(26) ‘Tiger Kim’ and Korean police force
By Andrew Salmon
Alliances are tricky things to maintain: Allies may well have widely differing political and policy goals, as well as different cultures and modus operandi. Still, things have reached an extreme pass when the officer of one party to an alliance feels compelled to kill one of his counterparts.
That is what happened during the early days of the Korean War. An American officer, Lt. Col. Collins Emmerich went “berserk” with the idea of killing a South Korean officer, Kim Chong-won — a man more commonly known as “Tiger Kim.” He was not successful: Emmerich was apparently restrained. Kim, reassigned under U.S. pressure, became the head enforcer of martial law in the besieged port of Busan.
Kim was dubbed (or perhaps dubbed himself) “The Tiger of Mt. Baekdu.” He had joined the Japanese Imperial Army in 1940, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. The Japanese army has been called “the most valiant, but also the cruelest in history” by the British writer George MacDonald Fraser. In this ultra-brutal organization, Koreans were often given the dirtiest jobs, such as counter insurgency operations and guarding POWs. Kim took his nickname from his years in Japanese service, when he had operated in a special unit hunting down and liquidating communist guerillas in North Korea and Manchuria. He also served in New Guinea and the Philippines.
A huge, brutish man, Kim returned to Korea after World War II, joined the Korean National Police — a force which included many who had served with the colonial oppressors — and was assigned to the Dongdaemun Station in Seoul. He subsequently became bodyguard to the head of the Seoul Police Force, Chang Taek-sang. He soon indulged a talent — if one can call it that — for brutality. His activities included savage beatings of captives during the pre-Korean War insurgencies in the South.
According to historian Bruce Cumings, Kim managed to avoid frontline service during the Korean War, but another historian, Allen Millet, records that Kim was not necessarily a coward: He launched two amphibious assaults against leftist rebels during the Yeosu Uprising of 1948. During the war, he is reported to have beheaded 50 communists — a method of execution favored by Japanese soldiers — to have killed a number of his own men, and even planned to machine gun 3,500 prisoners if the communists threatened Busan. These kinds of incidents convinced Emmerich that Kim should die.
“Tiger Kim” is not one of the great names of history, but as one of the most notorious officers of the early Korean police force (and later the army), his example makes clear how distant the police of the day were from the crime-fighting force of the present.
The two Koreas had been born in a brutal crucible. Firstly, the different stripes of nationalists during the 36-year colonial era had been starkly polarized. This polarization was exacerbated by the Cold War ideology then descending over Asia. Once fighting broke out between the rival states, the war went total. In a fight that both sides believed would mean their survival or extinction, no measures were too extreme.
Throughout the 1950-53 war, the actions of the Korean National Police and affiliated paramilitaries horrified their allies. One of the war’s most searing sets of photographs was taken by “Picture Post” photographer Bert Hardy in Busan in 1950: They depicted lines of young men, their heads shaved, squatting down and being mounted in trucks. Guarded by Korean policemen, they were to be executed.
In this murderous atmosphere, it is unsurprising that men like Emmerich might consider killing their opposite numbers. Another U.N. unit, however, came much closer to open combat with Korean police.
At 07:40, Dec. 15, 1950, British units on the outskirts of Seoul heard shots being fired to their rear. Patrols went to investigate. It was not communist guerillas. It was Korean police executing a line of civilians bound together by wire. Among the dead in the shallow trench were youths and women. British soldiers — who had been told they were in Korea fighting for democracy — were incensed. A company of Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were dispatched to halt proceedings.
Major John Winn confronted the Korean police officer commanding the execution squad. The man responded by leveling a carbine at him. Fusiliers began fixing bayonets. Tension mounted, then the police backed down. The British soldiers disarmed them, and ringed the hill for days to ensure no more killings took place.
The incident sparked a diplomatic storm that drew protests from President Syngman Rhee, who insisted that those being shot were deserters. According to an official Seoul investigation, this was in fact the case, and the killing of deserters is sanctioned by the harsh laws of war. But British eyewitnesses insist that among the killed were old people, women and youths.
