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True crime. Casually done.

The Chijon Family: Korean Cannibal Clan

A global pandemic; rising wealth inequality; rampant inflation cutting deep into our pockets. These truly are troubled times. With the gap between rich and poor growing ever larger, it’s little wonder that many of those on the bottom of the pyramid are a tad frustrated with those at the top (to put it lightly).

Voting and protesting make for slow progress, so perhaps it’s time for a more direct approach. If you hold a grudge against the rich, have you tried just… barbecuing them? That’s precisely what one group of disgruntled proletariats known as the Chijon Family did back in 1990s Korea. They quite literally ate the rich. 

This gang of bourgeoisie bashers set out on a mission to improve their lot in life, through a campaign of murder, extortion, and domestic terrorism against South Korea’s newly-minted middle class. Somewhat more hardcore than setting up a tent city in front of Goldman Sachs, and it makes for a far better story…

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The Captain’s Story

On the evening of September 16th, 1994, Seoul police captain Go Byeong-cheon sat in his squad car on a stakeout. Among the newspaper articles he idly scanned through that evening, was a short piece on the disappearance of a middle-aged couple: a factory owner and his wife. 

Little did Captain Go know, this very night, he would be dragged head-first into that story. As he rolled up the paper, his pager started beeping on his waist — a message from a cafe worker acquaintance, whose colleague went missing earlier that year.

The press conference
The press conference

“Captain. It’s really urgent. Please come to Seochoseo.”

The cafe worker was waiting for him there, along with a woman. She was disheveled and distraught, with scratches all over her arms and tears in her clothing. This was the missing woman Lee Jeong-su (pseudonym). She had turned up alive, claiming to have escaped from a group of armed bandits. 

Captain Go had barely walked in the door before Miss Lee bombarded him with a whirlwind version of her story — kidnappings, murders, a bloodstained basement prison cell. She was so frantic, the other officers originally thought she was high, and checked for needle marks. 

Captain Go was a little more sympathetic. He sat Miss Lee down in the cafeteria and asked her to go through everything slowly, from start to finish. It all seemed too wild to be true, but one detail stuck out: a middle-aged couple, kidnapped near Seoul, and murdered in the gang’s basement prison.

This woman knew details of the disappearance not yet released to the press, which meant she was telling the truth…

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Captain Go spent the next two days cross-referencing the woman’s claims with the police archives, and managed to compile a dossier on her alleged kidnappers. Their base was far outside of his jurisdiction, but Miss Lee was adamant that these killers had spies in the local PD. Passing it over was not an option.

So Captain Go asked the chief for permission to put together a crack team of his best men, and investigate the hideout himself. Like an 80s movie cliche, the chief told him he had 24 hours to bring them in.

The captain gathered five of his best men, armed them with pistols, and set off with their witness in the passenger seat. The drive along busy countryside roads to the rural Bulgap-myeon area took five hours. They pulled up to their destination in the late afternoon: a quiet area, surrounded by farmer’s fields, with just a few houses dotted around. 

From a hilltop overlooking the area, Lee Jeong-su managed to identify the one she was taken to. The little pink building looked like another home in the area, but she insisted that this was the headquarters of a sadistic group of killers. If she was to be believed, then the occupants were in possession of explosives and assault weapons — kicking down the door would be too dangerous. 

Instead, the police took up watch positions on the mountainside at the back of the property, and far down the street. The captain and witness stayed in the car. For hours they watched and waited, without any signs of movement. After 4 hours of patience, something stirred at the house. 

Miss Lee was looking through the binoculars, and saw a figure slip out of the front door, and into the truck parked out front. Captain Go grabbed his radio:

“Follow him! We cannot lose them!”

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The Cannibal Manifesto

We’ll return to this episode of Korean Cops in a little while, but before the dramatic conclusion, we should probably learn a little about the inhabitants of that little pink bungalow. It all started at a card game in the summer of ’93. 

There, 27-year old manual laborer Kim Gi-Hwan played alongside student Kim Hyun-yang (23) and ex-con Moon Sang-rok (23). Between hands, Kim spoke to the younger men about his hatred of the rich; how he was inspired to punish them for their wealth and corruption after seeing a news report on crooked university entrance exams. 

In the past, he saw his own promising academic career fall apart due to his family’s financial issues, forcing him into a life of manual labour in the factories of Seoul and Busan. His anti-rich propagandizing struck a chord with the other angry young men, and the three agreed to form their gang that evening. 

They called themselves the Mascan, a word which the leader said was Greek for ‘ambition’ (it is not — the word doesn’t exist). Since the group of borderline illiterates botched their own nickname, prosecutors on the case gave them a new one, the Chijon Family (meaning, ‘supreme’ or ‘sovereign’). Their doctrine was pretty straightforward:

1. We hate the rich.

2. Any traitors must be killed. 

3. Never trust a woman, not even your own mother.

Hardly as poetic as Marx and Engels. But then again, these guys weren’t interested in leading a communist uprising. Their mission was all about revenge. The Chijon Family’s objective was to amass a total of one billion won, which was roughly equivalent to 1.25 million US dollars at the time, through kidnapping and extortion.

