Bruce Kang didn't think he'd chase anyone hinkier than the average deadbeat debtor when he opened a collection agency in a small office on Lincoln Avenue. It was the winter of 1990 and the former news-hound for the expat Korean press had contacts all over Koreatown and back home. He figured he'd found his slot, and was surprised six months later when a suit from a big Seoul-based utility walked in the door looking for help.
Three months earlier a low-level Daesung employee named Byung Ki Yum had forged the president's personal stamp and applied for a company loan at Citibank's Seoul branch. The bank loaded a truck with $7 million in Korean won, and Yum took the wheel and dusted. Daesung only learned of the flimflam when Citibank tried to collect the first installment and someone noticed that Yum hadn't been showing up for work. At the time it was the biggest white-collar chisel in South Korean history.
Korean police figured that Yum would hole up in New York, where he had relatives. But then they traced a call to his wife from a pay phone at O'Hare, and Daesung sent a member of its board to Chicago to search him out. A stranger in a strange land, he had no idea how to track a fugitive. He placed an ad in the Korean papers asking for dope on Yum, but no one stepped up. A mutual acquaintance suggested Kang.
The Korean cops had fingered an accomplice back home--the politically connected head of a fraternal organization suspected of laundering the loot. Kang started in by checking out the U.S. relatives and friends of the two men and discovered that the highbinder had been wiring $2,000 every day to a relative in Peoria. Kang went to the relative's building and showed the apartment manager Yum's photo. The fugitive had indeed been laying low there, but Daesung had tipped its mitts with the newspaper ad and he'd taken a powder three weeks earlier.
The trail cold, Kang went back to his computer. He searched database records on relatives and friends of the two men. "You own a house, you have to register it with the county," says Kang. "Your name and phone number is registered. Also, you have accounts with the telephone or electric, credit card. Without your ID you can't do anything. That's our system." He followed paper trails for nine months, looking for clues in birth, court, and driver's license records. Bupkis.
Finally Kang followed up on a shaky lead that had been nagging him from the beginning. He knew that Yum had a distant uncle with a rap sheet who'd left Korea under mysterious circumstances years earlier. Most of the man's records had disappeared with him, but Kang pinned him down in Los Angeles, where he was a cook in a Korean hash house. Kang blew for LA and began tailing him.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But then Kang noticed that the chef was making several visits over the weeks to another home not far from his own. The house seemed empty until the morning Kang spotted someone who looked a lot like Yum emerge for a predawn jog. He seemed more tan than in old photos and he wore a thick new mustache and shades. But after sending surveillance shots back to Daesung, Kang knew he had his man. The LAPD pinched Yum, and with the help of the INS sent him back to Korea, where he notched seven and a half years in stir.
The case bought Kang some ink in Korea. Not bad for business, he figured. But he'd gone above and beyond the call of duty for a simple skip tracer. He'd become a private eye without a license. And Illinois state law requires three years' experience working for a licensed detective agency before an aspiring gumshoe can get his own ticket. Kang shuttered his collection agency and hired on with a small father-son outfit for three years while he did background checks and worked surveillance for divorce and insurance cases.
Kang doesn't like surveillance. "Money is good," he says, "but it's very boring." He'd done his turn in 1978 in a South Korean army special forces unit assigned to track North Korean troop movements on the other side of the DMZ. He emigrated after his discharge, joining the Chicago bureau of the Korean Central Daily as a photographer. Then he began reporting the stories he was shooting, and moved on to the Korea Times. After eight years on the beat, Kang says he knew everybody in the community.
Since Kang got his PI license in 1997 he's snooped more international cases than he's allowed to talk about. But he'll let on about a few. In 1998 he teamed up with a Korean TV crew and nosed out the secret Los Angeles vacation homes of CEOs of bankrupt Korean corporations. Checking property records, he found one mansion--the former digs of Sylvester Stallone--that was owned by a corporation. Funny, he thought, the deed holder, listed as the company's president, has a Latin name. He tracked her down in LA, establishing that she was a teenage friend of the real CEO's daughter.
Then there was the meat distributor in Seoul who ordered seven truckloads of frozen beef from a multinational, sold it off to a wholesaler for two million bucks, then took the air for the States without paying for the meat. He wasn't easy to nail. "He's a big businessman," says Kang. He was also a musician. "He got a job in a nightclub, like playing an organ and guitar and singing. So he can easily get a job. He can get a job anytime. He keep moving. Working at nightclub, you don't need name. You don't have to pay tax. They pay cash."
