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Gruesome Murders Provoke Fresh Round of Korean Soul-Searching

September 22, 1994 GMT

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ A string of gruesome kidnap-murders, laced with allegations of body-burning and cannibalism, has plunged South Korea into a fresh round of collective soul-searching.

Only last May, Korean educators were decrying the malign ″American influences″ that led a young California-educated Korean to allegedly murder his parents.

Now, with the arraignment Wednesday of the six members of the so-called ″Chijon gang,″ Korea has learned that you don’t have to study in America to qualify as mass murderers.

Police accounts suggest a sort of Korean version of the Manson family - five laborers and a bar waitress in their 20s, who allegedly kidnapped at least four people and murdered them all, including one man whose family had paid a $100,000 ransom.

An accomplice who tried to make off with the gang’s funds also was murdered, police said.

The killers ate the flesh of some of their victims ″to build courage,″ and the incinerated remains of a body were found in the basement furnace of their hideout in Yonggwang, 160 miles south of Seoul, police said.

Police trapped the gang after a woman who had been abducted with a male companion managed to escape.

Police quoted her as saying she was gang-raped, forced to shoot a kidnapped businessman, and made to hold her companion’s head still while he suffocated in a plastic bag.

″How could such a crime as to anger the very heavens come to pass?″ President Kim Young-sam lamented to his Cabinet.

Still more uproar was stirred when the gang invoked the politics of envy to explain their deeds.

Lined up for the TV cameras, they said they wanted to make a point about the gap between rich and poor by targeting only rich people who flaunted their wealth.

Police said they went for people who drove expensive cars and shopped at expensive stores. They dreamed of amassing more than $1 million, but none of their victims turned out to be more than moderately wealthy.

″I feel pent-up anger and deep regret that I could not kill all rich people,″ said 22-year-old Kim Hyon-yang on TV.

He said the gang planned to raid police stations for weapons, seize a radio station, broadcast diatribes against wealth and corruption and then commit suicide.

Such talk touches a nerve in Korea, where egalitarianism is a cherished value, and wealth is instinctively assumed to be the tainted byproduct of rapid industrialization and corrupt government.

Whenever a particularly shocking crime is committed, commentators automatically link it to urbanization, the erosion of the nuclear family, and the evil influence of foreign cultures.

In the case of Park Han-sang, 23, who was sent to California to broaden his education and is now on trial for hacking his parents to death, newspapers and educators were unanimous in blaming American influences.

Authorities responded with such countermeasures as banning Penthouse magazine and the TV show ″Beverly Hills 90210.″

But the Chijon gang suspects are described by police as strictly home- grown, all products of poverty and broken homes. So this time, the blame- America argument is replaced by a tendency to blame the victims.

While decrying the killings as subhuman and indefensible, Park Moo-jong, city editor of The Korea Times, chided the wealthy for ″indiscreet spending sprees″ that ″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,″ he wrote.

Dr. Ahn Chang-il, a psychology professor at Korea University in Seoul, told the daily Dong-a Ilbo: ″The heinous crime can be partly blamed on the freewheeling spending by people flaunting huge assets inherited from their rich parents.″