Chijon Family
Chijon Family

Over the next few weeks, they spoke to other impoverished laborers at their construction site jobs, and encouraged them to join up. Moon had already done time for larceny, and he managed to convince fellow convicted robbers Baek Byung-ok (20) and Kang Dong-un (21) to join them. 

20-year-old Kang Moon-sub and 18-year-old Song Bong-un were the last to sign up. With all of the pledges complete, leader Kim asked his young disciples to pool their finances together in order to cover the setup costs. Founding a gang of murder-bandits isn’t cheap, after all. 

After several months of collective saving, the gang was able to procure a pretty impressive stock of weapons on the black market: six rifles, a submachine gun, a gas gun (short-ranged self-defense firearm), a pistol, one sword, one hunting knife, an electric cattle prod, and a healthy stock of dynamite. I know I joke about how easy it is to get guns in the US, but Jesus Christ Korea. 

The rest of the money was spent on a couple of used cars, walkie talkies, and furnishing a hideout for the group to stay in together — a pink detached house, inherited by one of the members. To conceal their victims effectively, they even decked out the basement with three concrete-floored prison cells.

On their days off, the gang spent their leisure time out in nature, camping on the slopes of the second tallest mountain in the country, Jirisan. There, Kim and the more experienced members led training sessions on the finer points of dynamite handling and kidnapping.

By July that same year, they were ready for their first victim…

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Finding Their Feet 

Mija Choi (pseudonym) was walking under a train bridge in the town of Nonsan — 60 miles to the north of the hideout — when the gang first laid eyes upon her. They pulled up alongside her, and snatched her into their car, before driving off to a remote hillside. 

The young daughter of a farmer, she hardly fit the profile of their intended victim, but that didn’t matter. This was just practice, after all. On the hillside, the gang took turns raping the girl, before their leader used her to demonstrate one last lesson. The last thing she ever heard was Kim Gi-hwan lecturing his disciples while he strangled her to death. 

“This is how you kill a person,” he said. 

No shit, Kim. After that horrific little workshop was all wrapped up, the gang disposed of the body in a shallow grave. Mija would later be discovered by a local villager out cutting weeds, but by then the Chijon Family were long gone. It would be well over a year before anyone knew what happened that day. 

A whole life cut short, in the most brutal way imaginable, just for the sake of ‘practice’. It should be clear by now, these guys were not the sympathetic antiheroes you might have been hoping for…

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The Chijon Family’s training was complete. They were now fully prepared to stick it to the wealthy folks of Korea. But later that summer, they hit a bit of a snag. Song Bong-un was missing. This was especially worrying, because the baby of the bunch also served as gang treasurer; a fat stack of 3 million won ($3750) went missing with him.

It was pretty clear what had happened — the youngster had gotten cold feet. Throughout an entire week in early August they searched around the nearby towns and villages for any trace of him. Eventually someone tipped them off: the traitorous youngster was hiding at a relative’s house not far from the HQ.

As per golden rule #2, the Chijon dragged Song out to a remote patch of woodland near the base of the mountains, and put a bullet in his head. Just like the young girl a few weeks before, he was buried in an unmarked grave…

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After the death of the youngest member, the trail goes cold for a while. Not much is known about the Chijon Family’s activities in the latter half of 1993 and first half of 1994; in fact, most reports have a pretty stark blank spot across that entire time period. 

I find it a little tough to believe they just took a one year hiatus. Perhaps they got spooked when the police came to inquire about their missing friend. Or perhaps there are more victims out there who were never identified. In either case, the story picks up once again in June 1994. 

It was then that the police came looking for Kim Gi-hwan. The teenaged niece of one of his old school friends reported that the gang leader had raped her in 1993, not long before the gang’s first murder. He was sentenced to five years behind bars. 

Kang Dong-un stepped up to take control of the crew, and made regular visits to the prison to receive their instructions from Kim. From his prison cell, he ordered the gang of young killers to begin their campaign of terror in earnest…

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A Hatred of Hyundais

Just after midnight on September 8th, 1994, 27-year-old cafe waitress Lee Jeong-su, returned from work to her Seoul apartment. She was ready to turn in for the evening when her phone rang — it was the bandmaster who played the cafe every now and then. The two had been casually dating for a while.

Tonight he was inviting her out for a drink with some of their mutual friends, at a riverside restaurant to the east of Seoul. He picked her up in his pre-owned Hyundai Grandeur, and they drove off out of the city. Somewhere along the way, the couple were singled out.

The Chijon Family had been staking out the motels on the east side of Seoul, after being told that rich couples often used them for romantic rendezvous. Back in ’94, a Hyundai Grandeur was considered quite a luxury vehicle in Korea — it represented the sort of wealth flaunting that made the Chijon Family’s blood boil. They quietly pulled out of the motel parking lot, and tailed the couple down dark country roads. 

