The military unit from hell

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The military unit from hell

Kim Gyu-chul is one of the lucky ones. Now 38 years old, he has managed to build a normal life: He is married and has two elementary school-aged children, and owns a small bedding shop in Seoul. As fortunate as he may be, almost 20 years after serving in the army's notorious Headquarters Intelligence Detachment, a group involved in spying in the North, Mr. Kim is still filled with extreme bitterness.

"If they dropped me in the North today I would come straight back and shoot those bastards that are just up there giving orders," he says. "They don't have any clue what I had to go through."

In a word, the process by which Mr. Kim entered the service was harrowing. In 1983, after failing to get into college, he decided to go ahead and do his military service. "I called the recruiting agency and told the officer that I wanted to join the army," he says. "The officer asked me if I had good reflexes or played any sports." Mr. Kim had gotten a black belt in judo, so the officer told him to come to the Military Manpower Administration office in Huam-dong, central Seoul with two pictures and identification papers. Mr. Kim went in and signed a bunch of documents. When he asked what kind of unit he was joining, he was told he would be on some kind of special forces team. The recruiting officer promised Mr. Kim good pay and generous leave time. "He told me that I was going to get so much money that I couldn't spend it all," Mr. Kim says.

The same day, Mr. Kim was put on a bus with other recruits and taken to a base at Cheonggye Mountain in Gyeonggi province, south of Seoul. There another thorough physical examination took place, and together with 10 others he was put on a different bus. Strangely, the bus was not a military vehicle, but a tourist bus, and all the windows were covered with curtains. After four hours on the road the bus arrived at a strange scene, and the recruits were told to get off. They saw a main gate of a military base, but the two guards standing before them were wearing the uniforms of North Korean soldiers.

"I thought something was wrong," Mr. Kim says. "As I went inside the base I saw white signs with slogans written in red. Everything looked like footage from the North that I had seen on TV." The recruits were on their way to becoming spies trained to infiltrate into North Korea.

After their heads were shaved the recruits were given their basic uniforms. Mr. Kim noticed that their uniforms had no rank insignia or unit identification. When he was assigned to his barracks another strange thing happened. A drill instructor called aloud, "Must be our new comrades!" in what sounded like a North Korean dialect. This was the language Mr. Kim would hear and use for the next three years.

The next day, the new recruits gathered in a gym for the commanding officer's welcome speech. "There are no leaves in this unit," the commander said. "Dead or alive, it's 30 months." One of the new recruits raised his hand and said, "I want to go home." Then Mr. Kim saw the first of the countless beatings he would witness during his time in the service. "A couple of the drill instructors kicked and beat that guy unconscious," he says.

After the welcome speech, the recruits were subjected to what Mr. Kim calls a "light" beating session that lasted four hours. For the next 16 weeks they underwent basic training to maximize their strength, through activities such as weightlifting, running and marching. Even that was brutally overseen by the officers. "In the gym one day, one of my mates couldn't lift anymore," Mr. Kim says. "The drill instructor grabbed a metal stick that had been heated until it glowed red and burned the guy's armpit. He started lifting again."

Whenever someone was hurt and said he could not go on he was beaten more, Mr. Kim says. A torn ligament, a dislocated shoulder, broken teeth and severe bruises were not even considered injuries. The injury had to be visible, such as a broken leg. But going to the hospital meant only that you would get more beatings when you returned, because you were "marked." That is, if you got back from the hospital. "Once, a new recruit took such a severe beating at the gym that he was shipped off to the hospital," Mr. Kim says. "He never came back. Considering that in our unit everyone returns from the hospital no matter how long the stay, that guy is either dead or crippled for life."

Unsurprisingly, attempts at self-mutilation or suicide were made. Mr. Kim remembers how another mate, Min Byung-jin, pierced his own eye with a nail when he could no longer bear the conditions. And in the early days a senior agent told him about a trainee who jumped off a 150-meter cliff during a mountain march -- according to the story, as he jumped, he cried out: "Bastards, live well! I'm going!" As it turns out, the story has been confirmed; the man was named Lee Hyo-jong, and the suicide took place in May 1973.

If you survived the training, dangerous missions awaited you. Mr. Kim recalls a mission that took place inside the Demilitarized Zone and near the Imjin River in April 1984, when a team member, Jang Young-gook, got blown up by a mine. Later he heard from another team that the dead body had been carried away by North Korean soldiers. "A couple years later someone told me that the North tried to return Jang's body through Panmunjom, but our side refused to accept it, for obvious reasons," he says. For South Korea, taking the body would be a tacit admission that it engaged in activities that violated the armistice agreement of 1953.

At last, early on the morning of April 17 1986, Mr. Kim's tour ended when he was told to get his belongings and get on a bus with 17 other recruits. Inside the bus he signed a document that said he would never talk to anyone about what happened at the base.

