CHARLES JEONG WOKE UP quietly on the morning of Sunday, July 15. Nobody noticed anything strange about him. The 49-year-old tour guide had slept peacefully among expats half his age on the communalminbak floor, woken only by the hazy late morning sun. Over his scrawny frame, he pulled on a loose-fitting white t-shirt and tightened his beach shorts, slipped on his glasses, and threw on the kind of cheap baseball cap he’d often used to hide the early stages of a receding hairline.
It was the last day of the Boryeong Mud Festival, an annual beach party famous among Western expats for being as messy with mud as with alcohol, and Jeong had, true to character, consumed enough soju that weekend to intoxicate a small village. This was not a trip he’d been keen to make. An avid hiker and distance runner with an encyclopedic knowledge of the country’s mountains and wildlife, Jeong created his grassroots travel group, Lovable Busan, for expats to explore Korea’s off-the-beaten-track side. Jeong “did NOT like the Mudfest trip at all,” Gregory Reilly, a friend who traveled with Jeong to the festival in 2010, later wrote to me, adding that “so many people request it from him that he would just do it.” But in public, few could have known: in a podcast interview from March 2010, Jeong called the expat-heavy festival one of the best in Korea. By 2012, his Boryeong trip grew so popular that he had to hire two chartered buses. He rarely complained, and, as with all his trips, never denied expats the chance to join. “Being picky is not my style of life,” he once wrote on Facebook.
He stepped out of the Sharon Minbak under the overcast sky sometime between 10 and 11 o’clock, touched by the drizzle from a high-up fog. A handful of his tour-goers sat on a nearby patio, awaiting instruction. “Come back at 3:30,” he told them. The buses would leave then, sharp. His friends rolled their eyes, knowing that Jeong rarely left anywhere “sharp”, whether by his own miscalculations or some curse overhanging him. (The most recent example: the group arrived at Boryeong 12 hours behind schedule. The buses had been held up by a severe highway accident on Friday night, Jeong told them, then got lost for two more hours on Saturday morning. According to Mitchell, a Lovable Busan member who preferred to remain anonymous, “Generally, with Charles, things don’t run as planned.”)
Jeong was invited to a nearby beach workout before lunch, but declined. Geoff, a friend who also requested anonymity, saw him sitting alone by a bench. He approached Jeong and asked what was wrong, but Jeong shrugged it off. “He wasn’t happy,” Geoff later recalled to me. “You could tell.”
Jeong instead joined five expats for lunch. They walked to a nearby seafood restaurant, where he ordered a few bottles of soju for himself and more shellfish than the table could finish, even though he “didn’t eat anything but maybe one bite,” one companion noted. By the end, he collected a confusing total of 110,000 won to pay for everything—50,000 from one expat, a personal friend of Jeong’s, who was leaving Korea later that week. Jeong promised him that he would pay him back soon, and the friend, like everyone, trusted Jeong with money.
Indeed, on this trip, Jeong had done the math. Seventy-thousand won, multiplied by roughly 75 guests, would easily cover the approximately five million owed to the minbak owners and bus drivers. Jeong personally would have walked away with little, if any, extra cash for his work, a common situation for a man who’d often publicly express that he didn’t run Lovable Busan for the money.Back at the pension, some expats tossed a frisbee or did yoga stretches on the beach. “At 3:29, approximately, I’m walking up to the pension,” Mitchell recalled. “Charles was coming right out into the street, away from the pension, towards the mud venue. And he sees me, and he’s like, ‘Oh, good. You’re here. Great.’ And then he just walked off.”
“We saw him one moment… And then the next moment, we didn’t see him anymore. And what went through our mind is, ‘Oh, he must be taking care of something. He’ll be back.’”
Three-thirty came and passed. Jeong briefly reappeared, roughly 15 minutes later, assuring a few expats that they’d be on the road in 10 minutes. He flashed a familiar apologetic smile, distinctly tilted up to the left as if caught by a fishhook, and walked away.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty.
“We saw him one moment,” recalled Sam, a veteran Lovable Busan member who also wished to remain anonymous. “And then the next moment, we didn’t see him anymore. And what went through our mind is, ‘Oh, he must be taking care of something. He’ll be back.’”
After 4 o’clock, one of the bus drivers, a good-humored Daegu native, approached a group of expats. He was visibly upset, and began speaking in terse Korean to Westerners who could only make out a few words: “Money”, “don’t have”, “friend”, “where?” The pension owners, too, suddenly chimed in. Apparently, nobody had yet to see even a thousand-won note from Jeong.
The expats tried to explain that Jeong definitely had their money. It was mandatory for everyone to have transferred their 70,000 won in advance. But the Koreans’ message was clear: “Your friend needs to pay us.”
After a half-hour on the road, most expats had dozed off, but Mitchell couldn’t sleep. Jeong’s disappearance was on more minds than anyone spoke of, and an eerie silence hovered them. “That is so strange,” Mitchell muttered to himself. “So strange.”
Three months of investigation, compiled into one 4,200-word narrative feature. Without question the most comprehensive reporting I’ve done. Check out the full story on The Three Wise Monkeys, the only English-language magazine in Korea devoted to critical long-form journalism.