The war would halt, but in years subsequent, the police would maintain their frightening reputation. The Korean legal system — based on Prussian law — had been emplaced under the Japanese, and, as noted above, enforcers like “Tiger Kim” had seen service in Japanese military, police and auxiliary units. Following the war, police units would hunt down communist guerrilla holdouts in the southern mountains (the last partisan would not surrender until the 1970s) and were a key tool in the box of the repressive governments that ruled Korea until 1987.
The event that saw the end of the Rhee government was police-related. In April 1960, student protesters — students, who had played the key role in the March 1919 Independence Movement, were known as “the conscience of the nation” — in Masan were fired upon. A high school student, Kim Ju-yul was found dead on the beach. He had been killed by a tear gas canister fired by the police. His body had been weighted and hurled into the harbor by the local police chief. The resultant public uproar led to Rhee’s resignation.
There would be little respite in Korea’s harsh governance. Within months, General Park Chung-hee seized power via coup d’etat. Perhaps no Korean in over 2000 years of history had engineered such a ground-shaking national transformation — one that turned a demoralized, divided, third-world nation into an industrial powerhouse. But Park’s methods were ruthless.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Park used troops and the Korean CIA as much as the police to intimidate those bold enough to resist. After his assassination in 1978, he would be succeeded by an equally ruthless figure, General Chun Doo-hwan. The most infamous massacre of the post-Korean War period took place in the town of Gwangju in 1980, when 200 civilians were killed by army special forces sent in to keep the peace that the police had been unable to maintain. But as the 1980s proceeded, and with South Korea — now a serious player in the global economy, and the host of the upcoming 1988 Summer Olympics — gaining a veneer of sophistication, troops were inappropriate agents of control. A new kind of police force would march onto the scene.
Darth Vaders and ‘Seoul perfume’
On tear-gas fogged city streets, massed ranks of riot police — manned largely by conscripts, but led by professional policemen of considerable (and sometimes ruthless) competency — became perhaps the most iconic image of 1980s Korea, branded across newspapers and television screens worldwide.
Sheathed in body armor, topped with Darth Vader-style helmets, wielding high-tensile plastic batons designed after samurai swords, and advancing behind walls of Roman legionary-style shields, they made a fearsome and impressive sight. Among their ranks were notorious, martial arts-trained snatch squads, the so-called “Baekkoldan” (“Skull Police” — named for their white helmets).
The riot police were transported in — and at times of intense activity, virtually lived in — buses with wire, anti-missile screens over their glasswork. These vehicles were known colloquially as “chicken coops.” Armored Black Marias, complete with multiple launchers on their roofs, completed their transport. These launchers fired the most common anti-riot munitions: tear gas. The most infamous brand was an almost acidic concoction dubbed “apple gas.” For much of the 1980s, these gases — “Seoul perfume” — wafted in clouds over university districts as an increasingly politically aware populace took to the streets.
Given that many of the riot cops were young conscripts and university students themselves, many demonstrations were good-natured, ritualistic and even cannibalistic bouts of advance and retreat, push and shove. After incidents likes these, co-eds recall policeman summoning them to pick up left-behind shoes; others recall how kindly young riot cops treated them when they were arrested.
But things could get out of hand, and brutality was far from infrequent. Behind the public face of the riot battalions, were some very shadowy units indeed, units whose modus operandi were strikingly similar to those used in the 1940s and 50s.
Ironically, the unsavory activities of the security services and, subsequently, the riot police contributed — albeit very indirectly — to the eventual success of South Korea’s democratization movement.
Room 529 and Korean democratization
On the night of Jan. 13, 1987, a 21-year-old student activist named Park Jong-chol was abducted on a Seoul street by six men in plain clothes. He was conveyed to one of the most feared places in 1980s Korea: a plain black building in Namyeong-dong, the headquarters of the police’s National Security Bureau, or NSB. There, he was taken to the fifth floor. He may have wondered why there were no windows on that floor; if he did, he would soon find out. He was deposited — roughly, we may assume — in Room 529. Like all the others on the floor, Room 529 had a thick steel door; its walls were sound-proofed. Dominating the cell was a sight that would be innocuous anywhere else, but here was deeply sinister: an orange-tiled, fitted bathroom.
