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A Champion of Women, and a Defender of Girls

February 8, 2003

A Champion of Women, and a Defender of Girls


SEOUL, South Korea — With her crisp greeting, Kim Kang Ja whisks a visitor through a narrow side office, where her four male assistants work, and into a comfortable chair in her own roomy private sanctum.

After some polite preliminaries, she excuses herself, and calls out to her aides. Could someone please serve some tea to the gentleman, she says, resuming the conversation where it had broken off.

For Ms. Kim, the 57-year-old police chief, it was an unremarkable moment, one she had repeated countless times. But for a visitor who had been in and out of hundreds of offices in East Asia, seeing a woman served tea by a male subordinate was a conversation-stopping first.

As she tells her story, it sometimes seems as if Ms. Kim's career in South Korea's national police is woven of nothing but firsts. She was the first woman to head a police task force, the first female inspector, the first woman to serve as precinct captain or superintendent, and the first, in December 1999, to attain the rank of chief.

For years, even as she rose to senior inspector, Ms. Kim says she was patronized whenever she showed up on assignment in this male-dominated society. "In 1995, I reported somewhere and all the junior officers refused to take orders from me," she said in her stout, confident voice. "They knew I was their superior, but to them, it was still unimaginable."

Not so nowadays. When Ms. Kim shows up on her old turf, popping in to visit her former precinct house late at night, the all-male world snaps to attention. Now, it is she who patronizes, playfully pinching the cheeks of a male officer.

Today she is a national heroine. For all her firsts, what propelled her to that status was her pioneering role in cleaning up the country's huge commercial sex trade involving minors, something that Korean law enforcement had never focused on before.

Wherever Ms. Kim goes in Seoul these days, strangers pause and perform little bows in recognition of this fiercely determined officer's accomplishments. In Miari Texas, the city's huge sex quarter named for its onetime popularity with American troops, prostitutes jump up to greet her.

There, she is revered for restoring some dignity to women who sit atop little floor cushions in hundreds of storefronts, as poised as dolls. The Miari is now widely acknowledged to be free of child prostitution. Ms. Kim has, among other things, also forced brothel owners to provide vacations and bank accounts to all.

Even given her clear accomplishments, Ms. Kim's rise has been more grudging than gilded, a result of extraordinary grit.

Ms. Kim grew up working-class at a time when most Koreans were crushingly poor. She married a Korean intelligence officer she had met on a blind date, after years of rejection by the parents of suitors who found her too strong-willed. She has two grown daughters.

Policewomen were not exceptional, even when she came of age, but the scope of their duties was tightly proscribed. The theme of male condescension is one Ms. Kim returned to frequently in two interviews, one during a long walking tour of the brothel district.

"When I was recruited as a policewoman, in 1971, the only things they would let women do were menial jobs and paper-shuffling," she said. "They thought women were weak, and just gave us gentle work, and this really got me thinking. All of the things people do to overprotect women are really just ways of looking down on them."

Her early dream was to make inspector, but no woman had ever been allowed to take the required course. Ms. Kim resorted for the first time to a tactic that she would use whenever she found her career blocked by her sex, reaching out to women's groups, civic organizations and the press to put public pressure on the department.

Forcing the issue, however, has never won her friends in the deeply conservative world of Korea's police. During her probation period as an inspector, Ms. Kim said, the chief placed her under close surveillance by two undercover agents, hoping to catch a mistake.

"I had no idea about this at first," Ms. Kim said, telling the story with obvious relish. "I was determined to sweep away all of the hoary misconceptions about women being weak and incapable. During my trial period, I slept only five hours a night, and only went home on Sundays.

"One day the chief summoned me and said, 'You are so much better than your male colleagues that I must confess that I've been having you followed.' " With that, she won her promotion and a $1,000 bonus.

Ms. Kim's obsession with the sexual exploitation of young women and girls dates from an incident in 1994, when a mother came to her pleading for help in freeing her 14-year-old daughter from a pimp.

"She told me she was forced to have sex 10 times a day," Ms. Kim recalled, "and if she was too weak, they injected her with stimulants. I decided right then that I had to fight this problem, which I was encountering for the first time, and the anger has stayed with me."

"So when I was promoted to chief, and my supervisor asked me what I wanted to do next," she added, "I told him I wanted to work in Miari Texas, which is the largest area of sexual commerce and organized crime in the country."

Her first act as chief was to tour the 264 storefront sex houses in the crowded warrens of the Miari area in civilian clothes, where she found more minors than adults, and girls as young as 12, she said.

Next, she began arresting the pimps, but quickly realized that they were merely managers for much wealthier and largely invisible owners. "I decided to make a list of the real owners of these shops," Ms. Kim said. "These are people who live in big homes and enjoy very nice, respectable lives, giving lots of money to the police and to politicians."

On her order, officers rounded up all the pimps, and Ms. Kim told them to stop employing minors, or she would publish the owners' names. Overnight, the numbers of young girls in the district dropped, but she was not satisfied. Her next move was pure muscle, sending hundreds of military police officers through the zone to raid the sex houses for minors.

Finally, she divided the quarter into six areas, summoning the operators and telling them that if one of them was caught employing underage girls, she would fill their neighborhood with soldiers, until all of their businesses died out. The owners quickly got the message.

"I go from one extreme to another," Ms. Kim says, describing the traits that drove her throughout her mission. "I can be very, very strong, but on the other hand, I have very tender sentiments. A simple scene from nature, like water flowing from a spring, can make me cry."

Then she added, "The bottom line is that I can't bear to see women and children not treated like human beings."

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