president, coercion by a Korean spy agency and the attempted murder of his father. That all happened in Texas, before Jae Chin and his family moved to Arizona for a fresh start.
Now, the dry cleaning business owner, who is a Republican running on a platform of being a champion for small businesses and liaison to the Korean community, says he hopes to put his past behind him to start another new chapter in the Arizona Legislature.
Jae Chin’s background as he describes it today is consistent with letters he and his family sent to officials at the time of the alleged actions several decades ago and are archived at a foundation dedicated to preserving the pro-democracy movement in Korea.
The Republic was unable to independently verify his more high-profile claims of the death penalty sentence, the assassination scheme and the involvement of U.S. federal law enforcement. The agencies involved did not respond to specific questions.
Father’s political involvement forced family to flee to U.S.
Jae Chin grew up on a farm in the North Gyeongsang Province, in the eastern portion of South Korea. In many ways, his childhood fits the archetype of a rural upbringing. As the oldest child, he said he was responsible for taking care of their family’s animals — cows, pigs and chickens, Jae said.
But there was another aspect of the family life that was less common.
Jae’s father, Yun Go Chin, was a politician. He worked at the provincial level for the New Democratic Party, a political party that opposed the military government.
The period from the 1960s to the mid-1980s was a dangerous time to belong to an opposition party in South Korea, even more so as a career politician. The South Korean military had organized a coup d’etat in May 1961, ushering in a new era of strict martial law and imposing a ban on all political activity that lasted years.
The government, under the rule of General Park Chung-Hee, routinely harassed dissident political leaders. Many fled to live in exile in other countries like Japan or the United States, where they were still subject to unofficial house arrest because the South Korean spy agency, presumably at the direction of Park, was known to — directly and indirectly — threaten them.
Fearing he would be killed or imprisoned in South Korea, Jae said his father started applying for asylum in Japan, Canada and the United States in 1975.
Three years later, they left their home in South Korea to start a new life in San Antonio, Texas.
Equipped with limited English skills, Jae said he and his parents were prepared to work “bottom line jobs” to make ends meet — and they did.
His father started a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and mother as a maid at the nearby Holiday Inn, Jae said.
Jae enrolled as a student at MacArthur High School and was initially placed into a special education class because of his poor English skills, he said. After school, he rode his bike to a Denny’s for a six-hour shift as a dishwasher. He picked up English skills from talking to the waitresses and cooks before going home to study English vocabulary while the rest of the family slept.
“We were all working very hard,” Jae said. “And we were getting a lot of help from people in the community to help us settle in.”
But the support from the relatively small Korean community at the time — and feeling of security — was short-lived, he said.
‘It started at the workplace’
Park was assassinated by his own spy chief in October 1979, a year after the Chins arrived in San Antonio.
Jae’s father refused a request from the Houston Korean Consulate to endorse the new president, Chun Doo Hwan, which Jae said sparked a years-long harassment campaign against his family. They were labeled as North Korean communists, a crime punishable by death at the time.
Soon after the endorsement refusal, Jae said the Korean community in San Antonio, at the order of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), turned against his family, starting with his father.
“It started at the workplace,” Jae said. Other Koreans would come to the commissary inside what was then the Fort Sam Houston Army base, where Yun, Jae and Jae’s mother then worked, to harass him while he was at work — grabbing him and calling him names, Jae said.
The entire family was fired after the threats escalated to a physical fight at work, Jae said.
Eventually, the harassment became so intense that his father was forced to stay home for his safety, leaving Jae, his mom and three younger siblings to make enough money to support the family, he said.
With his dad at home, Jae said he began to take the brunt of the harassment. In one instance, he said two other young Korean men approached him at a local Chinese restaurant, calling him a North Korean communist and threatening him with a tire jack.
The ensuing physical altercation landed all of them at the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, he said, where they were told to shake hands because they were “both Koreans.”
Harassment reaches a new level
By the time he graduated high school in 1981 and started college, Jae said the tensions in the community and fear for his and his father’s safety continued to escalate.