Miss Lee was looking out the side window, daydreaming, when the car screeched to a halt. Another car stopped in front, blocking the road. At the back, they were boxed in by a truck. Before they had any idea what was going on, a group of men got out of the car in front, and approached the Hyundai. The bandmaster rolled down his own window to shout at the ambushers, and was shot with the gas gun.

At the same time, someone threw Miss Lee’s door open, and struck her in the side of the head. Before being knocked unconscious, she saw the bandmaster, dragged out onto the road and beaten, while the Hyundai’s car alarm blared. Nobody was around to hear it. 

In under two minutes, the Chijon Family had the battered couple loaded into the back of their car, and drove off with all three vehicles…

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At a village not far from the site of the attack, Miss Lee and her boyfriend were thrown out of the getaway car. First, she was bound, gagged, and blindfolded. When she begged them to loosen the ropes on her arms, they instead tightened them so hard she thought her wrists would snap.  

Two men then picked her up, and threw her into the bed of the truck. Lying there, the gravity of the situation dawned on her for the first time. Until now she’d convinced herself it couldn’t possibly be real, but now her mind raced through all the horrible ways these kidnappers might kill her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the thud of the bandmaster being thrown in beside her, bleeding from a stab wound in his side. The gang pushed them right to the back of the cargo area, and concealed them behind crates, just in case they got stopped by the police. The victims spent hours crammed into that space, in total darkness, not knowing if they would survive the night. 

When the duct tape was finally peeled off Miss Lee’s eyes, she found herself in a damp, cramped space — locked behind heavy iron bars. Her hands were heavily swollen from being bound for so long. The bandmaster was in the cell opposite, so pale that he looked already dead.

But death wasn’t what the gang had planned for them — not yet. One member brought milk and bread to the victims, but understandably Miss Lee didn’t have much of an appetite. When she never finished her meagre meal, he said to the others, “You have to have known real hunger to know how precious each drop of milk is.” 

That’s when she realized: these people had mistaken them for rich folk. Anyone making a living as a musician or barista will know how wide of the mark that was. This could either be very good or very bad. On the one hand, if money was all they wanted, then they might just let the working-class couple go. On the other hand, their lack of ransom money might make hem all the more expendable.

The Chijon Family interrogated the couple one at a time. They told them that if they told the truth about their financial circumstances, and the stories matched, they would survive the ordeal. 

If not… well, the chainsaws and hunting knives spoke for themselves…

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Kidnapping Survival 101

So the couple were honest, but it wasn’t exactly what the gang wanted to hear. That fancy Hyundai was actually pre-owned, and cost the bandmaster the vast majority of his savings. If they were looking for money, they had kidnapped the wrong couple. 

Leader Kang Dong-eun said it was a pity — these people weren’t their enemy, but they had already come too far to go back now. The only consolation he could offer was that their deaths would be painless. How kind of him. But ‘painless’ is hardly how I would describe the following 24 hours.

While the bandmaster lay bleeding on the prison floor, the gang took turns raping Miss Lee. When it was the turn of young Kim Hyun-Yang, he told her there was a chance he might be able to prevent his comrades from executing her. She would have to be prepared, and be strong, when the time came. Because there was only one way to beat ‘em: join ‘em.

That evening, he negotiated a deal with his comrades, which most likely saved her life. I should add here that Lil Kim is not the hero in this story; he very much participated in every atrocity described above, and was an original founding member. But he was the closest thing to a savior that Miss Lee had.

At 6:30pm she was brought out of the dungeon. The bandmaster was already sprawled out on the living room sofa, paralytic drunk. After serving her a bowl of ramen, the gang explained that she would be allowed to live under one condition: she would have to kill her boyfriend. Would you take that trade? Or more importantly, do you reckon your partner would? 

Miss Kim took the pragmatic approach. When the time came, she was handed a black plastic bag. The gang ordered her to slip it over the head of the bandmaster, and pull it tight at the neck. They had poured so much liquor down the bandmaster’s throat that he couldn’t even struggle, while he slowly suffocated to death.

After a long few minutes, he was gone…

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After watching her former lover being wrapped up in a duffel bag, Miss Lee was once again tossed down into the dungeon. All but one of the gang went off to dispose of the body. She was told that if they failed, she would be left to starve to death, alone in the darkness.

Back above ground, in the garage, the gang tossed the bandmaster into the boot of his own car, and drove off into the mountains. Once they found a secluded spot at the top of a cliff, they intentionally left skid marks on the roadside, to make it look like the driver lost control. 

After hauling the bandmaster’s body into the driver’s seat, they pushed the Hyundai off the cliff, and watched it plummet onto the rocks below. When the wreckage was found the next day, the police wrote it off as a freak accident. The driver’s blood alcohol was extremely high, after all.

The Chijon Family returned home triumphant, much to the relief of the captive downstairs. There was probably a 99% chance she should have been in that car too, but somehow she had made it through this first trial alive. She heard the sounds of drinking and celebrating above, and soon her unlikely advocate, Kim Hyun-Yang, came downstairs to fetch her.

The rest of the gang weren’t quite as welcoming of Miss Lee, especially Moon Sang-rok. After all, rule #3 clearly stated that women were not to be trusted. Yet here was Lil’ Kim, trying to invite a female victim into their circle. Most of the more reputable sources describe what happened next as a heated argument, although one Korean tabloid seems to suggest Kim and Moon settled their differences with a sword fight.

You can choose your own adventure on that one: shouting match or swashbuckling. Either way, it ended like this: the gang asked Miss Lee if she was willing to join them. She agreed to comply, adding that although she couldn’t possibly help hem, she vowed not to hinder them.

That diplomatic answer bought her a few more days…

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The Married Couple

As far as murder sprees go, this one was off to a pretty decent start. There was really only one major problem — if the Chijon Family kept leaving the bodies of their victims littered around the Korean countryside, one would eventually be traced back to them. The solution: a homemade incinerator in the basement. All they needed now were some wealthy victims to put in it.

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On the 13th of September, the Chuseok festival — kind of like a Korean Thanksgiving — was fast approaching. City dwellers made plans to return to their hometowns and tidy up the graves of their ancestors. That’s exactly what factory owner Mr So (pseudonym) was doing that afternoon, along with his wife Mrs Park (pseudonym).

That morning, they took a trip down to Namseoul Cemetery, to the east of Seoul, to clean up his relative’s headstone. Little did they know that, as they parked their Hyundai Grandeur out front and walked through the cemetery gates, the cafe worker and her new clique were watching on. 

As Mr So and Mrs Park walked past the gang’s car, Lee Jeong-su tried to signal to them with her eyes — turn and run. On the long drive up north, she had been debating whether to do the same herself, but the gang had her convinced that they could find her no matter where she ran to. They claimed to be part of a wide network of kidnappers, with eyes in every city, including police officers.

The convict Baek Byeong-Ok must have sensed what she was thinking. He grabbed her, and reminded her that he still didn’t trust her — if she tried anything funny, she was dead. Up on the hillside, Mr So started clearing away the weeds with a handheld sickle. Kim Hyun-yang was the first to approach him. 

“Do you think you’ve come to clean?” he asked the middle-aged businessman. 

“Yes,” he replied. But Kim had other ideas for the man. He drew his knife and set upon Mr So. Mr So cried out to his wife to fight back, but the others quickly overpowered her, and dragged her into the getaway car. The man kept fighting, swinging at Kim with his sickle. 

The youngster eventually got the better of him, slicing his hands and sending him tumbling down a grassy hill at the back of the graves, to where the car was parked. The gang gave him a brutal beating, then he too was bound and thrown into the car. 

Family members made to pose with their weapons.
Family members made to pose with their weapons.

Once again, the Chijon Family stole the keys to the couple’s car, and drove both off without anyone seeing a thing…

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The long drive back to the hideout was riskier than the last. Routine police checkpoints were set up along the roads — one spot search might be enough to uncover the kidnapped couple, now loaded into the back of the goods truck. But the gang had a system. One car led the convoy far out front, and radioed the others to warn them.

Not far south of Seoul, they found themselves stuck in a checkpoint traffic jam. The front car sounded the alarm, and they carefully peeled out of the queue, one by one so as not to arouse suspicion. They then switched to the quieter back roads, so it was 2am before they finally made it back home. Almost twelve hours, bound and gagged in the back of a truck! That was just the beginning of the couple’s woes.

After his bleeding hands were bandaged up, Mr So was the first to be interrogated. The gang told him that they were only in it for the money, and if he cooperated, he and his wife would live. The victim explained that he was a self-made man, not one of the wealthy trust-fund beneficiaries they despised. He purchased the modest factory in Ulsan on the back of years of hard work.

“[…]When I was a child, I did a lot of bad things, and I fully understand your heart. If you need money, I will give it to you. […] I have kids at home, my wife is sick and has to take medicine. […] If you keep us alive, I will never report you.”

The gang swore to do so, provided he could come up with 100 million won in cash. They took him to a nearby public phone, and told him to call the manager of his company. If he said anything strange-sounding, they’d execute his wife with hesitation. Not only that, they would go to his children’s school, and kill them too. Mr So made the call.

He told his factory manager that he had been in a bad car accident, and needed a wad of cash ASAP. The manager agreed to muster up 100 million won from the company accounts, although it would pretty much leave their cash reserves dry. They arranged to meet at Gwangcheon Bus Terminal for the handover. 

The Chijon Family were pleased with how well he sold the story. However, Mr So was quite rightly skeptical about their promises. Back down in the basement, he hatched a plan. Using a ballpoint pen from his jacket, he wrote the words “report me” on the inside of his bandages. But before setting off, one member came down to redress his wounds. They found the message.

“This is your last chance,” they told him. “Play along, or your family dies.”

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Lee Jeong-su was once again invited along on this leg of the caper — another part of her involuntary internship. The gang reiterated that if she put one foot out of line, she was dead. The Chijon Family claimed one of their organization’s top gunmen would be watching the trade from afar, with a scoped rifle. 

After seeing the heavy-duty gear in the hideout, she believed them. She even believed their claims about being part of a much bigger anti-rich organization (spoiler alert: they were not). Even if she saw an opportunity to escape, she was too terrified to take it.

So she, the factory owner, and three merry men set off for the bus terminal — a halfway point between the hideout down south and Seoul in the north. What happened along the way is my favorite part of this story by far. Somewhere between the hideout and the bus station, Kim Hyun-yang was fiddling with a stick of dynamite in the passenger seat, (apparently they thought that was a necessary piece of kit for this mission).

There’s a reason heavy explosives come with all those award warnings, which the young killer soon discovered. The stick of dynamite blew up in the footwell, blasting chunks out of his hand and leaving severe burns up his arms and legs. It even blew a hole right through the bottom of the car!

After the ringing stopped in everyone’s ears, they turned right around and went back to the hideout. The Korean Wile-E Coyote went off to get himself patched up at a local clinic, and another gang member substituted in for him. Mr So could only hope that his employee would still be there by the time they arrived.

When they finally made it to the station two hours late, he breathed a sigh of relief. His employee’s car was parked among the crowds. The Chijon boys told him to go collect the cash, so he walked across the station car park, and knocked on the window of the car. The manager tried to get out to greet him, but Mr So gestured for him to stay put.

He then sat down in the passenger’s seat, and took the bag of cash from the manager. Just 80 million won: that was all that was in the company accounts. Mr So prayed it would be enough. Just before slipping out the door, he managed to quickly whisper “I’ve been kidnapped”

He then returned to the gangsters, and explained the shortcoming. They told him not to worry, 80 million was fine — he had done well…

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While the gang drove off, the manager sat alone in his car, with his heart beating out of his chest. He might only have a few hours to save the kidnapped man’s life, but what do you do in that situation? He decided to go to the police station back in Ulsan, where the factory was located. There he came face to face with our old nemesis: inefficient police bureaucracy.

The cops there essentially told him ‘cool story…. but, it’s not our problem’. They told him to report it in the jurisdiction where the trade actually occurred. Apparently that kind of bureaucratic apathy was quite common back then.

So the manager wasted hours driving all the way back to Gwangcheon, where the police were skeptical it even happened. It all sounded like a fake story to cover up a bit of light tax evasion by the firm, or to avoid the blame for some financial shortfalls. They let him file the report nonetheless, but never put much stock in the tale of kidnapping and extortion.

That’s how the story would eventually break to the press — just a minor footnote in the evening editions, which would soon balloon into the biggest news story in the country…

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Promises Broken

The Chijon Family returned to the hideout triumphant. As they opened the front door, Kim Hyun-yang jumped up startled from the sofa. He was waiting next to a pile of gas cylinders, with a lighter in one hand and a knife in the other. His job was to blow the place sky high if the mission failed. Why in the hell he was still trusted to handle explosives, I do not know.

His fear turned to joy when they unzipped the swag bag. Here was more money than any of them ever hoped to see in their lives. To celebrate, they did what any reasonable person with a bag full of $80 grand would do: they got absolutely smashed. The gang spent the night downing soju and beer, and invited Miss Lee to join them.

She heard them excitedly planning their future moves. They planned on training with boats to raid luxury riverside villas, attacking place stations and other public buildings, and spreading their doctrine far and wide. The conversation eventually turned onto more pressing concerns: what to do with the couple in the cells downstairs. Kang Dong-eun had been to see their imprisoned leader, Kim Ki-hwan, that same day. He was the one with the master plan, and it included a daring next move — a jailbreak, to get him back in the field. The last thing he wanted was to return to prison.

“Keep it neat,” the leader instructed them. “No loose ends.”

That rang alarm bells for the waitress, very aware that she herself was one such loose end. She sat with her head bowed, swaying from the liquor, while the other members debated her fate. 

“Let’s get rid of her today!” shouted Moon Sang-rok

Kang Dong-un reluctantly agreed — the boss’ word was final: women were not to be trusted. He said this despite the fact that his own girlfriend was becoming more involved with his questionable social circle. She even celebrated with them that evening, and officially signed up a couple days later.

Bolstered by a bit of Dutch courage, amateur explosives enthusiast Kim Hyun-yang stood up on his crutches to confront them. He said the waitress had kept to her word so far, so she should be spared, just like they promised. But before he could finish that rousing speech, a beer bottle clanged off his head, leaving a gushing wound above his eye. Moon Sang-rok came at him swinging, and the fight spilled out onto the street.

The waitress’ odds were not looking good now. Her only protector was an invalid, literally fighting for her life at his very moment. Since his hands and legs were still messed up from the dynamite, I’d have given him 4/1 odds max. 

Miss Lee was sent to a bedroom while it unfolded. After a few minutes, Moon Sang-rok came in. She thought she was done for, but all he did was glare at her, and shut the door again. Her protector returned soon after, a little more bruised and bloodstained than before. 

