South Korea has come a long way since the Korean War until today, 2021. From drawing the 38th Parallel to the Miracle on the Han River to the overthrow of an oppressive dictator, and finally becoming a democratic nation where free speech and free press. From a war-stricken and ash-filled peninsula that was only a remnant of the violent war to a global economic powerhouse housing some of the world’s most valuable companies, it’s no surprise that many marvel at the exponential growth and improvements that took place in less than a lifetime’s span of time. A now-elderly person born in 1940 would have experienced the Korean War at the age of 10 and lived in an industrial nation built from the ground up in their 30s.
The 60s was only a decade after the Korean War. This would indicate that many of those who have reconstructed the southern half of the peninsula and many of those in power during the 1960s would have connections with the government, specifically the military. Park Chung Hee, a South Korean president-slash-dictator who held power from 1963 to 1979, rose to power in this exact manner. By the end of the war in 1953, Park had risen to become a brigadier general. In 1958, he was promoted to major general, and, in the 1963 presidential election, Park became the president of Korea.
It’s not too hard to understand why he became a dictator who did not hesitate to wield the governmental authority to suppress the supposed ‘illegal’ activities given his military background. In addition, one of his earlier goals was to rid the streets of street kids and vagrants and have them join the labor force. Park’s goal of modernizing Korea required several changes, meaning he would need to reform the Korean society as a whole through a set of new laws—and without policemen to enforce them, laws did not mean anything.
And so began a new era of the police force in South Korea. Thousands of people on the streets were rounded up by the police and sent to 36 camps in 1975, and countless died of abuse. Even in the 80s and 90s, similar styles of authoritarian policing continued. For example, a group called “Baekgoldan” (백골단) existed, which was infamous for undercover arresting tactics and combative aggressiveness. You see, from the Korean War’s end in the 1950s until the 1990s, the police was an organization with near-absolute power. However, the Baekgoldan was dissolved in 1991 during a protest.
And so began yet another era of the police force. This time, as the 2000s was approaching, people’s and the government’s perception of power had dramatically changed. The police could no longer get away with knocking out groups of demonstrating college students with batons, or tear-gas mobs of people (like they did in ‘87). In more recent years, police cars gained more horsepower and bigger sirens, but beat officers seemed to follow the opposite trend: they possessed no horsepower and had no sirens in their throats to yell at criminals. Back in the 80s, those who didn’t obey the law were crushed by the law. Now, many scumbags ranging from petty shoplifters to child molesters get to step all over the law and not worry about a thing, for their time in jail would be short. Yes, that’s right, you are now looking at a country that sentenced a man who destroyed parts of a young girl’s body via rape only 12 years in prison—the same country that cracked the skulls of youngsters in their twenties with clubs for protesting for their rights. From draconian to pillowy tenderness, what on earth happened that marked the transition in South Korea’s justice system?
There are several factors that led to the type of policing in Korea today. First, there is the problem of extremely short prison sentences. The maximum length of a sentence in Korea is only based on the length of the most serious crime committed times 1.5, unlike the United States which adds up the sentences of all crimes committed. For example, a criminal in Korea who committed fraud (10 years) and theft (6 years) can only be imprisoned up to 15 years. This is a serious problem. Cho Doo Soon—who was a 56-year-old male at the time of the time—raped an 8-year-old girl in 2008. He accosted the girl, brought her to a bathroom in a church, committed the heinous crime, and left her to die. His actions had also severely damaged the young girl’s internal organs, which is extremely gruesome, to say the least. Upon being asked the question of what the rapist is doing now, one may expect him to be decaying in one of South Korea’s most heavily guarded prisons. In reality, he is buying beer from a supermarket because he was only sentenced to 12 years and is now released, despite the harsh backlash. Second, there is the problem of officers’ inability to use physical force. It’s hard to know whether the South Korean police force is employing capable and able officers because the law restricts their abilities severely. According to a blog written by the National Police Agency, an officer may use deadly force if the attacker is in possession of a weapon. However, the principle is that the officer makes the decision on how much physical force is needed to control the situation, and the individual officer is responsible for all legal consequences should the criminal decide to bring a lawsuit against the police for excessive force. This is why no police officer is willing to readily use their sidearm should a potentially violent situation occur, because of the possibility of having to personally handle the burden of a lawsuit from the criminal they are about to take into custody. Here’s a letter from a policeman to the official government website, where an emotionally overwhelmed officer expresses that he is tired of being harassed by citizens and not being able to do anything about it.
This is also very much a serious problem. On May 15, 2019, a drunk man slapped the face of a male officer. The officer tried to arrest the suspect when another drunk man interfered with the process. The female officer who was with him was unable to handle the new suspect and had to radio for help. In addition, she called out for help to civilians in a nearby restaurant, asking for a man who could suppress the situation. This is beyond the level of ridiculousness and is downright outrageous. How is it even possible that a police officer who is supposed to protect the citizens is asking the citizens for help? