The Jang Ja-yeon Tragedy—A Strangely Disappearing Paper Trail

The Jang Ja-yeon Tragedy—A Strangely Disappearing Paper Trail

By Felix McGee

Editors’ Note:  This is the first installment of several looking into the circumstances surrounding actress Jang Ja-yeon’s suicide which has been buried for nearly two years due to the clout of some powerful people who were related to the case.

The suicide-abuse case of South Korean actress Jang Ja-Yeon, who was found hanged from a stairway banister by her older sister on March 7, 2009 at 1942, has recently come back into the public, private and government spotlight.

Born on December 8, 1982, the actress was 27 years of age at the time of her death. It was believed that Jang had been residing with her older sister and younger brother in Bundang, Seong-nam, Gyeonggi-do since the death of both her mother and father in a road accident in 1999.

Jang, who was believed to have taken her own life at approximately 1630 on March 7, was a relatively well known actress on the widely popular KBS television soap, ‘Kkotboda Namja’ (Boys Over Flowers / Boys Before Flowers). She also starred in two cinematic productions, ‘They Are Coming’ and ‘Penthouse Elephant’.

The case initially caused wide-spread sensation, particularly online amongst the many bloggers of South Korea, due to the content of her suicide note. A number of awkward turns in coverage and the proceeding events were then very difficult to keep track of.

In the very early days of the story breaking, the following points were presented as fact:

–   The National Police Agency (NPA) stated that Jang had named eleven prominent public and media officials in South Korea, with accusations of sexual coercion, rape and battery.

–   The NPA stated that the letter was made up of four sheets of A4 paper.

It was then speculated that an unidentified source at The Korea Times had been reliably informed that the list was in fact made up of seven pages of A4. Three months later, a source at the Bundang Police Department agreed with this theory and claimed to be in possession of a much longer, seven page suicide note.

Following the death, early reports suggested that Jang’s sister handed the letter to a Yoo Jang-ho, Jang’s manager at the time. Mr. Yoo then copied the list, sending one copy to KBS ‘News at 9’ and another to the Chosun Ilbo. KBS aired ‘Boys Over Flowers’ and two Chosun’ staff members were allegedly identified as being on the list. The note was then passed to the police by a member of KBS. KBS then claimed to be sitting on their original copy, provided to them by Mr. Yoo. Police sources at the time claimed that Jang produced the notes with the aim of creating “evidence of the truth”.

Following Mr. Yoo’s disclosure of the letter, he then made a failed suicide attempt.

Mr. Yoo was then questioned on the subject of the origin of the now infamous documents at his hospital bedside at 1630 on March 14, 2009. It was also earlier reported that three unidentified South Korean “plain clothed police officers” entered his room and stated “If you have something to say, then say it now”.

Jang was represented by the ‘H’ Talent Agency and the “agency representative” in question and the man who lay accused posthumously by Jang, was the Director of H Talent Agency, Kim Sung-hoon.

What then transpired, were five solid months of rapidly changing and highly inaccurate news stories, allegations of computer hacking, Web site interference and generic government level censorship. A number of the original stories placed online in March 2009 following the leaking of the list were removed from the Internet by unknown sources, as were various versions of the list. Bloggers accused the government of censorship and the story ultimately became a media circus.

Whilst it was widely speculated that Jang had been suffering from chronic depression prior to her death and that between 2008 and 2009 had either sought medical assistance—or had been forced to seek help—this factor, true or false, was then presented as the beginning of what transpired to become a somewhat tedious campaign against her name.

In amongst the media circus however, a serious police inquiry was taking place.

The suicide note included Jang’s Citizen Identification Number and a red-stamped Family Seal. It was verified that the seal was found on four pages of the note.

An investigation of approximately 50 days took place. In its very early days, the case was handled by Chief Investigator, Oh, Ji-Yong, Officer Han Pyung-hyeon and Officer Lee Myeong-gyun of a police station based out of Seong-nam in Bundang.

During this period, the police force appeared and perhaps rightfully so, somewhat reluctant to answer any of the questions ever more rapidly being posed by the South Korean press. One of the earliest matters of contention was the questioning of the authenticity of the family seal found on Jang’s suicide note. Jang’s brother, sister and former manager Mr. Yoo were questioned on this matter and no further issues were raised on the subject. The case continued. There was then an announcement that investigators were looking into the theory that further notes existed, stating: “Mr. Yoo is claiming that Ms. Jang drew up the papers herself, but this may not be how they reached police”.

The police then stated that, as best they could tell, the notes in their possession were complete and genuine and that there may be evidence of “extortion, assault, abuse of authority and bribery charges”. This statement was made in relation to the H Talent Agency. A number of news outlets then released widely contradicting ‘scoops’ into the case.

Korea Times Image

Following this, both the Bundang and Seoul police conducted a raid on the address of the ‘H’ Talent Agency in Samseong-dong, Seoul, which had operated as Mr. Kim’s base up until November 2008. The agency was made up of three floors, with the first functioning as an upscale bar and the second an office dealing with administration.

According to (Bundang) Chief Invetigator Oh Ji-yong, the 70 square meter third floor was “a secret room… which has a shower and a bed… how the room was used is yet to be verified”.

During the raid, the police seized around 200 pieces of evidence. These pieces included five DNA samples (four male and one female), twelve computers and a back catalogue of close circuit television files.

