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A kkangpae, translated literally, is a gangster or hoodlum in Korean. Gangs primarily operate in bigger cities like Seoul and Busan, though they can be found all across the country as well as other areas of Asia like Japan, China, and Thailand. The South Korean mafia is well known for its ruthless extortion and loan sharking tactics. Since the early 2000s, the South Korean entertainment industry has regularly popularized the South Korean mafia, through films and television.
Kkangpae literally translates to "Thug" in the Korean language, and usually refers to unorganized street gangs. The South Korean mafia is referred to in South Korea as the Geondal (Korean: 건달), or Jopok (Korean: 조폭; Hanja: 組暴), which usually refers to mafiosos and organized crime.
Historians believe that the rise of the Korean mafia started back in the 19th century, in the fading days of the Joseon Dynasty. With the rise of commerce and the emergence of investment from European colonial powers, pre-existing street gangs, often consisting of lower class muscle and operated by wealthy merchants, gained influence. The modern history of Korean criminal organizations divides into four periods—the "Romantic Period" during the Colonial era, political mobs of the late 1950s and early 1960s under Syngman Rhee, the "Civil War period" under the military rule of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, and the present.
During the 35 years of Korea under Imperial Japanese rule, some Koreans were subjected to forced labor and sex slavery. This intensified during World War II when the Empire of Japan spread its empire throughout Manchuria, and parts of China. Koreans fled to mainland Japan and formed mobs to overcome discrimination and crime. The most infamous "mobster" during this period was Kim Doo Han, the son of a famous Korean independence fighter and insurgent leader Kim Jwa-jin, a freedom fighter against Colonial rule. After his father and mother were killed, he grew up as a beggar and hung out with a local gang, named Jumok (fist). He rose through the ranks and became infamous for fighting groups against the yakuza.
The colonial branch of the Imperial Japanese Yakuza was then under the control of Hayashi, an ethnic Korean who defected to the Japanese and joined the Yakuza. The rival mob to Hayashi's Yakuza was controlled by Koo Majok, but the Korean mafia was always short of money and many local mob bosses were disloyal to Koo and formed separated mobs, notably Shin Majok and Ssang Kal (twin knives). Koo Majok finally tried to solidify his control over the Korean mobs by knocking out Ssang Kal and taking over his territory but it caused a backlash. Kim Doo Han, originally a member of Ssang Kal, rebelled against Koo Majok. Kim killed both Shin Majok and Koo Majok and unified all the Korean mobs under his command at the age of 18. After solidifying his rule by beating the revolting groups, Kim made his move against the Yakuza, starting the famous trial war between Jumok and Yakuza, which became symbolic of the resistance by Koreans against Japanese. Kim Doo Han was a major figure of the movement against the colonial rule. To this date, many Korean mobs are still at war with Japanese mobs, or yakuza.
Organized crime in South Korea
Dating back to the 1950s, organized crime in Korea started from two separate groups, the Myung-dong and the Chong-ro, based in Seoul that operated to protect Korean merchants from Japanese criminals who were often protected by officials (Lee, 2006). The 1960s saw a shutdown of nearly all gang activity as those groups were considered a problem by the current regime, and it wasn’t until the early 1970s the modern Korean gangs began to emerge. Hierarchical structures began forming during this time as well as the use of weapons like knives and iron bars which culminated in more violent attacks (Lee, 2006). The 1980s was a flourishing period for gangsters as they were able to infiltrate businesses and set up connections with in-house government and entertainment officials as well as make ties with other global crime rings. However, the early 90s saw another periodic crackdown with Article 114 on the books which dictated that not only were organized gangs illegal, but those who joined or formed groups could also be charged. This new law forced many into hiding or fleeing while many others were arrested, and even those who finished their time were often put under surveillance if they were deemed career criminals (Lee, 2006). Korea’s rapid globalization has it made it hard though for law enforcement to completely stamp out organized crime which continues to be problem in the present day.
Gang members have been tied to crimes ranging from sex trafficking to drug smuggling to extortion and everything in between. A survey in 2007 showed that the 109 inmates (surveyed) jailed for organized criminal activities were all involved in extortion, mostly victimizing/running bars, nightclubs, and game rooms (2007, “Average”). Gangsters have also been used as hired muscle and strongmen for businesses, such as in the case of Kim Seung-youn, “a conglomerate owner who hired gangsters to abduct and beat up employees of bar” (2007, “Organized Gangs”). Assaults have become more common in recent years as seen in 2009, when out of 621 gang members, 35% were arrested for assault while extortion took second at 29%, and illegal gambling (11%) and loan sharking (7%) made up the rest. The amount of gang members and affiliates jump in years of economic strain, as in the economic slump of 2009 was a particularly busy year when officials saw a 60% increase in new gang formations and activities (2009, “South Korea”). In 2011, police initiated a crackdown on gangs and affiliated members, rounding up 127 individuals within the first week of the ‘war against organized crime’ (2011, “About 130”).
Current activities of the South Korean mafia include extortion, prostitution, illegal goods (drugs, guns), money laundering (e.g. through construction or fisheries), loan sharking, kidnappings, and night club management. The South Korean mafia has a larger presence in smaller towns and cities, where the government and police influence is less common.
South Korean mafiosos often have tattoos of the pa (English: mob) they are in. When confronted by other mobs, they show their tattoos to help identify themselves. The tattoo can also be used as a warning to the general public. As a result, tattoos are often considered taboo in South Korean society.
The stereotypical image of the quintessential South Korean mafioso is one with a gakdoogi hairstyle, which consists of the sides of the head shaved, with hair remaining on top, a big build, dark, black clothing, tacky suits, black-painted luxury cars, prominent tattoos, and regional accents or dialects (Korean: Saturi). Contrary to popular belief, Seoul is not a known hotbed of South Korean mob presence. The most prominent organizations of the South Korean mafia operate in the Jeolla region, in cities such as Gwangju and Mokpo, with other South Korean mafiosos known to be operating in Busan and Incheon.
Prominent South Korean gangs
There are many named local gangs and organized crime affiliates in South Korea. They often operate small, local businesses to earn extra money, however, their usual source of income comes from protection fees, in which they take over a certain neighborhood designated as their "territory" (Korean: 구역), demanding that all businesses in the neighborhood make a monthly payment to the gang leaders in exchange for not damaging their business.
Kangpae in Pop Culture
Films romanticizing gangsters have been around in Korean cinema since the seventies, but gained a serious foothold in the market in the early nineties (Jamier, 2015, p. 1). Such films emphasized traits like loyalty, decency, and morality against a backdrop of violence and corruption. The popularity of films like Friend (2001) and A Bittersweet Life (2005) created a demand for the identifiable and ‘honorable’ gangster (Jamier, 2015). This has not only created an influx of dramas, comedies, and other gang-centered content; but has also negatively impacted the public’s perception of kkangpae- particularly in the eyes of teens and younger kids. School-yard gangs called iljinhoe have cropped up, taking cues from the movies by intimidating and mentally/physically abusing subordinates and those outside the ‘gang’ (2005, “School Gangs”). These youths often look up to kkangpae characters for their strength and intelligence outside of the restrictive classroom setting, and much like street gangs, the groups tend to recruit those who know how to fight and intimidate (2005, “School Gangs”).
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