[Writer's Choice] Perrysburg Restaurant Owner Denied Right to Leave South Korea

Jay Yim, Feb. 8, 2019, 3:46 p.m.

Tong Yi, known to his friends as Don Yi, purchased the Tea Tree Asian Bistro in Levis Commons on Jan. 1. He previously was a manager of the restaurant for three years.

On Sunday, Yi flew to South Korea to handle with his father's affairs after his recent death. However, when he tried to leave for home on Wednesday, he was not allowed to board the plane.

“They had put a travel ban on me, and I didn’t know why. No one knew why. But I found out it was the Seoul police,” he said.

Yi came to the United States when he was 9 years old. He had served in the U.S. Army for eight years, including two tours in Afghanistan. In South Korea, all men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve two years in the military. Those who are American citizens are normally granted waivers, but the South Korea government said that Yi, who is now 40, did not inform them of his decision to stay in the U.S. when he turned 18.

Because of the prior fact, a warrant was issued for his arrest years ago even though he was stationed in South Korea during his service in the U.S. military.

“I went to the police station on Thursday, and they told me I hadn’t reported to the Korean military when I was 18. I was arrested then and there,” he said.

After six hours, Yi was released. However, being without a car, he was forced to wander the streets of Seoul on foot while trying to find someone who could help him.

“I’ve probably walked 10 miles,” he said Friday morning. “Physically, I’m exhausted. Emotionally, I’m exhausted. I was hoping the U.S. embassy could help me. They just turned me away. That was heartbreaking, because I love this country.”

Yi's mother, Sung Kim, was upset while talking about the incident Friday morning.

“My son is my life. He is very good to me, very good to everyone. He is a good guy,” she said. “I’m sad. I’m really sad.”

Yi's sister, Kim, has a full time job, but was forced to take a leave to help keep the restaurant in business in her brother's absence.

“My brother was managing the restaurant for the last three years. He is the staple and face of the restaurant, so it is stressful,” she said. “I’ve taken leave from my company I work for. After next week, I don’t know what I will do.”

The amount of community support has been overwhelming. Yi said the comments from friends and family since he posted his plea for help on Facebook has touched him. His sister said her phone became flooded with comments from those wishing him and his family well.

“We thank the community for the support that we’ve gotten. It’s unbelievable,” she said. “We just don’t know where to go.”

Yi has informed the public that he is running out of money and is not sure how he will be able to support himself if he is forced to remain in South Korea for another month.

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown's office have been in touch with Yi's family and is looking to see if there is anything the senator can do to help. Both Senator Rob Portman and US Representative Bob Latta's offices are also trying to help.

Latta made a post on his Facebook page Friday afternoon regarding the situation.

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