A quote was released relating to the acquisition of DNA samples by Officer Lee Myeong-gyun of the Seong-nam branch of the Bundang police, “These samples were taken from the third floor of Kim’s company. We will try to identify who came in and out of the floor where there was a bed”.

After canvassing by police and press, local residents suggested that the ‘H’ Talent Agency had had up-scale Sedans parked in front of it most nights of the week and that the lights remained on most hours, all week.

Although a somewhat grey area, a journalist of the JoongAng Ilbo claimed that the following information was purportedly provided by an ex-employee of H, on condition of anonymity:

“Kim would call 20 or 30 young women the day before the meeting and tell them to be present at a certain place… Those women were… either entertainer or model hopefuls in their 20s and 30s… I asked one woman who looked like she was in her 30s what she does for a living. She simply replied that she was working at a major company…I found out later that the woman was trying to get in with Kim because she wanted to be cast in a commercial as a housewife. They had hopes of becoming famous in show business someday…”.

Talk of a warrant for Mr. Kim’s arrest then started to circulate, based around a statement from Officer Han Pyung-hyeon of the Bundang Police.

“…Jang voluntarily accompanied him to several functions. We’ll focus on probing the forced sex allegations after the warrant is issued”.

Mr. Kim fled to Japan in March 2009. The warrant was issued in April 2009. Ten days later the South Korean government sent a request to the Japanese Justice Ministry to request the extradition of Mr. Kim from a hotel in Tokyo.

Bundang police then refused to comment on whether a request of extradition had been made.

Between April 2009 and May 2009, Bundang Police inexplicably dropped all charges and suspicion against the men who had initially been questioned in relation to being named in the suicide note. Some of the prominent figures were not questioned until two days before the police handed over all documents relating to the case to the South Korean State Prosecution.

The death of Jang was filed as ‘Suicide, with no evidence of foul play’.  The politics of the case then, somewhat ironically, arose.

Mr. Yoo claimed that “two weeks before Ms. Jang died she came to me, told me everything that was happening… and gave me the notes in her handwriting, so they could go to her family”.

This was contradictory to the initial March 2009 statement issued by the police, suggesting that Jang’s sister passed the notes to Mr. Yoo.

In the weeks immediately following the death of Jang (March 2009), Mr.Yoo suggested to a journalists that the death may not have been a simple case of depressive-commits-suicide.  As earlier stated, Mr. Yoo then attempted suicide in his office. Further attempts to question or interview him were referred to his lawyer, citing health reasons.

Mr. Yoo also claimed to be in possession of Jang’s original diary.

Light was then shed on the relationship of Kim Sung-Hoon and Yoo Jang-Ho.  Mr. Yoo was an employee at the ‘H’ talent agency for approximately one year, in 2008. He resigned from his position with the aim of founding his own talent agency, potentially planning to use his client-base established whilst at Mr. Kim’s ‘H’.

At the time of the suicide, Mr. Kim had four law suits pending against Mr. Yoo.

Mr. Kim claimed that Mr. Yoo’s interaction with police and media was based around “…doing this to fight them”, in relation to the four pending court cases.

What then followed was a short-lived twist in the story.

The Jang case was allegedly closed by the police jointly in Bundang and Seoul, around April 2009 and handed to the Prosecution Service for opinion.

The police in Bundang then abruptly issued a statement in June 2009 accusing Mr. Yoo of “insulting” Mr. Kim through ordering Jang to pen a letter listing her treatment at the hands of Mr. Kim and his ‘H’ agency.  The ‘insult’, it was widely suspected, was related to the perspective that Mr. Yoo had been attempting to further stir-up a pending lawsuit that had recently been filed against Mr. Kim by a male model. The model, whom had auditioned with ‘H’ had alleged that he had been subjected to sexual assault.

Mr. Kim’s lawyer, it turned out, had filed a court case against Mr.Yoo on the grounds of defamation, after he (Mr. Yoo) leaked the suicide note.

In amongst this twist, those named on the list were meanwhile officially cleared.

On the afternoon of June 24, 2009, Kim Sung-Hoon, 42, was arrested at his hotel in Tokyo on the grounds of “overstaying his visa”. Mr. Kim was escorted to an airport by Japanese authorites, placed on a private jet and brought back to Seoul by the South Korean National Police Agency.

The Korea Times then reported that a source from “Gyeong-gi Do… police” had informed them that “Japanese officers who had been tipped-off about his presence apprehended the 42-year-old”.

This was questioned at the time, on the proposed contradictory grounds that the Japanese authorities knew of Mr. Kim’s location from April 2009. He remained free in Japan up until June 2009.

Mr. Kim then had the following charges brought against him; fleeing, forcing Jang to serve as an escort, the physical assault of Jang, embezzling money Jang earned and intimidation.

Following the interrogation of Mr. Kim, the police then stated their desire to indict “five of the seven men accused in the case”. It was not and has never become clear who the additional five men were.

Kim and Yoo were convicted on various charges—defamation for Yoo and assault and embezzlement for Kim— and with each receiving a two-year suspended jail sentence and 160 hours of community service.

The case then somewhat vanished, and interest deteriorated.  Until March 7, 2011.

To be continued…

Part 2 coming soon at 3WM.
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