As opposition parties gained traction back in Korea, Jae said the KCIA, at the direction of the military general president, spent massive amounts of money to discredit his father and turn the community against their family. The sister city partnership formed between San Antonio and Gwangju, South Korea in 1981, a year after thousands were killed in a pro-democracy uprising in that city, was just one example, Jae said.
On campus, other Korean students would watch him, Jae said — taking note of who he was talking to and associating with.
At home, he said the family began receiving calls from the South Korean CIA at 2 or 3 a.m., threatening them and their extended family in South Korea. Eventually, his father started to record the phone calls, Jae said.
Archived letters and documents now housed in the Korean Democracy Foundation (KDF), a nonprofit government-affiliated organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the pro-democracy movement in Korea, show a series of events related to their family’s harassment in explicit detail.
The letters preserved are largely those Jae and his father wrote to officials in the United States and South Korea in the late 1980s about the harassment they were facing, as well as some responses. Other documents include newspaper clippings from the time.
All of the incidents, Jae says, were part of a larger campaign to seek the deportation of he and his father to South Korea, where the government would imprison them.
Jae said he even received several bank statements showing someone had deposited more than $1 million in a bank account in Washington D.C. under his name in 1981, the year he graduated from high school.
Concerned it was an attempt by the KCIA to lure him to Washington, D.C., and kidnap him and his father, as had happened to other dissident politicians around the same time, Jae said he tucked the documents away in his room and didn’t think too much about it.
Three years later, on Dec. 10, 1984, Jae said five San Antonio police cars and Secret Service agents arrived at the Chin’s house after receiving a call from someone who reported that Jae planned to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
The callers pointed to the bank accounts in his name as proof that’d he’d been paid for the job, Jae said. The incident was also recounted in at least two letters archived by the KDF that Yun Go Chin sent to the then-South Korean president and United States Congress in the late 1980s.
The agents held him and his father overnight, Jae said, and released them the next day after they showed a Secret Service agent, who had flown to San Antonio for the investigation, the recordings of phone calls and records of the bank statements.
“They told us to leave San Antonio and move somewhere where there weren’t other Koreans because it wasn’t safe here,” Jae said.
Neither the Secret Service agent named by Jae nor the Secret Service Office in San Antonio responded to requests for comment.
That same week, Jae’s father won a defamation suit against a woman who attended the same church and claimed that he had an affair with her, according to a San Antonio Express-News article from the time. The case was ruled in Yun Go Chin’s favor through summary judgment, meaning no jury trial was needed.
Despite the favorable results, Jae and Yun Go Chin picketed the judge on the case days later, claiming that the “secret case” happened in coordination with the KCIA.
“Without my presence on my slander case, there was a disguised trial,” Yun Go Chin recounted in a 1988 letter to the President of South Korea now housed at the KDF.
The judge on the case, Fred Biery, who now serves as a U.S. District Court judge in Texas, remembered the case in an interview with The Republic, but said the Chins did not mention claims about the Korean CIA’s harassment until Yun Go Chin called him at home months after the slander case was settled. The Chins’ attorney at the time said he did not remember the case, declining to comment.
Jae said the documents related to the defamation case were taken to South Korea and used as evidence for two more cases against him and his father where they were accused of being North Korean communists. In the third case, he says they were sentenced to death. The Korean Democracy Foundation did not provide documentation of these cases, however.
Later that year, Yun Go Chin was selected to become the Committee Chairman to form the New Democratic Party in South Korea for the National Assembly, according to multiple letters sent to the United States Congress that are archived by the KDF. But, unable to return to South Korea from his self-imposed exile in the U.S., Yun Go Chin said Lee Min-Woo took over the position instead. The 70-year-old Min-Woo then led the new party for several years.
Both Yun Go Chin and Jae Chin spent the following years sending letters and submitting petitions about the harassment, multiple of which are now archived with KDF, to U.S. senators as well as South Korean and U.S. federal agencies. Several responses from U.S. senators, including the late Alan Cranston of California, and the Department of Justice also are archived, showing that the FBI was aware of the harassment accusations at the time.
