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Korean accuses monk of being held captive: Suit

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A 60-year-old Korean immigrant has accused one northeast Queens family of enslaving her for a period of more than 12 years, forcing her to work as a housekeeper without pay at the family’s homes in Little Neck, Bayside, Flushing, Whitestone and Elmhurst.

According to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan last week, Oak-Jin Oh claims she was living in South Korea in January 1998 when she met U.S. citizen Soo Bok Choi through an employment agency.

Choi, a Buddhist monk, said he was seeking to hire a domestic worker to work in his temple and his home, and promised to pay Oh a monthly wage of 1.3 million Korean won, or approximately $1,204 at current exchange rates, the complaint says.

Oh claims she was never paid, and that after she was smuggled into the United States the Choi family drove her to Elmhurst, where they allegedly began to use threats of physical harm and death as a way to coerce her into working at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the complaint.

Oh claimed her days began early, when she would wake up and attend to the family’s children, prepare breakfast and clean the home throughout the day. According to the complaint, she cared for Choi’s aging mother, Ki Soon Lee, who died in May 2009, and worked in Temple Mitasa, the Buddhist temple that operated until 2001 at the family’s Little Neck home.

Oh said she was only allowed to leave the home when she received special permission to run errands and buy groceries. In order to prevent her from escaping, the lawsuit claims, Oh was told not to trust Americans and that she would not be able to get another job because of her immigrant status.

Choi’s brother, Sung Bok Choi, who was frequently drunk and often prone to violent outbursts, would throw things at Oh and told her he could hire someone to kill her, according to the complaint.

She was refused medical treatment, such as when she had been bitten by the family’s dog and when she developed a painful toothache, the complaint said.

Oh’s lawyer said she was not sure whether or not her client’s family is currently looking for her, but added that it was known in 1998 that Oh was leaving for the United States.

After agreeing on the terms, Choi obtained a passport for Oh and afterward flew her from South Korea to Toronto, where she lived for several weeks until Choi and his family allegedly smuggled her into the United States, according to the complaint.

Along with his two brothers and mother, the lawsuit lists Choi’s son and two daughters as defendants, and it was under the cover of night that Choi and two of his children, Young Mi and Young Kyung, brought Oh in a small boat into New York, the lawsuit claims.

Oh’s lawyer said the family lived at several northeast Queens addresses, including current homes at 19-10 Parsons Blvd. in Whitestone and 36-19 165th St. in Flushing.

Oh said she did not realize until years later that she had entered the country without authorization, and it was this lack of knowledge about her rights and the country’s laws that made Oh, and many other immigrants, prime targets for human traffickers.

A representative for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing Oh in the case, said New York, with its large immigrant populations, is a major destination for human traffickers, who linguistically and culturally isolate their victims in order to manipulate them.

Oh eventually escaped when she was able to develop a relationship with someone outside the family, and is currently living in Queens, her lawyer said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 11:10 am, October 12, 2011
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