Two mobs standing guard near Jeonpo Café Street. Busan, South Korea. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
In South Korea, the mob is usually referred to as 조폭 jopok (gangster; organised crime gang) or 건달 geondal (literally ‘good for nothing’). The stereotypical image of a quintessential South Korean mobster is someone with a big build, prominent tattoos and a 깍두기 gakdoogi hairstyle, which consists of the sides of the head shaved, with hair remaining on top, resembling the cube-like Korean radish kimchi it owes its name to. Since the early 2000s, the South Korean entertainment industry has regularly popularised the South Korean mob through films and television, such as in the 2012 film Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁 bumjoewaui junjaeng), starring Choi Min-Sik, renowned for his portrayal of Oh Dae-su the Park Chan-wook’s 2004 Palm d’Or winner Old Boy. Time Magazine praised Nameless Gangster as “the Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of.” It is set in the 1980s and ’90s in Busan when corruption and crime were so rampant that the government eventually launched a war on crime in 1990.
When I started searching for information about the South Korean mob, I stumbled upon a very interesting dissertation, written by Jonson Nathaniel Porteux and titled “Police, Paramilitaries, Nationalists and Gangsters: The Processes of State Building in Korea”. (Porteux submitted it in 2013 in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a doctoral degree in Political Science at the University of Michigan. It is publicly available here.) In December 2014, the Joongang Daily, one of the three biggest South Korean newspapers, reported about his research in an article titled “Doctoral candidate shadows gangster elite”.
Porteux’ dissertation is neither a story solely about South Korea, nor about organised crime, but instead it explores state-non-state collaboration in the area of criminal violence. As Porteux explains, symbiotic relationships between state- and non-state actors are surprisingly common, blurring the lines between legitimate and illegitimate use of violence and allowing political actors to circumvent democratic checks on state authority. While previous research has linked illicit violence to weak or failing states, Porteux’ study is unique as he focuses on both economically and politically developed governments. He argues that the state monopoly over the use of violence purposefully varies and that political actors sub-contract violence in order to extend their reach and expand their forces. However, sub-contracting serves two goals beyond an expansion of forces. First, it allows political actors to distance themselves from police actions deemed illiberal — and hence unpopular — by society. Second, because criminal groups are extra-legal organisations, subcontracting allows the state to avoid transparency and accountability constraints. Therefore, the choice to subcontract is not only conditioned by the respective end goal, but also by social pressures regarding appropriate means to bring about preferred outcomes. Importantly, the political payoffs from subcontracting are high in states with high levels of operational capacity, as they can best manage the potential risk that criminal groups metastasise and challenge state authority directly. In order to write his dissertation, Porteux spent a year in South Korea to interview members of the police, prosecutors, journalists, members of organised crime gangs, and victims. (This paragraph is a slightly altered and shortened version of the abstract of Porteux’ dissertation.)
The art to look the other way while looking straight at it
Porteux’ research is highly interesting and it overlaps with my own where the government’s tolerance of and collaboration in illegal activities is concerned. While crackdowns on sex businesses in South Korea are more frequent than generally assumed, there is no denying that they flourish nevertheless, which doesn’t come as a surprise given that interviewees have repeatedly told me of tip-offs ahead of crackdowns for business owners with the right connections to the police. As Porteux writes, “tolerated illegal activities by the government in turn led to increased opportunities for police-organized crime collaboration in policing and maintaining order” in areas where those activities take place.
Another example is how South Korean authorities deal with illegal tattoo parlours.
“Tattooing itself is not illegal in South Korea, but the law states that it can only be carried out by a licensed medical doctor. … [The law leaves] the growing number of Korean tattoo artists vulnerable to prosecution on the whim of local authorities. … [T]attoo artists continue to inhabit a professional world not dissimilar to sex workers; technically illegal but largely ignored by the authorities as long as they stay under the radar.” [The article quoted here and the video below are from January 2015. I have yet to find out if the law has since been changed.]
This illustrates that it’s really just a figure of speech to say the police is looking the other way. In reality, it is looking straight at illegal activities, but what kind of attention authorities pay to them, as Porteux phrased it, “purposefully varies”…