By Choe Young-min
Symbolically, it was the bold president of the Korea Nude Model Association in Korea who first ducked under the protective wings of the burgeoning, all-female BlueBird Women’s Bodyguard Team in 1997, recalls the president of the “Bluebirds” Baik Bong-hun.
Coming out to publicly defend the use of the naked female body as art and to advocate the freedom to do so without being subjected to verbal or physical abuse, she was faced with the vulnerability of her own body in private.
By herself in the bathroom or bedroom, where she wasn’t comfortable having her male bodyguards around, she felt most susceptible to the threats by those opposed to what she did and wished her harm. So she finally turned to female bodyguards who could stay with her 24 hours a day, anywhere she went. She called a “BlueBird” to her rescue.
The BlueBird Women’s Bodyguard Team, the strictly female bodyguard group of leading domestic bodyguard company Korea Security Service System (KOSSES), was founded in 1997, and answered to a fluttering demand. Although more than qualified to protect, they are not officially licensed to arrest offenders or attackers although they can shoot in the line of duty.
The imaginary Korean bluebird, after which the team is named, is a symbol of freedom and an ideal place, explained BlueBird Lim Mi-hwa. They have a bird’s-eye view over things, and represent the promise of security. Most importantly, they are supposed to see everything and hear everything, but never reveal anything.
After the initial wave of panic and relief, the demand for female bodyguards died down. Recently, worsening social conditions brought about by the economic crisis have re-ignited a sense of unpredictable dangers and the need for self-protection.
Awareness of safety has always prevailed in Korea, but security measures are yet loosely knit despite recent improvements. “Developing countries usually have better bodyguard organizations than police departments due to bad social circumstances,” says Baik, a master of martial arts who now trains his Bluebirds in the spiritual strengths necessary to stay on the job. “Underground conflicts increase because individuals are driven to watching out for themselves at the price of others, and they often resort to illegal measures which are often very violent.”
The increasing number of break-ins and assaults in homes, including foreign embassy residences, and strife between company management and workers are calling for inconspicuous, in-house security. Family members won’t feel a threatening presence but a reassuring one like that of a sister, mother or friend. All efforts are made to accommodate the need for familiarity by superficially representing the full spectrum of female images.
“New crimes” such as stalking and physical sexual harassment outside the workplace have also been a growing social problem, resulting in gender paranoia. Acts under this category commonly categorized as “new crimes” in Korea were considered harmless, until people realized that they were the potential victims of crime and that they could resort to legal measures to prevent it.
It’s safe to say that few loyalties are more sacred than the one between the bodyguard and the guarded. It’s even more so when the threat is imposed not by a single enemy but takes on the face of the entire opposite sex.
Ironically, the more frequently the BlueBirds are called for special services as female bodyguards for women, the more this costs them their own personal lives as women. Womanhood is an identity they project foremost in their profession, but it is also what they have to sacrifice before everything else.
“I have fears myself,” says Kang Me-ra, 25, who has been a Bluebird from the very beginning. “I have fears like any other woman. But I’m just not scared of people.”
Putting your life on the line for somebody else may seem to be a high enough price in itself, but in truth, the days where not much is going on far outnumber the days where you’re literally risking your life, says the 24-year- old Lim, team leader of the BlueBirds.
On normal days, the members of the Bluebird Women’s Bodyguard Team are burdened with the question of whether sacrificing their lives as women is more important the work that they do.
“It’s hard enough trying to get men to see us as women in the first place. But later, our crazy working schedules are more than the men in our personal lives are willing to take,” says Kang.
Not necessarily by choice, the BlueBirds live and breathe their profession strictly separating it from their emotions as much as they can to stay alert and clear-minded, with the same dedication that has made them so superb in martial arts, shooting, driving, chiropractics and sports massage. All 170cm of their image is strictly controlled by the president, and far from looking hard as steel, they are very feminine in appearance in order not to look intimidating. Dark suits and white shirts, sensible shoes, toned down make-up and hair brushed out of the face are the basics.
Training takes place on a regular schedule with the male members of KOSSES in their gym, but more importantly at public events where there are throngs of unpredictable people in an excited state.
Like President Kim’s bodyguards, the Bluebirds are required to take English lessons, beginning with reassuring language that conveys security. This becomes necessary as the number of foreign female investment bankers and lawyers coming to work or do business in Korea has been increasing. Foreign businesswomen are said to anonymously, but frequently, seek undercover protection for meetings due to discomfort arising from cultural unfamiliarity with what they are going to encounter in a male- dominated society.
Jun Hyun-mi, 22, and Choi Seung-hee, 20, are the youngest newcomers of the Bluebirds and learning the ropes. “It’s different working in a real situation, as can be expected, but we are constantly trained to take and adapt to whatever situation we may encounter swiftly and calmly,” says Jun.