Sorting out the Ben Chin story

(For a review of my previous musings on the Ben Chin story please see this article)

There are two accounts in the public record and the discrepancy between the two has not been clarified.

The first account (source):

I moved to East York as a 13 year old. I left my parents behind in Korea, where they were facing political persecution. I didn’t know if I’d see them again.

The second account (source):

Q: Your Dad retired from government service when you were 16 …

A: Yes. We moved to Canada.

Some facts:

The Chins were in Ottawa from 1970-1974 as the father was a diplomat for the South Korean government. Ben Chin was 6-10 at this time (Chin was born in 1964).

From 1970-1974, the South Korean government sure wasn’t the image of stability (or freedom) as it was led by Major General Park Chung Hee Lee who seized control of the country on May 16th, 1961 in a military coup. According to Wikipedia:

The military leaders promised to return the government to a democratic system as soon as possible. On December 2, 1962, a referendum was held on returning to a presidential system of rule, which was allegedly passed with a 78% majority. Park and the other military leaders pledged not to run for office in the next elections. However, Park ran for president anyway, winning narrowly in the election of 1963. Park ran again in the election of 1967, taking 51.4% of the vote. At the time the presidency was constitutionally limited to two terms, but a constitutional amendment was forced through the National Assembly in 1969 to allow him to seek a third term. He was re-elected in the 1971 presidential election. The leading opposition candidate was Kim Dae-jung, who lost by a narrow margin.

On December 6, 1971, Park declared a state of national emergency. On July 4 of the following year, he announced plans for reunification in a joint communique with North Korea. Park declared martial law on October 17, 1972, dissolving the National Assembly. He also announced plans to eliminate the popular election of the president. The Fourth Republic began with the adoption of the Yusin Constitution on November 21, 1972. This new constitution gave Park effective control over the parliament. In the face of continuing popular unrest, Park promulgated emergency decrees in 1974 and 1975 which led to the jailing of hundreds of dissidents. This period also saw continued dramatic economic growth.

According to the first account, Chin the elder could have been a diplomatic representative of the South Korean tyrant from 1970-1974 and could have been jailed for breaking ranks with the government in 1974. However, Chin said that he moved to Canada (under political persecution) when he was 13. This would have been in 1977, two years after the mass jailing of dissidents.

If we consider the second account which described a 16 year old Chin moving to Canada after his father “retired” from government, this would have been in 1980.

Let review South Korean history around 1980 (wikipedia):

After the assassination of Park Chung Hee by Kim Jae-kyu in 1979, a vocal civil society emerged that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of university students and labor unions, protests reached a climax after Major General Chun Doo-hwan’s 1979 Coup d’├ętat of December Twelfth and declaration of martial law. On May 18, 1980, a confrontation broke out in the city of Gwangju between students of Chonnam National University protesting against the closure of their university and armed forces and turned into a citywide riot that lasted nine days until May 27. Immediate estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from a few dozen to 2000, with a later full investigation by the civilian government finding 207 deaths (see: Gwangju Massacre). Public outrage over the killings consolidated nationwide support for democracy, paving the road for the first democratic elections in 1987.

According to the second account Chin’s family moved to Canada after serving the government until 1980 (until Chin was 16). South Korea was ruled by a dictator until he was assassinated in 1979. Was the backlash against this dictator the “political persecution” that the Chins were escaping? Did Chin’s father find early retirement after his dictator boss was assassinated?

Does the political persecution that Chin describes co-incide with the changing of the guard in Korea? Was Chin’s father actually a hero and was persecuted for finally speaking out against the autocratic rule (which he initally served)? When did the Chins move to Canada to join their son Ben? Did the political persecution occur after Chin was recalled to Korea in 1974, after the jailing of dissidents in 1974 and 1975, leading Ben to move back to Canada two to three years later in 1977?

Of course, Ben Chin should not be judged for the political history of his father and the government that he served. However, there are some clear discrepancies in Ben Chin’s story, especially about the political persecution that he claims he endured (one either believes that the Chins were shuttled around in limos as they served a South Korean dictator or one speculates that there is just more to the story that we don’t know about).

If Chin’s father had to escape Korea due to a popular revolt against an autocratic regime which he served then Ben Chin should not paint himself as a political refugee (and all of the pity-invoking images that come along with such a description). However, if there is an interesting twist in the story (that appears nowhere in the printed record) such as a rebellious elder Chin finally speaking out against the autocratic regime, then Chin’s story would have credibility.

For now, the public record shows that Chin came to Canada when he was either 13 or 16 (we know that he lived here earlier from the ages of 6 through 10). We also know that Chin was so priviledged that he didn’t know a life outside of being chauffered in a limo until he finally moved to stay in Canada. We know that this life of priviledge came from serving an autocratic dictator in South Korea. We have also heard of political persecution that occured in around either 1977 or 1980. The elder Chin’s boss was assassinated in 1979 and Chin’s father retired soon after.

Of course, we can also consider Cherniak’s second hand hyperpartisan (from a friend of a friend of the Ben Chin campaign) explanation of the events. Again, remember that this is hearsay and doesn’t appear in any interview of Ben Chin or at all in the printed record. But hey, it could be true (one hopes it is):

Ben Chin’s father was a diplomat. Apparently, at some point in the 1970s he opined that pro-democracy activists should be let out of prison in South Korea. (Remember that the country was not a democracy at that point in time.) Ben Chin’s father was arrested by the Korean secret service and accused of being a communist. In 1976, the secret service visited Chin at school and threatened to end his education. That is when he obtained a student visa to Canada, where he lived with his brother and sister who were in university. In 1978, Ben Chin’s father was released from prison and allowed to move to Canada. His wife (Ben’s mother) snuck out of South Korea and joined her family.

This assumes that the political persecution occured in 1974-1975-1976 with Ben moving to Canada in 1977. After serving the South Korean dictator, did Ben Chin’s father finally speak out against him? There still is that discrepancy in the autonet interview that has Ben’s father retiring in 1980. Remember, in that interview, Ben Chin claimed that they moved to Canada when he was 16.

For all I know, Ben Chin is a helluva guy (he probably is). However, there are clear discrepancies in his backstory and I’d be interested in clearing them up, especially since it is this experience upon which Chin based his introductory literature to his potential constituents. Ben Chin’s life either has a really shady backstory or a potentially heroic one.

I hope for the heroic. I really do.

UPDATE: Looks like I waded into an NDP-Liberal fight. Please go read Born with a tail’s blog for some more important history to consider.