“From now on, stay by my side, at all times.” 

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With the celebrations over, the Chijon Family got to work on planning their next big move. They bought a couple of cell phones, and paid the deposit for a refrigerated truck for the prison break plan. One of them went shopping in Busan, and collected price quotes for literal bag-loads of illicit firearms. 

They even managed to bribe a clerk at Seoul’s exclusive Hyundai Department Store (no relation to the car company) to procure their mailing list. This was a veritable rich list of Seoul’s well-heeled upper-middle class: the 1200 biggest credit card spenders on their books. The gang planned to use this to better target their campaign against actual wealthy people in future. 

Before setting off to do all that though, they had to sort out the little problem in the basement. One of them took down a bottle of strong rice wine, and told the couple to drink — drink until they blacked out completely. 

“The next time you open your eyes, you’ll be waking up in front of your house.”

So the couple guzzled down the alcohol, until they both passed out on the cold prison floor. In case you’ve not figured it out yet, they were not taken home safely. Dragging his battered body along on his crutches, Kim Hyun-yang took Miss Lee down to see the sleeping victims. The rest of the Chijon were already waiting there, with a plastic bucket, knife, axe, and plastic bag.

Lil Kim handed the waitress the gas gun. Once again, she was forced to implicate herself in the crime. When she couldn’t bring herself to do it, Kim hugged her from behind, and held her hand, aiming it at the back of the businessman’s head. He pushed on her finger, and pulled the trigger — once for Mr So, and once for Mrs Park.

The rest of the gang then got to work with their axes and knives. They hacked the bodies to pieces, and dumped them into the incinerator. To cover up the smell and the fumes, they even held a barbecue out front of the house. Some of the neighbors even came round to join in. 

But beef and pork weren’t the only things on the menu that day. One of the gang members later admitted to eating the flesh of the dead couple before burning the bodies. He claimed it was to boost his courage, and renounce his humanity for good. Some reports also mention the rest of the gang partaking in some casual cannibalism too, even forcing Miss Lee to eat the liver. 

I can’t find any mention of that in her first-hand tell-all from 2015, but it’s not really the sort of thing you brag about, is it? This cannibalism is what the Chijon Family are often best remembered for, although I have to point out that there’s a chance it might be heavily exaggerated.

The most sensational (ie, ‘bullshit’) versions of the story say they distributed the human meat pieces to the neighbors too, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s absolutely false…

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Never Trust a Woman…

Cannibal or not, Miss Lee sensed that her time was running short. The gang were already gearing up for their spectacular jailbreak operation by practicing the fine art of dynamite throwing. Once the supreme leader made his grand comeback, it was game over. Kim Hyun-yang told her: “Maybe the majority vote will determine your fate. If that happens, I’ll make sure it’s painless.” 

It was just the two of them left at the hideout that day, while the others prepared for the next mission. Miss Lee knew this would probably be her very last chance at escape. Her savior was scheduled for a hospital visit in the afternoon, and she managed to convince him to take her along (her legs also got some burns from the blast).

For some reason, he decided to accept. Instead of locking Miss Lee up in the basement, he drove with her down to the hospital. Bear in mind, at this point she still believed that the Chijon Family were thousands strong. Even if she thought she could run, there was always the threat of capture, days, weeks, or months down the line. 

So great was their psychological control that, when Kim Hyun-yang and her sat down in the busy waiting room, he told her: “Do you want to run away? Do you want to escape? If you want to run away, run away.” 

Was he mocking her, or being sincere? She couldn’t tell. After ten minutes, the nurse called Kim Hyun-yang’s name. He stood up, looked at Miss Kim, and smiled. After he disappeared into the consultation room, it was just her and a crowd of old grannies in the waiting area. But still she sat, rooted to the spot. Was this a final test of loyalty? Were the rest of the gang waiting downstairs to snare her? 

After a few minutes, she decided to risk it…

___________________________________________

Miss Lee stood up on shaking legs, and made her way out the back gate. She flagged down the first cab that came by, and told the driver to go — it didn’t matter where. The man behind the wheel noticed she was distressed, and asked what was wrong. 

She told him she had been kidnapped, and he started asking by whom? He claimed to know all the big players in the underworld (which sounds like standard taxi driver chat), which made her worry that her getaway vehicle might lead her straight back to the Chijon. She demanded to be dropped off where they were, and tossed him a 100,000 won note.

Miss Lee now found herself in an unfamiliar farming village, hundreds of miles from the city she called home. She still had a pocketful of Kim Hyun-yangs cash, as well as his cell phone. However, she was afraid to turn it on, in case the Chijon could track her through the signal. 

So she just ran off into the woods for cover, and planned her next move. Eventually she stumbled across a greenhouse, where she hid under a table for about 8 hours.When the owner of the greenhouse eventually found the trespasser camping out on his land, he allowed her to use his house phone. She called one of the few people she absolutely knew she could trust: her coworker from the cafe.

