Nerd, Tourist, Loiterer... Spy?
Korean Kerfuffle and 00 Dean
by Dean VanDruff, 1991I had decided to take a trip to Korea while in Japan. Some friends in Japan insisted I stay at a particular hotel they recommended, which advice I took.
The trouble started at the taxi stand at the airport. "NO", said the taxi driver when I told him the name of my hotel. What did he mean, "No?" I told him again and he said "NO!" The taxis were cued, so I went over to the captain and told him that the lead taxi was refusing to take me to my hotel. "That can't be the right hotel," he said. "That's a hotel for Japanese people. The American hotel is the such-and-such." So that must be his problem. I retorted that I didn't care about such stereotypes, that I had a reservation and was meeting a friend at my hotel later, and needed a taxi straight-away. The captain went over and got in a huge shouting argument with the driver, who finally agreed to take me, but cursed and yelled at me in Korean nearly the whole time.
When we approached the hotel, I started to realize this was more than a Japanese / American hotel issue. In Japan I had seen on TV that there were protests and riots in Korea, but had no idea I was going right to the hottest section of town near the university where the demonstrations were taking place. So this was why the driver was not so keen on coming to this section of town. The captain must not have known or made the connection. As we approached, multitudinous police and/or military were closing off streets just behind us, which sent my taxi driver into a burst of anger and shouting.
It was indeed a Japanese hotel, and only the concierge spoke much English. With some effort, I checked in and unpacked my stuff in the room and then went down to the lobby to meet a business colleague that I had arranged to have dinner with later.
Having a few extra moments, I went outside to watch the spectacle. There were various types of regimens of police and military riot personnel with different color uniforms. I was particularly taken by one group with full kevlar bullet-proof body armor from head to toe. Another group had 6 foot tall blast shields with little windows in them. It all seemed a bit much against a bunch of unarmed students, but I had seen that the demonstrators had turned over a car and lit it on fire the night before on the news in Japan, and they were yelling in Korean into bullhorns and the situation did indeed seem volatile. In the time it took to check-in and go upstairs, the area was now swarming with police who were using the plaza just in front of the hotel as a sort of staging area.
A man in a dress uniform walked up to me and said in good English, "Are you with the press?" I said "No", and was a little startled by the question and completely unprepared for the next. "Are you with the CIA?" "No!" I replied again. "Then what are you doing here, looking us over so?" "I am waiting for a friend who was to meet me here for dinner." "Here?" he said, "There will be nobody meeting you here tonight. This area is sealed off for 4 blocks all around. Do you see anyone else standing here? And what are you, an American, doing at this hotel? Americans stay at the hotel such and such? I must ask you again, are you with the American press? Are you with the US government? The CIA?" "No," I said to all, and repeated my situation. He looked me over suspiciously, and I was feeling a bit like the truth was sounding like a lame cover story. I was certainly the only westerner in the area, and standing there in my dark suit did make me rather stand out. "Why don't you go back to your room, then, if you have no business here?" "But I do," I explained again, "My friend and I agreed we would meet here, and I do not want to let him down if he shows." "Stand over there, then, by the hotel." I did.
The same officer approached me a couple of more times with the same line of questions, which I dutifully answered. But by this point I was rather taken by the spectacle playing out right before my eyes. Even though the officer was clearly trying to intimidate me, I felt somehow safe even with all of the machine guns and such all around.
After about an hour, it dawned on me that the officer was right and that it was unlikely my friend would make it to the area, as some sort of siege was being planned by the police. An ugly scene was likely to ensue as the squads of military and police were somberly forming ranks and taking position. Those things over there were likely tear-gas canisters, and... whoops, I am scanning again and the officer who came over is pointing me out to some other officials. Suddenly, the danger of the situation overcame me and I decided to go up to my room to see if there was a message from my friend, or if I could reach him at home.
Arriving on my floor from the elevator, down the hall I noted a maid standing in a doorway in what looked like it was my room who was furtively signaling someone inside. Someone turned out to be two men who were exiting just as I came up to the door. I was furious, and tried to grab the guy closest to me but he pushed pass me and took off down the hall as the maid went up against the wall screaming in Korean and waving her arms. I was a bit at a loss for what to do: to chase after the men, try to hold the girl, or see what they had stolen. She had a name tag on, so I noted her name and went into the room and she ran off yelling. My stuff was moved about here and there, but all my money and valuables were still there and nothing seemed to be missing. In a rage I called down and insisted on speaking to the manager, who of course could not understand my rapid English. I decided to go down and fulminate some more. The concierge acted as a translator, but they could not explain, nor believe, that a maid had let thieves into my room. I took the manager up to show him what had happened, and he listened intently but offered no response. The girl could not be produced. Dumb stares all around. I had a deep suspicion that the manager was in on this somehow and was hiding something.
I decided to go back down and wait in the front lobby to cool my heels. Two hours later my friend showed up, huffing and puffing and saying "Let's get out of here, there is a riot going on outside! By the way, why are you staying here, this is the Japanese hotel?" As we went out, the students were just beginning a march down the street in front of the hotel, and we were between them and the police. He pulled me into a small shop, and we quickly darted out a back door and then through a restaurant and so forth, finally out of the area.
"What were they saying on the bullhorns?" I asked? "The students are mad at the government. Political parties have merged and they feel betrayed."
At night, the fires started and the conflict continued for a couple of days, and I got a bird's eye view from my hotel room. I didn't get a lot of sleep, as the shouting and clashing went on and on.
So what about the robbers and the maid? Well, call me dense, but it never even occurred to me at the time what was going on. They were not robbers. They really did think I was there as an agent of the US or the media, and were just checking out my story. I am sure by ruffling through my stuff, they probably quickly realized I was just the plebeian tourist I had claimed to be all along.