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Korean Mafia
Founded 1900s
Founding location Korea
Years active 1900s–present
Territory International
Ethnicity Koreans

3,000 estimated (South Korea)

300+ (overseas)
Criminal activities Arms trafficking, human trafficking, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, assault, extortion, fraud, identity document forgery, illegal immigration, larceny, murder, prostitution, racketeering, money laundering, bribery, rape, treason
Allies Yakuza, Yamaguchi gumi, Russian Mafia
Rivals Various Korean crime syndicate

A Kkangpae (Korean: 깡패), also known as Ggangpae, Gangpae, or Gangpaeh, is the name of literally either the South Korean mafia or street gang. The Korean mafia operates primarily in Seoul, Mokpo, and Gwangju, although it is known to operate in Tokyo, Japan; New York City, New York; and Los Angeles, California. 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.

Colonial era[edit]

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[disambiguation needed], 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.[citation needed] 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[edit]

Organized crime was widespread in South Korea during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The criminal syndicates controlled large parts of the South Korean entertainment scene, as well politics, and the media. The common modus operandi of the South Korean mafia included racketeering, prostitution, loan sharking, money laundering, such as through construction, and gambling. However, in 1990, the South Korean government announced a war against organized crime,[1] which resulted in the incarceration of thousands of South Korean mafiosos and mob bosses. However South Korean gangs transformed themselves into business corporations, and started expansion in 1997 as South Korea fell victim to the East Asian Financial Crisis.

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[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lee, Y K (1998). "The status of organized crime in Korea and its countermeasures". International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 22 (2): 157–174. doi:10.1080/01924036.1998.9678615. 

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