Detecting in stereo
Korean Quarterly, Summer 2005 issue By Martha Vickery
Private eye uses double set of skills for international investigations
Differences in systems of law enforcement can make cross-cultural crime investigation and missing person location a big headache. Bruce Kang knows this. After 15 years, he has learned both the U.S. and Korean systems, and has made a living out of his ability to deal with the idiosyncrasies of both.
But it hasn't been easy. Back in June 1990, before he was a licensed private investigator, he was operating a skip-trace service in Chicago.
Skip-tracers locate people through records, usually people who have disappeared after leaving large debts behind. An inquiry from an official of a major corporation in Korea threw Kang into the investigation business head first.
The request was to find the perpetrator of a major corporate financial crime. The subject of the investigation, Byung Ki Yum, a former official of the Daesung Corporation, had hidden $7 million of the corporation's assets in a U.S. bank, and then had escaped Korea for the U.S.
Yum was traced to the Chicago area. Daesung sent a board member to Chicago to find the perpetrator, but, at a loss, the board member found Kang from an advertisement, and the two met. The case had similarities to a "skip," but with major financial and international implications. Kang accepted.
Locating Yum was difficult. He was not in Chicago, as the Daesung board member originally thought. Through family members in Peoria, Kang located him, finally, in Los Angeles, where he was staying with an uncle who also had left Korea under questionable circumstances. It took nine months.
After finding his man, Kang made an unpleasant discovery ---- that neither government was prepared to go to the next step.
U.S. Immigration was willing to deport the person, Kang said, but would not charge him with a crime ---- none had been committed under U.S. jurisdiction. Of course, deportation was not acceptable to his client.
Working with the Korean court system, Interpol, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies in the U.S., and the Korean Consul General in Chicago, a deal was arranged whereby an arrest warrant would be served, along with the order for deportation. This would allow INS officials to have the person arrested, escorted out of the country, and turned over to Korean police once in Korea.
This all took more than three months. In the meantime, Kang had to continue to watch the subject closely, without being seen, to make sure he would not become suspicious and skip out again. It was a long, stressful wait, but he eventually got his man and sent him to face the music in Korea. "Right now, every case is over $10 million," he said. "But back then, this $7 million case was big news in Korea."
Today, a plaque from that company is displayed in his Chicago office along with other plaques and certificates from grateful corporate customers, and from some Chicago Korean American civic organizations.
Kang still specializes in tracking fugitives, but the logistics of it have become easier. "These days," he said, "I send for an arrest warrant, through contacts, and they send the warrant by DHL. It takes about three days."
Kang has built his unusual career by a combination of work and academic experience, and taking advantage of opportunities. He started out his intelligence career in the Korean Army when he was assigned to the intelligence unit as part of his mandatory military duty. He learned to use the high-tech equipment of the day, like night vision lenses, to observe North Korean military on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). "We had special equipment for watching 40 miles away. Now, that technology is old stuff. At the time, it was very high tech."
Kang said he had been trained as a studio photographer in his civilian life, and was at least familiar with working in the realm of light and lenses.
His team eventually discovered one long-range cannon in North Korea, located in a cave, pointed out at the ocean. They never would have seen it, he said, if not for a moment of good luck. The North Korean soldiers opened the door to the cave after a heavy rain, apparently for some relief from the heat and humidity. The intelligence team sitting in South Korea got a good view of it. This was an important discovery, Kang said, because "at that time we did not believe the North Koreans had any long-range cannons," he said, although there were some suspicions about it.
Kang immigrated to the Chicago area in 1981, after his army discharge. Other family members were already here, living in Neenah, Wisconsin, a town which at that time had a population of about 200. "We were the only Asians in that town." In fact, he said, there were no other foreigners, no Latinos or blacks either. The whole family moved to the Chicago area shortly thereafter.
The news business
The same year after moving to Chicago, he got a call from the Joongang Ilbo (Korea Central Daily) and was asked to be their photographer.
"There was a darkroom that no one knew how to use," he recalled. Kang bought the necessary equipment, set up the darkroom and did the newspaper's photography for about three years, gradually building his skills in photo journalism. He also learned writing and editing.
After three years, the Hankook Ilbo (Korea Times) scouted him and made him an offer, he said. As a member of the Korea Times staff, he said, he went to the New York branch for a few months, a large branch with about a dozen reporters. He remained interested in investigations, he said, but did not have the English language facility to work with the police and court system for a few more years. Even working for a Korean language newspaper in the U.S., he found that it was necessary to be bilingual.
Eventually, he began to learn techniques of regularly contacting cooperative beat officers and other officials he knew. He learned what public records he was allowed to access and under what circumstances.