For Jang Suk-hee, things in the HID, a subunit of the military's Defense Intelligence Command, weren't much better than what Mr. Kim experienced. Mr. Jang, 33, who served from July 1990 to 1995, was shocked by what happened to would-be deserters. "We had two people from my upper class who ran away," he says. "They didn't last that long. After a couple of days they were caught and we were summoned to the gym. We had a kangaroo court right then and there. Our commander screamed: 'Betrayers!' Their hands were tied to a pole and they were stripped almost naked. Then we had to beat them with sticks."

One of Mr. Jang's buddies at the camp, Jung Jin-gyu, also 33, says that medical personnel would monitor the beatings but would not stop them. Sometimes the paramedics would nod to indicate that beatings could continue. "With my own hands I had to clean up areas that were plastered with the beating victims' flesh and blood," says Mr. Jung, inhaling deeply from a cigarette. "When we did the beatings, it was them or me -- If I didn't do it someone else would and I would get the same treatment. It was always like that."

After the initial punishment each deserter had a ball and chain attached to a leg, and had to carry on their shoulders an unwieldy tree branch while parading around the base. They were regularly beaten in front of their unit members just to remind the others what would happen if you tried to run away. Wherever they went, drill instructors forced others to beat them. At night, they were beaten by the drill instructors. "Everyone could hear their screams of agony," Mr. Jung says. "The place where they beat them was purposely located next to the barracks." The deserters were only fed twice a day, a meager salted rice ball each time. But maybe they were lucky. In October 1982, a man who tried to run away, Mok Chul-ho, was caught and beaten to death by his own unit mates, who were forced by their commander to do so.

Mr. Jung recalls that on a daily basis, beatings took place at least four times a day. Once he was forced to whack other trainees with the blunt side of a small ax. A superior walking by scolded him for leaving marks on the victims' bodies. "He came back with a pine tree stick and beat me up to show how to beat someone without leaving any marks," Mr. Jung says.

Mr. Jang signed for an extended tour -- but his decision was coerced. He agreed to the longer term only after he was tied upside-down to a tree and pepper water was poured in his nose and eyes. As a team leader, Mr. Jang trained the soldiers to endure pain, just as he had been taught. He says that was a popular way to toughen new arrivals: hanging them upside-down from a tree and letting everyone punch them and kick them with combat boots.

In time, the team members hardened to the constant punishment. As a result, they used to rotate the beating "tools" on a regular basis. Mr. Jung says, "When you start to become an expert in this sort of thing you just kind of figure out when the other person grew inured to the beating. So we had to switch the tools. It was something like a monthly rotation. Hammers, shovels, pipes, sticks -- whatever was handy was used." He says his head would feel like bubble gum after he took a beating: "Your scalp is so soft that you can stick your finger in and make a dent. Your hair just falls out."

There was one group on the base treated well: the canines. "The drill instructors' dogs were given food that was supposed to be ours," Mr. Jung says. "The superiors didn't even inform me when my father died; but when a dog died we had to conduct a ceremony and bow in front of a shrine to it." In fact, as a team leader, Mr. Jang kept a dog. Once he tied one of his trainees to a dog's house for a week because the hungry man had taken some of the dog's food.

"If you ask me why I did it, I can only say that it was to carve fear into his mind," Mr. Jang says. "Because that's what drove me to perform things a normal human being could not do. Sometimes, I would tell my team members to run their heads into the wall, and they did it on the spot, no questions asked. When you do that you have to bleed from your head or break a tooth or two, otherwise you didn't do it hard enough -- and then you pay for it."

Mr. Jang insists that nobody who joined the unit was warned about it. "If I had known about what happens here I would never have come," he says. And he says the recruitment process has not changed at all. He oversaw the physical test of a new recruiting class in 1995. Starting that year, recruitment was based on a contract system under which you agreed to serve for 52 months. "The new guys only know that they will become some kind of special agent. Nobody tells them anything. They don't know what's coming."

Veterans of the detachment say the total isolation from society and daily living conditions shape them to such a degree that killing or beating someone becomes as natural as getting up in the morning. "You become a machine that does not think," Mr. Jang says. "Your thinking stops. We were forced to write letters home, but it would take me a whole day to write one. My brain just stopped functioning. Now, living among normal people is impossible."

Indeed, Mr. Jang and Mr. Jung haven't fared well since leaving the army unit. Both have trouble dealing with people, and bounce from job to job, many of them menial labor. Mr. Jang is married, Mr. Jung is not. "The problem is that we were made to forget everything that has meaning in society," Mr. Jang explains. "We were made to be beasts ready to bite anyone. There is no law for us. If we don't like something we use our fists first."

Whether the existence of the unit is justified is a question with no easy answer. What is clear, though, is that a program is needed to assist these agents, who were conditioned to become killing machines and then discarded into a civilized society. The government has to deal with this problem, or more young men will needlessly die, become crippled or end up in mental hospitals.

"We don't need money," says Mr. Jung. "What we need is a way back into society and a way to live the lives of normal people. Maybe for me it's too late. But I don't want to see others become like me."

by Brian Lee

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