“Where are you!? The bandmaster died in a car accident, and we’ve been searching for you for days!”

She told him she couldn’t explain right now, and asked to meet him in Seoul. The farmer managed to land her a ride with someone from the village, and they set off in the middle of the night. Miss. Lee slinked down the passenger’s seat, just in case they drove past the Chijon or their allies. At each roadblock they passed, she was terrified that she might see Moon Sang-rok’s face appear at the window.

After switching cars one more time, she finally arrived in the Gangnam area of Seoul (of annoying novelty song fame) and checked into a hotel. There she was met by her coworker and her boyfriend, along with the cafe owner’s brother, who drove them. After hearing her harrowing story, they convinced her to report it at Seocho Police Station.

But the police weren’t as receptive as she hoped. Miss Lee begged the cops to not send her back down south to make the report, as happened to the factory manager earlier on. When she refused to leave, the cafe owner’s brother decided to call on his trusted contact in the police. 

That’s when he paged Captain Go, currently staking out a house in his patrol car. With his help, Miss Lee finally convinced the police to believe her, and agreed to sit tight at the hotel. Two tense days later, an officer presented her with the mugshot of Kang Dong-un. She confirmed this was the man.

Captain Go told her to get a good sleep that night; tomorrow was going to be a big day…

___________________________________________

Showdown

We’re now back in front of the hideout on September 19th. Captain Go’s men spent hours staking out the place, before Kang Dong-un — one of the most dangerous members of the gang — emerged, and hopped into the truck. Despite Miss Lee’s daring escape, the gang never bothered vacating the headquarters. Their drinking binge had continued unabated, safe in the knowledge that she too was implicated in the murders. Kang was actually off to buy some vegetables for a hangover cure dinner, when the police watched him leave that day.

Captain Go was the first on his tail, following him along the narrow dirt roads that separated the farmer’s fields. The gangster was quick to realize he was being followed and slammed his foot down. Two more officers managed to intercept him at an intersection ahead, sending the truck careering down an embankment. Kang took off on foot into the fields, but the officers were faster. Miss Lee watched from a distance as the cops ran him down and tackled him to the floor. 

This now pit the officers against the clock. Once the other members noticed Kang was gone, they’d have a far better chance of escaping. Or worse: going out in a blaze of glory. They decided to use their first catch as bait. 

Captain Go called the hideout from the nearest police station. It was hopeless romantic Kim Hyun-yang who answered. Go told him that his buddy was seriously injured in a traffic accident, and he’d better come quick — they also recovered a substantial chunk of cash from the wreck. 

The gang were suspicious, but the promise of recovering their money was enough to bring Kim and Moon Sang-rok down to the station. The former must have sensed that something wasn’t right, because he stayed in the car and sent his mate inside. As soon as Moon stepped foot through the door, three officers piled on him, and dragged him to a cell, kicking and screaming.

Kim Hyun-yang sped off when he saw all that unfold, and once again Captain Go gave chase. The killer was driving towards a gas station in town, ready to blow himself sky high rather than be captured. Before he could get there, the captain caught up, forcing Kim’s car into a wall. The youngster put up a decent fight for a man whose hands were blown apart by dynamite just a few days earlier, but he ultimately collapsed of exhaustion. Three out of five down.

With just two members left inside, the police now had the advantage. They returned to the hideout, and blew the front door off its hinges with a breach device. Kang Moon-sub was caught on the living room sofa — he threw his hands in the air when the cops entered. Baek Byeong-ok made a run for it out the back, trying to escape into the mountains. The two cops posted on the mountainside quickly intercepted him.

With that little cinematic episode over, the Chijon Family’s campaign of terror came to an end. The police explored the hideout, and discovered everything Miss Lee told them was true: the stench of gore and death emanated from the basement, where they found all the tools used to torture and dismember the victims.

The gang were then loaded into a police van, and transported to the holding cells in Seoul. Miss Lee followed behind with the detective. Looking at the gang of troubled youths being thrown into the police cells, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for what she had done to them. That’s right: what she had done to them!

Despite all the rape, torture, murder, and cannibalism, she still felt that they were a bunch of good kids at heart. I’m not sure if I’d agree with that.

 ___________________________________________

Execution

Shortly after the capture, the police station was flooded with reporters. The story of the Chijon Family became the biggest story in the country. Every journalist and politician had their say on how such a terrible thing could happen. They didn’t just attack the killers either — the editor of the Korea Times, Park Moo-jong, wrote:

“Indiscreet spending sprees have caused youths on the other side of the fence to feel deprived. This money worship, inducing people to accumulate wealth through illegal and abnormal ways, is to blame for these shocking crimes.”

You hear that rich people? You better stop enjoying that cash, or there might be a gang of psychopathic robbers coming to a town near you. As someone from a working class background, I take a bit of issue with the idea that ‘poverty + envy = crime’. That’s a glorious oversimplification. I mean, half my schoolmates work in manual labor jobs, and none of them have ever kidnapped or eaten anyone… yet. 