"Sometimes police departments have what are actually public records, but their policies are that the records are not open to the public. There are too many people coming ---- so they are maybe open to media only three times a week. Sometimes it is only to the major media! Like the Chicago Tribune, or Sun Times. But I learned to keep on asking, to insist, and they opened them."
The skills he built over time as an investigative reporter were helpful later on when he began private investigations. "Private investigation or police investigation as a reporter, it's all the same concept only with a different goal," he observed. "The senior reporters, they taught me technique. I had six months experience just under a senior reporter.
Just learning how to investigate, how to write, how to talk. After six months, I was really able to ask questions and talk to people. It's a Korean tradition in how to talk to seniors and show your respect. When you respect people, it makes a big difference. We are always dealing with older people. Chairmen of organizations, people like that. I learned how to deal with them and get information, to talk with them as if they are the same level."
Becoming a private eye
His first experimentation with private investigation came when he and a friend decided to open a collection agency. The friend was a lawyer, just starting out after law school. "It takes about one year to get a license.
Nobody had a collection agency license in the whole Korean community in the U.S., so we didn't know how to do it," he explained. "We researched how to get a license. We wrote letters, and met with other lawyers and other collection agencies. That helped a lot. We got a license after about one year, but my friend could not wait even a year. He walked out right before we were going to get our license."
Kang suddenly found himself with a license to engage in a business he did not know how to do. "I learned skip tracing from other private investigators. I subcontracted with other private investigators and skip tracers, so that after a couple of years I could do it myself." He calls what he does now "high-level skip tracing," because, he said "skip-tracing is really basic to all types of investigations. First, you have to find the person, and then you can investigate them and find out other information."
After the high-profile 1990 case, Kang said, he found himself with many requests for private investigations, but no investigator's license. He found that getting the license first involved getting a permit, then obtaining the required 6,000 hours, or about three years of experience, followed by a difficult written exam. Only about 20 percent of applicants pass the exam on the first try, he added. After working for another detective agency for more than three years, he studied diligently for about three months, and passed the exam, he said, with a 94 percent. "but nobody believed me! Nobody ever gets more than a 90!" Kang's firm Intersearch, was born shortly thereafter. Today, Kang said, much of his work involves digging into records through data bases. He does some stakeouts, watching for a person to make an appearance, and does some "pretext" calling, where he inquires about a person using a made-up scenario designed to get them to volunteer key information.
Most of the time, however, he said he is riding herd over a variety of data bases ---- residential data bases, court records, criminal records, corporation records. "Mostly public records. We cannot go to court to have them open papers. That's too complicated, too big a job." They pay for the information, and the cost quickly adds up In contrast to the U.S. where many different types of records are public, only the government can officially access most records in Korea. The level of information the government has, however, is extensive. "Everybody must be registered. You can get the information, but not officially. We use contacts over there, either in the police department or district office."
In another high-profile case, Kang cooperated with the Korean prosecutor's office and KBS-TV in locating people who were hiding stolen assets of bankrupt Korean corporations in the U.S. "We cooperated with the Korean prosecutor's office. We got information from them, and discovered the assets, the TV station reported the information and we handed it over to the prosecutor's office." It worked well for everyone, and Kang got TV publicity along with the deal.
Typically, he said, financial fraud is committed like that, through higher-level officials of corporations, who can set up paper companies in the U.S. and send large payments for non-existent goods or services to the false company's account. "Say they were supposedly importing merchandise.
Actually there was no merchandise. Just an empty box! They put money into the account as payment," he said.
The call of the missing
Kang never particularly wanted to be in the missing persons business, but he was drawn by the dire need in the Korean American community. Some years ago, he said, he started his business after an unfortunate incident.
"A lady called me, asking to find her father in Korea. She didn't have money, so I refused. She was calling me maybe three, four times a day.
She said 'I will pay you back in the future.' But, I have so many calls. I can't take them all. Even sometimes, if they have money, they say they don't have enough... Most people think family reunion services are free.
But it costs a lot."
The story didn't end there. One day, maybe three months later, the woman came back with the cash. "Not regular, you know, crispy money," he said. "They were bills, one by one, she counted," he said demonstrating a person handing over old, crumpled cash. "Maybe she was collecting money for a long time."
"So, then I found him, like, within a couple days," he related. "But, her father had died about two or three months before that. If I had done that for free, or trusted her word, she could have seen her father before his death." He stops for a moment, with a little shake of his head. "So, I was so sad, and had guilty feelings. At that time, family reunion was not my specialty. I was mainly doing tracing of fugitives."
As a kind of payback, he said, he started doing missing person locations and family reunion services for free, when the person is financially needy. The level of information he can find is limited when he does the service for free, he said, but he still tries to help when possible.