Jae said they were notified that an FBI agent had subpoenaed all of the members of the Korean community who worked with the KCIA and ordered them to stop, which he said ended the majority of the harassment from the community.
A spokesperson for the Houston FBI Field Office said they could not provide any information on whether there was a related investigation or what the results were, only that no charges related to such a situation were ever filed.
‘I wanted a different life’
Over the next several years, Jae unsuccessfully tried to become a police officer but became a prison guard instead, working in that role from 1987 to 1995. During that time, more people were protesting the South Korean government in that country.
As popular dissatisfaction with the government spread, Jae said the harassment they had faced for much of his young-adult life subsided — only a few phone calls here or there.
He said he would run into other Koreans at the Korean grocery store who had formerly worked for the KCIA and they would “turn red in the face.”
Then, in 1995, Jae said gunshots hit his family’s house late at night, aimed at his father, whose reflection was cast against a window.
They missed, but Jae said it was clear that they were attempting to silence him from continuing to tell the story of the years-long harassment campaign their family faced.
Jae said the accumulation of events made one thing clear: He needed to move.
“I knew my father could protect himself and that I had to keep moving forward,” he said. “I wanted a different life.”
A few years later, Jae and his family — his wife and two sons — started the new millennium in Arizona.
“A lot of people were moving to Arizona at the time,” he said. “The state was really booming.”
They rented an RV and road tripped from San Antonio to Phoenix in December 1999 ready for a new chapter, he said.
Jae’s siblings and parents remain in Texas — his parents at their original home in San Antonio.
Jae opened a dry-cleaning business with his wife in Mesa and founded the Asian Bank of Arizona, serving on the board of directors until 2009, when the bank was sold to another bank.
He said he started to become interested in politics after he was invited to a John McCain fundraising event in 2008, when McCain was running for president, because of his role with Asian Bank. He won a race to become a precinct committeeman. Now, he’s seeking a place in the state Senate.
Reckoning with the past
After announcing his plans to run, Jae said he received a letter from a Korean Foreign Ministry-affiliated organization, inviting him on a trip to Korea for their 2019 seminar on peaceful reunification.
It was standard to invite all South Koreans running for political office overseas, he said.
Before the event, Jae said Korean reporters contacted him about his Facebook posts that detailed the years-long harassment campaign his family faced.
The reporters investigated, reviewing documents housed in the Korean Democracy Foundation, Jae said. It was through them, he said, that he initially found out about the trial where he and his father had been sentenced to death.
By the time Jae boarded a flight to Korea, his arrival had become a newsworthy event.
About 10 reporters, including the South Korean Press Association president, were waiting for him at the gate, he said. They even arranged for Jae to shake hands with the former military dictator’s son-in-law as a showing of peace, he said.
But Jae said he didn’t review the documents at the Korean Democracy Foundation or go back to visit his hometown during his trip.
“Too many bad memories of the past bothered me,” he said.
Vying for a seat in the Arizona State Senate
Back in Arizona, in spite of his to-the-point Facebook bio, Jae says he’s trying to distance himself from the tumultuous years of his life.
He was unchallenged in the primary election, but, as a Republican running against incumbent Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, in a historically Democratic-leaning district, the odds are stacked against him.
Though, he says if he wins the election on Nov. 3, he’ll fight for a few key issues like promoting Arizona relations with South Korea in an attempt to attract Korean businesses to invest in the state, along with prison reform and supporting small businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s also gained some noteworthy supporters, including Mesa Mayor John Giles and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who have both endorsed him.
And although he spent most of his life attempting to escape the oppression caused by his family’s political ties, Jae says he believes politics in the United States are different.
“I wanted to stay away from a politics for a long long time. I didn’t want to follow my father,” he said. “But now, I feel like it’s my civic duty.”
Contact Grace Oldham on Twitter at @grace_c_oldham.
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