Factory town

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Factory town

At the Seoul Joseonjok Church in Guro-dong last Sunday, scores of China-born Koreans gathered, looking for immigration advice, work, or just others to socialize with. Outside the church, a group of old men sat anxiously, playing janggi, or Chinese chess.

Downstairs at the church, a few young men and middle-aged women were checking out the job postings on the bulletin board.

One older woman who came to Korea with her son's family said to her friend, "You know these jobs would not have been posted here if they were clean and easy."

With a trace of a bitter smile, her friend replied. "I know," she said, "but I am too old to work in restaurants. That's why people our age end up working as nannies in private homes, even though we know it's difficult."

Guro-dong has long been associated with factories and the difficult life. Before the joseonjok, or China-born Koreans, it was home to low-income laborers.

Tucked away in the southeast of Seoul, Guro-dong repeatedly appeared in films and novels that depicted the alienation caused by the country's fast modernization.

"Guro Arirang," a novel by Yi Mun-yol, spoke frankly, even brazenly, of the hardships laborers suffered by telling the tale of the oppressed lives of three female workers at a garment factory, highlighting the frequent extortion and suppression that was once rampant in this part of town.

"A Single Spark" ("Areumdaun Cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il," 1995), a film based on the true story of Jeon Tae-il, a 19-year-old worker who burned himself to death during a union strike as a protest against his desperate working conditions, is another part of the harsh history that the people from this neighborhood share. When captured on film, the narrow Guro-dong streets and tiny basement rooms that fill this area created an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, a visual metaphor for Guro-dong itself.

On the other hand, with so many factories, Guro-dong was a major source of the industrial production that helped to modernize Korea.

A large portion of Korea's exports in the 1960s and 1970s came from the garment industry, approximately half of which was based in Guro factories. The jobs were often performed by underaged workers.

It was brutal work that cost many lives. Some died from lung-related diseases caused by working 70 hours a week in unventilated basements. Others, like Mr. Jeon, doused their bodies with fuel and ended their lives in flame, so desperate were they to improve working and living conditions. Many student activists in the democracy movement were secretly placed in the factories to train the workers to form unions, only to be thrown in prison for their efforts. Life has improved for most workers, but trouble remains.

Now, the joseonjok have added their problems to the fray. Most are working illegally in the so-called 3-D jobs ?dirty, difficult, dangerous. But it's a sacrifice many are willing to make for the "Korean dream."

Tensions finally erupted when the Korean government recently announced a crackdown on illegal laborers in Korea.

Those who come forward voluntarily get to stay until next March and avoid fines. But many do not want to return and consider the policy unfair. Some have demonstrated and fasted in front of churches for the Koreans from China.

Seoul Joseonjok Church, the largest joseonjok church in Seoul, has invited a series of guest speakers from the Korean immigration office so people can receive legal advice.

Every week, volunteer doctors and dentists arrive to examine these illegal immigrants who usually aren't covered by medical insurance.

Last Sunday, the church welcomed 44 new arrivals. Pastor Suh Gyeong-seok asked them to come to the front of the church while the members sang "Glad To Meet You" ?a song popular back in China.

Mr. Suh had just gotten out of the hospital after fainting in the middle of a protest fast. Last summer, the pastor fasted for 20 days in protest against the Ministry of Justice, which had turned down his request to re-examine entry regulations for Chinese.

"Do turn in your forms that say you are here illegally," Mr. Suh said after the service. "Please do. And if this issue does not get resolved by next March, just don't leave the country." A mix of whispers and claps came from the audience.

In Garibong-dong, Guro-dong's closest neighbor and commonly called the "Little Yenben in Korea," there are still remains of the past. Jjokbang, impossibly tiny one-room apartments that were once filled by young female factory workers, are these days filled with joseonjok who work in the bars and factories around the Chinatown.

The rooms are typically barely big enough for a sink, a portable propane gas container and space to sleep, and cost around 150,000-300,000 won ($115-$230) a month.

Making matters more difficult are the large debts many of the immigrants run up in order to get established here. "It takes a minimum of a year and half for Chinese immigrants to pay back their debts," Mr. Suh says.

"That is when you assume the person works the maximum number of hours and is healthy," he continues. "Generally it takes about five years for them to pay back all their debts and return home with some savings. I am disappointed by the cruelty of Korea's Ministry of Justice and its lack of consideration."

by Park Soo-mee

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