Kang followed the trail from New York to San Diego, LA, and North Carolina, but didn't catch up until the minstrel kicked up his feet too long in Houston. "That was his mistake," says Kang. The mug had been carjacked, and he'd reported his lost Rolex to the law using his real ID. He'd also got into a hassle with a skirt, and her son had called in the heat. Kang found records of these run-ins on his computer and hollered cop. Then he flew to Korea with his prize, who told him he'd avoided Chicago the whole time he was on the lam because of the PI's reputation back in Korea.
By then the publishers of the Korean daily Dong-A thought Kang's exploits would make a swell read and convinced him to write his memoirs. Titled (roughly) Private Detective Business Is Better Than Venture, it goes over his big corporate manhunts. Available only in Korean, it has pictures of his many awards and citations and old snaps of reporter Kang buttonholing notables like future Korean president Kim Dae Jung and Mayor Daley. The back cover features a shot of the shamus aiming his heater at the camera. That's a little disingenuous, he admits. He's never had to squirt metal on the job--most of the time he just works the phones and databases.
But the notoriety led to a whole new angle for Kang, who began to subcontract surveillance jobs out to other dicks, preferring to cool his heels at his desk. Decades ago, when Korea was on the skids, most families didn't have telephones. Emigres to the U.S. were adopted into new families, got married, moved around, and sometimes Americanized their names. It was easy to lose touch with folks back home. About three years ago friends began asking Kang to help locate loved ones on both sides of the water. It was usually a piece of cake--plug a name or birth date into a database and bingo.
He did the first few for free. But those databases, mostly available only to PIs and law enforcement, cost cabbage. The trickier the search the more expensive it gets. So Kang made a special offer. For $200 down he'd track a family member or friend--legal U.S. residents only. Quarry in Korea might run extra.
Then one day she walked into his life. She was about 20, trying to find her father back in Korea. She didn't have any money but promised Kang she'd pay him when she did. He'd heard that tune before and told her to take a hike. But she kept after him, sometimes calling half a dozen times a day. After six months she showed up at his door with a fistful of crumpled spinach. It wasn't enough to cover his expenses--he'd have to pay his people in Korea to do the legwork--yet something in him softened and he agreed to do the job for free.
But it was too late. When they found the old man he'd been wearing a wooden kimono for three months. "If I take the case right away, then maybe they reunion each other before he die," laments Kang. "I was guilty feeling. I was feeling bad, so I have to do something for this." He volunteered his services to a nonprofit with a Web site that helped reunite adopted children with birth parents in Korea.
But charity doesn't pay the rent. Last year Kang called his old friends at Dong-A with a proposition--invite readers to ask for help finding a loved one. Kang would sort through the applications for somebody with a juicy sob story who'd be easy to find. He'd get on the computer and hunt for free. A happy family reunion would follow, Dong-A would be there with a camera and reporter, and Kang would get the glory. "I expect a return in customers," he says. The feature runs every two weeks and it's been good for business.
"Sometimes we handling more than ten cases at one time," he says. "Some-times easiest one take ten minutes. Long time take a couple of months." Sometimes Kang finds people who don't want to be found. Unless they owe money Kang respects their wishes and won't give them up. He once sent several unanswered letters on behalf of a woman who wanted to reconnect with an old flame. He sent a final letter instructing the man to mark the envelope no if he didn't want to see her. "Then he sent it back to me. So I told her, 'I found him, but he doesn't want to see you. You have to understand.'" In such a case Kang refunds his client's down payment.
As the years go by Kang guesses this business will drop off. Kids these days, with their computers and cell phones, don't lose each other anymore. But he's working other angles. He goes back to Korea a lot to get together with old army buddies and teach investigative techniques at a private university and at the police academy in Seoul. He also hints that he does some work for Korea's Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths, which investigates the allegedly government-sponsored murders of activists involved in Korea's democratization movement years back.
Life would be easier if he could open a branch office in Seoul. But ironically, private eyes are outlawed under Korea's privacy laws. Kang says there's support for a law legalizing shamuses, and he's got his hand in lobbying to get one passed. Until then it's about semantics. "I talked to Korean government," he says carefully. "They said you can't open a 'branch' office, but you can open a 'contact' office. Not a business office. A contact office."
Meantime, Kang is hitting on all eight in his Lincolnwood office, answering calls on two cellulars and a desk phone. Plaques from Korean companies hang on the walls, honoring him for finding errant skipouts. He wouldn't want to be pounding the pavement, but he's sleepy-eyed and plays ambivalent about his job. "Sometimes boring sitting all day searching database," he'll cop. "Making headache."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul K. Merideth.