The Inner CircleMr. Shin is in his early 50s and for his age he looks pretty fit. Wearing a blue necktie and gray suit he resembles any other salaryman who works in Seoul. He is a managing director for a company that produces machines at a plant on the outskirts of the capital.
He didn’t always put on a dark suit and tie and go to an office. Three years ago, Mr. Shin, who does not want his full name used, wore the uniform of a Korean Army officer, a job he thought he would have for the rest of his life.
“I always wanted to serve my country,” he says. “Somebody has to serve and protect Korea. It’s a tough job and you need dedication and faith.”
The last rank Mr. Shin held in the army was lieutenant colonel. It generally takes about seven to eight years to be promoted to a full colonel from lieutenant colonel. When he was in his 13th year as a lieutenant colonel, Mr. Shin realized that he was not going to climb any more rungs on the promotion ladder. That’s when he decided to leave. “It was a hard decision but there was nothing I could do,” he says.
Like most businesses, in the army promotions are based on performance. Those in the military who fall short of expectations or have bad track records eventually fail to rise in the ranks.
But Mr. Shin apparently failed because he was a member of Hanahoe, a secret brotherhood that all but ran the army’s officer corps for 20 years.
In 1993, when Kim Young-sam, the country’s first civilian president came to power after a long reign of former army generals, Mr. Kim consistently pursued ousting army officers who belonged to Hanahoe (“all for one organization”), a clique that was formed in 1963 by former presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both graduates of the Korea Military Academy. The academy’s class of 1963 formed the group and it continued through the years, inducting on average 9 to 10 members, sometimes more, sometimes less, from each graduating class of the academy.
Hanahoe did not have regular meetings and members knew who else belonged only by word of mouth.
Hanahoe became immensely influential and powerful in the army when its two founders, Mr. Chun and Mr. Roh, rose to the rank of general in 1973, under the sponsorship of then-President Park Chung Hee. Members of Hanahoe were promoted far faster than other officers and were given more important positions.
Between 1980 and 1993, the Capital Defense Command, which is responsible for protecting Seoul and also carries important political status, had seven different commanders. Five of those seven were members of Hanahoe.
Unlike Mr. Chun and Mr. Roh before him, Mr. Kim was a president in the minority party, which surely gave him a distaste for the Korean military. Indeed, he confronted the military regularly during his career and his distrust of Hanahoe was apparent in a 1998 interview that he gave the Monthly JoongAng. “If I had not cleaned up the officer ranks,” he said, “I’m certain that Korea would have faced a coup d’etat.”
Ten days after Mr. Kim took office in 1993, he worked to rid the army of the clique. First he sacked Kim Jin-young, who was then the chief of staff of the ROK Army and Hanahoe. For the next five years, 70 officers, including approximately 40 generals, were forced to retire when their next posting was canceled, or when they received sinecure assignments.
Some people may argue that before Kim Young-sam was elected many in Hanahoe would have reached key positions anyway, and were promoted solely on their abilities. But the facts don’t always bear that out. The Defense Security Command is mainly responsible for protecting military secrets, preventing security breaches and maintaining order in the army. When the rooting out of the Hanahoe began, the Defense Security Command was at the center of investigation.
Lee Jin-woong, now 66, was a former warrant officer with Defense Security Command. Not an academy graduate, he could not have be brought into the clique. But with 37 years of army service, he was at the forefront of the investigations. Mr. Lee says that the ‘93 purge, although justified, should have been more balanced. “The organization itself should not have existed -- no question about that. In the army, there can be no private organizations because it’s against the overall principle of unity.
“But having said that, I want to make clear that from own experience there is no doubt that many of those in Hanahoe were some of the brightest and best in the Korean Army.”
Attached to the Defense Security Command in 1993, Mr. Lee knew many of the officers purged. Indeed, he conducted several parts of the investigation and knows the details, such as officers’ individual records.
“I hated those Hanahoe guys. My job description was to weed out private organizations like that, but the more I investigated, the more I became convinced that our country was going to lose many of its best men.”
Any new major in the army must enter the Republic of Korea Army College where he takes advanced courses in military studies. Mr. Shin received a citation for excellence upon graduation, an honor that is only given to 6 or 7 graduates from each graduating class that averages about 170.
Another retired officer, who also wants only his last name used, Mr. Choi held several honor positions while at the Korea Military Academy. Having a relative in the army who is a full colonel, Mr. Choi declines to reveal his full identity. His decision to quit the service came in his 11th year as a lieutenant colonel.
“I could no longer view the army as a means to meet the needs of my family,” he says. “I just knew that time had come to call it a day.” Mr. Choi now works as an executive officer for a Korean conglomerate. He is still proud of what he accomplished while in the army. “Take a look at my service record. I did my best to serve my country.”
Suh Chang-nyeong wrote a masters thesis on Hanahoe while at Seoul National University in 1993. Mr. Suh suggests that the officers who joined after 1964 and through the 20th class of the academy in 1973, were more politically ambitious than their successors. “I think it’s fair to say that many of these young officers, especially those who joined after 1973, were the cream of the army, and that’s why they likely were chosen to join. Unlike their predecessors, who had political ambitions, they were just young and patriotic. I would not call them Hanahoe. But belonging to the wrong organization wasted their talents.”
According to Mr. Suh, Hanahoe members until 1973 had to go through certain rituals, such as drinking red wine while reciting oaths. Officers in Hanahoe after 1973 did not have to do that. A simple dinner with a superior office was all it took to be a member.
Mr. Shin remembers a day that would change his life forever. “I got a call in 1986, when I was a major, and I met two senior officers with whom I had dinner. Nobody told me anything. They just said ‘For the good of the country’ when we made a toast. That was it. I hardly heard from them later.”
Though Mr. Shin remained a so-called Hanahoe member, after 1993 he was persona non grata. Three years ago he left the army. He doesn’t want his name used because he feels there might be retribution for those former Hanahoe who are still serving.
Ahn Kwang-chan, a retired major general who belonged to the clique, says, “I know when I say this that people will criticize me and the group. Every single one of those junior officers could have served his country and served well. That they could not be professional soldiers is a loss that I find hard to bear. But I am sure wherever they are, they will do their part.”
Ten years have passed since the purge of Hanahoe and to many the name of the organization is like something from another era. Attempts to verify information about Hanahoe with officials of the National Defense Ministry get nowhere, as do attempts to find out the promotion status of members in the clique.
Out of 300 or so Hanahoe officers, 240 to 250 left the service, while the other 50 or 60 officers still wear the uniform. The lowest rank of any of those remaining officers is lieutenant colonel.
Lee Jin-woong stresses that if there are still invisible barriers for the good of the country change should take place. “There were bad apples, one or two for each graduating class. But the whole thing later became a witch-hunt. It should not have happened.”
by Brian Lee