A culture of decadence, of ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ only goes so far in explaining why these guys did what they did. That’s why other commentators just went with the standard ‘bad seed’ angle. While those parts of the media painted the gang as a bunch of psychopathic sadists, Captain Go saw it differently. Over the course of the investigation that followed, he discovered the Chijon were just uneducated kids who came from dirt poor conditions (perhaps victims of violent upbringings themselves).

He recalled eating with the gang at a cheap Chinese cafe, where their minds were blown by even the simplest dishes. Chicken fried rice sure tastes a lot better than human flesh. (Not that I’ve ever tried human flesh before. Those allegations were never proven.) 

Any chance these impoverished serial killers had at gaining sympathy was dashed when they were paraded in front of the cameras. That’s when Kang Dong-un made his claims of cannibalism, and Kim Hyun-yang said his only regret was that they couldn’t kill more rich people:

“Those who ride the expensive Grandeur cars, […] I’m so angry I couldn’t kill them all! […] Please put this all on TV.”

He also told the press that their ultimate goal was to attack the police headquarters in Seoul, then take over a TV station with the weapons. They would then broadcast their anti-rich message to the nation, then blow themselves up.

As you can imagine, all this very public boasting did not help their case in court. Each of the Chijon family members, including their already-imprisoned leader Kim Gi-Hwan, were convicted of all five murders, along with a litany of other offenses, and sentenced to death. 

Kang Dong-un’s girlfriend also got a four-year prison for joining the gang near the end of their spree. You’ll be happy to hear that Miss Lee was never prosecuted, despite being forced to participate. She went on to live a normal life after the ordeal, thanks in part to the anonymity which South Korea grants victims of crimes. 

While the gang was awaiting trial, she went to visit Kim Hyun-yang in prison, to get some closure on the ordeal. She asked him if he meant for her to escape. He didn’t even seem sure of himself. When she was a captive, he had secretly told her he wished he could leave the gang, and start a normal life with a woman he loved. But if he tried, the Chijon would slaughter his family. Perhaps allowing her to escape was the best he could do. 

After the investigation, Captain Go  received letters from the gang members in prison, after their conversion to Catholicism. One of them asked him, “Please try to prevent sinners like us from appearing.” He spent over a decade longer on the force doing just that, and eventually gained his PhD in criminology by writing his thesis on the case — the most famous of his career.

As for the gang themselves, they spent a little over a year behind bars, awaiting their fate.Leader Kim Ki-hwan, who throughout the trial defended his followers and took all the blame himself, told the press: “Even if I fall to hell, I don’t know if there will be a seat for me.” 

On November 2nd 1995, he got a chance to find out. Kim Ki-hwan and his disciples were executed that morning.

___________________________________________

Wrap-up

That marked the end of the Chijon Family — one of the most horrifically fascinating criminal gangs I’ve ever come across. They set out to terrorize the rich, but in the end, it seems their mission did more to harm ordinary people than challenge the inequality and corruption they claimed to hate. Less Karl Marx, more Charles Manson. 

At any rate, it’s a good thing Miss Kim had the brains and bravery to outmaneuver the gang and win her freedom. Had she not, maybe they really would have realized their goal of full-blown domestic terrorism. As it stands, they only managed to claim five victims (that we know of).

Digging through cold cases from that era has led some to speculate that the Chijon Family were responsible for the disappearances of some members of Korean high society, during that glaring gap in the timeline. We’ll never know for sure. One thing’s for certain though, if I ever get the chance to visit Korea, I’ll be sure to act like I don’t have a penny to my name. The last thing I need is to end up on some Chijon copycat’s barbecue…

Dismembered Appendices

1. Shortly after the gang were executed, Captain Go was out on a business trip, when he recited a call from the prison warden. Nobody had come forward to collect Moon Sang-rok‘s body. He called his wife to explain, who begrudgingly agreed to go sort it out. She oversaw his burial in the cemetery of a Catholic Church. Nobody else came to the funeral.

2. The Chijon’s claims of being a bigger organization of killers was almost definitely BS, but they did inspire copycats further down the line. In 1996, 20-year-old Choi Jeong-soo created his own version, named the Maggapa. Their spree came to an abrupt end when one of their members tried to dispose of the first victim’s car, and was caught in a routine traffic stop. Out of nine total members, only Choi got the death sentence.

3. Miss Lee had pretty rotten luck when it came to crime. One year before her ordeal with the Chijon, she was the victim of a carjacking. While at a stoplight, two men hopped into her car and demanded her purse and jewelry. These thieves were decent compared to the Chijon, and just kicked her out at the side of the road, with 20,000 won for a taxi. 

4. Just three last loose ends to tie up. After their arrest, the Chijon were extremely compliant with the authorities; they took them to where their former member Moon was buried, ratted out the department store worker who sold them the list, and even led them to the arms dealer that provided them with enough firepower to kill an elephant. No honor among thieves, I guess.

Images

https://www.bizarrepedia.com/chijon-family/

Images of them showing police how they dismembered people with an axe

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