Iron hand in a velvet glove

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Iron hand in a velvet glove

It's rare to see a woman at the Banpo Shooting Range in southern Seoul, except for office personnel. So, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, a man in his 50s casually asked a young woman standing nearby, "Hey, miss, where's my cup of coffee?" The attractive, curvaceous woman smiled and said, "Sorry sir, but you picked the wrong person." Then she elegantly sashayed to an indoor pistol range, aimed a .38 revolver at the target and pulled the trigger. Ten times. All shots hit their mark, including one bull's-eye.

The woman is Ko Eun-ok, 25, a private investigator and bodyguard. She spends a few hours each day emptying clips at the shooting range, along with another female private investigator, Song Hye-ryeon, aged 27.

Eun-ok and Hye-ryeon are feminine Korean names like Mary or Ann, but what they do is far from womanly. Ms. Ko's abilities range from taekwondo to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. At the same time, Ms. Ko doesn't let her job interfere with her femininity, coyly intimating that she has had several admirers in the past. On her Web site, www.guardwoman.com, she does more than advertise her skills as a bodyguard; she boasts of her ability to keep her skin fair even during Seoul's harsh seasonal changes.

With all of her glamour and friendliness, it makes one wonder why, in marriage-obsessed Korea, she remains single. What happened to all her secret admirers? "They had enough of my workaholic attitude," she says. "And now I'm happy just hanging out with other women."

Ms. Ko earned her private investigator's license last December. It's one of a dozen certificates she holds -- bodyguard, machinery operator, sports masseuse, typist, amateur radio operator and secretary. Indeed, she earned so many licenses that it took her five and a half years to graduate from Myongji University with a degree in business administration. "I just like achievements," she says. Her only regret is that she did not have the chance to enjoy her life as a free-spirited college student.

She cuts a conspicuous figure as a bodyguard, the job she enjoys most. Among those who had the honor of contracting her services: Tom Cruise and Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Cruise flew to Korea last year to promote his movie "Vanilla Sky." Mr. Gorbachev visited in November 2001 to confer with politicians and scholars. Ms. Ko never slept during their visits, accompanying them to meetings and interviews, and protecting their rooms at night. It was demanding, but rewarding, she says. "Mr. Gorbachev especially impressed me a lot," she recalls. "He made sure his bodyguards were happy, speaking with each one of us."

She adds that she liked it all the more because she grew up without a father in a family of three daughters. As the middle child, Ms. Ko says she has always been the ambitious daughter who wanted to act like a son.

Her ambition continues to this date. Ms. Ko is the first Korean woman to become a private investigator. Her mother did not initially approve. But nowadays, Ms. Ko says her mom is fully supportive.

It's not only her mother, but also Yoo Woo-jong, the head of the Korea Private Investigator Association. "Eun-ok has an iron hand in a velvet glove," says Mr. Yoo, the head of the Korea Private Investigator Association. "That's what makes her a solid private investigator."

Private investigation, as a registered profession, is new to Korea. Mr. Yoo started his association just three years ago and there are now 150 card-carrying private investigators, about 10 percent of them women. Asked how much a private investigator earns, Mr. Yoo gives a vague response, "As much as others make," implying that they earn more than the average wage earner.

Increasingly, crime victims and their lawyers are hiring private investigators to make sure that the police haven't missed clues, Ms. Ko says. "A police squad has to juggle several cases at once, so they usually take a perfunctory glance around the crime scene," she says. "It's no wonder that they miss a significant amount of evidence." While police have limited time, a private investigator works until the case is closed -- or the client's payments run out.

Ms. Ko has dealt with a variety of cases so far, ranging from insurance swindlers who victimized family members to a single woman being stalked by a married man. The day Ms. Ko and Mr. Yoo were interviewed, they were meeting with clients who had been cheated in an insurance fraud case.

Private investigators in Korea mainly deal with insurance scams, industrial spying, medical malpractice and lawsuits over traffic accidents. Increasingly, investigators are being hired to look into cybercrimes, including online defamation.

Song Hye-ryeon, Ms. Ko's colleague and a computer-science teacher, works solely on cybercrime investigations. "I'd wanted to be a private investigator since I saw them in the movies," Ms. Song says.

Be it movies or the real world, cases are increasingly being investigated by private investigators. The National Police Agency, however, frowns on the idea. "Those private investigators do not have any legal basis, which makes us worried," says Park Dong-hyeon of the agency. "They only make matters worse," he says, by invading crime scenes when they often lack investigative skills, making it more difficult for the police to collect evidence.

Meanwhile, the public doesn't hold private investigators in high regard either, thinking of them as a step above gangsters.

Ms. Ko bristles at that idea. "We are more like experts who settle cases with thorough research," she says.

As a bodyguard, Ms. Ko has suffered several instances of sex discrimination. But as a private investigator, she says it helps to be a woman, because she believes women have a refined sense of emotion and sensitivity.

In one case, she had difficulty proving that a murder had been at the crime scene. While her fellow investigators -- all men -- gave up, Ms. Ko kept on searching the crime scene. Combing every centimeter of the room, she found a small shirt button. "Although buttons look similar, all vary in shape, patterns and color at a microscopic level," she says. The button clearly belonged to the suspect, and Ms. Ko closed the case.

Ms. Ko, who almost always seems majestic, rarely lets she lets her guard down, except when talking about her ideal boyfriend. "It may sound strange," she says, blushing, "but I want my Mr. Right to be a person I can completely depend my whole self on. I'm kind of fed up with others depending on me."

by Chun Su-jin

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