Right now, the free part of the service runs on extra money Kang gets above the regular fee that customers pay in appreciation of Kang after a successful location of a family member. "I've had people who were charged $1,000, pay me $3,000 after locating a family member." So then that extra money goes into the fund, he said.
Although it is not usually difficult to find missing persons, it is not lucrative, because of the costs of information, including the work of contacts in Korea, and the fees for databases. Kang decided he needs a fund with a non-profit organization behind it to make the idea work out.
Right now, the fund is "from my pocket," he said, but he is working on getting a fund donated by the Korean government. "I sent a proposal last year, and last week I visited Korea to talk to them about it. So, we'll see."
Kang is hoping that his good-will efforts are getting paid back in part by some positive publicity he is receiving through a free family reunion event he arranges through the newspaper Dong-Ah Ilbo. The newspaper does an article on individuals in Korea looking for family members. In exchange, the newspaper gets to do a story on the reunion when it happens.
Kang gets a mention as the Chicago private detective who made it all happen.
Some of the people contacted in the U.S. through the newspaper program are adopted Koreans, but not all of them. Some are family members separated right after the war, or through other circumstances, he said.
Kang said that at one point he submitted a proposal to the North Korean government through the United Nations in New York to ask about reuniting families who were divided across South Korea and North Korea. After six months, he said, the South and North Korean governments started direct talks about reunion. "After that, they weren't interested in our services any more," he said. He is leaving that option open.
How to legalize investigation
Kang is also involved in advocating for a proposed bill which would make investigation a licensed profession in South Korea. Right now, he said, investigating individuals is illegal, but investigating on behalf of a corporation is usually legal. Some kinds of investigating are neither legal nor illegal, but in a kind of gray area, he said. More legal structure is clearly needed to make the profession more legitimate. The legislator who was his bill sponsor, unfortunately was not reelected, he said, but he is confident the bill will be introduced again, sometime in the future.
Legalizing and regulating investigation, Kang believes, can only help the profession and the clients in Korea "so it can be a reasonable service done at a reasonable price," he said. In the meantime, he is very cautious about what he is doing in Korea. The office he had there is now closed, and he does his work only through contacts.
In working with adoptees, Kang often finds himself having to interpret Korean culture for adoptees and U.S. culture for Korean birth families.
Commonly, he said, negative feelings adoptees have about birth family come from a cultural misunderstanding. "They have bad feelings about being given up for adoption, I know, most of the time, giving up babies in Korea has to do with having financial problems," he said, particularly in the Korea of 20 or 30 years ago. "I try to explain they were given up so they would have a better life," he said.
Similarly, he said, "family in Korea, when they look for an adoptee, they think about 30 or 40 years ago. That baby they gave up. But adoptees here, they have been growing up, changing for a long time." There was one case, he recalled, of a birth brother in Korea who was trying to find his sister, who was living in the Atlanta area. It was complicated, he said, because the young woman did not know she had been adopted through a deception. The person she always called her mother was actually her aunt, who had stolen her from her mother immediately before she immigrated.
The adoptee woman, after being contacted by Kang, was too shocked to think beyond the fact that the person she thought of as her mother was really her aunt. She didn't want to deal with her brother or birth mother in Korea, at least not right away. She rejected all offers. "The brother was calling me, crying," Kang recalled. "I had to explain the culture, and about the mother she knew, and what her life was like in the U.S., > and how she may not want to live in Korea."
The need for information
Kang shares the frustration of adoptees who are refused access to their own files by adoption agencies. He has also been turned away after getting permission to access the information by the adult Korean adoptee.
"I can see them withholding information for minors, but these are people who are 20, 30 and 40 years old!" he said. "I think, legally, they have to open the record. Still, they sometimes won't. But if a TV station goes over there, then they open it! That's how Korea is."
Kang said he advises adoptees to request their own records from agencies. He counsels persistence. "If you keep asking, they eventually open it," he said.
Sometimes, he said, he consults with a social worker about how to handle a situation, and what to expect before he starts searches for people. The support helps. Asked if he ever gets personally involved, he answered
Kang has tried taking vacations in Central or South America over the last couple of years, away from computers and out of range of his cell phone.
He has decided he likes it. Whether in Chicago, or in Korea, or someplace in between, being a private detective is a 24-7 job. The cumulative effect of all that urgent need is wearing.
On the other hand, he understands about needing information. "People from Korea, they forget what time it is here. They call at 3 or 4 a.m. Especially reporters! Then they apologize, and I say 'forget about it. I was a reporter too.'"
Kang's agency, Intersearch, has a website at www.koreandetective.com
The family search site (in Korean) is at: www.familyinusa.com
Chicago News Feature by Martha Vickery