Water torture — “waterboarding” in current parlance — has been used for centuries, for it is a technique of oppression that leaves no external scars. However, it is a horrific experience for the victim, who is near-drowned, revived, and the experience repeated. Park apparently refused to give up the name of his accomplices. During the course of that long night, the officers in Namyeong-dong overdid things. Park was reported dead on Jan. 14.
When details leaked out, the populace was outraged. For one, Park was from a poor family, but had realized “The Korean Dream.” He was a student at the elite Seoul National University. For two, the excuses made by the police — “we gave him a drink of water, then when we questioned him, he had a heart attack” being one — were not simply unconvincing, they were insulting. The truth behind Park’s death was revealed by an organization of considerable legitimacy: the Catholic Priests Association for Justice. A memorial in Park’s honor was planned for June 10.
As the countdown to that day ticked by, the democracy movement flowed beyond campuses. Ordinary Koreans — mothers, fathers, salarymen, factory workers — joined protests. It was no longer just students. The nation was in virtual revolt. As Korea geared up for the memorial, “Seoul perfume” filled the air as endless barrages of tear gas were fired.
On June 9, the day before the commemoration, Lee Han-yeol, a student at Yonsei University, was hit on the head by a flying canister. It was an eerie echo of April 1960. Heavily concussed, Lee was hospitalized. It was the final straw. With protests escalating and the eyes of the world on Korea — which was due to host the Olympics just one year hence — the Chun regime gave in to the inevitable. On June 10, it announced democratic elections for December. South Korea was, at last, a true democracy.
Lee, however, never got the chance to vote. He died in July.
Rule of law?
Democratization did not spell the end of the riot police. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, oppression still lingered. Even tourists in central Seoul could not help noticing plain-clothes goons stationed at subway exits and street corners. And the city continued to be shaken by violent protest, notably after opposition leader Kim Young-sam threw his principles to the wind and joined forces with the ruling camp of Roh Tae-woo. However, the bitterness of the 1980s had evaporated.
In 1998, the first “true” opposition president took power: Kim Dae-jung. The old democratic warrior dismantled the machinery of oppression. The infamous “Baekkoldan” units had already disbanded. Tear gas was banned. New leaders were installed at the head of the various security bureaus. Reforms took place, top down.
Today, the numbers of riot police have been cut back to around 40,000. Their “chicken coops” remain a common sight at the frequent demonstrations that take place around the nation, yet in the more peaceful (though still noisy) political climate of the present, riot policemen now often outnumber protestors.
Moreover, South Korea is one of the safest societies on earth. Violent street crime is remarkably rare — yet many pundits put this down less to police efficiency and more to local social mores. For in the new and gentler climate since the late 1990s, a different issue has become manifest.
During the Japanese colonial period, and for much of the history of the republic, the rule of law and its collateral machinery served as a blunt tool, wielded by authoritarian governments. Many Koreans feared the law and its enforcers; far fewer respected it. With fear gone, disrespect intensified. Historical abuses by the system mean there is tremendous sensitivity toward the application of law and law enforcement.
It is today common to see drivers arguing furiously with traffic police. A controversial 2008 thriller, “Chaser,” showcased the corruption and incompetence of beat cops. An expatriate executive in a downtown office complains of the noise of street demonstrations, which police are apparently unwilling or unable to quell. And on the rare occasions when major demonstrations do occur — such as in 2008 — the police are largely reactive, and forced to don kid gloves. Historical abuses by the system mean there is tremendous sensitivity toward the application of law and law enforcement.
Moreover, the law is arbitrarily applied. In a country where corrupt business leaders consistently and repeatedly escape judicial sanction, the social compact seems to insist that violent protesters are similarly exempt from legal repercussions. In short, rule of law in Korea has lost its force.
The NSB headquarters where Park was done to death is now a museum. The bathroom in which water torture was applied remains exactly as it was, as a memorial to the murdered student. But while the well-presented young police officers who man the museum are as charming and professional as one could ask for, what happened here happened well within living memory.
This historical proximity, combined with the reluctance of the authorities to bring the full force of the law to bear, suggests that the dark shadows of “Tiger Kim” and the torturers of Room 529 still hang over today’s South Korean police force.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history: "U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 ― "the Present," "To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951," and "Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.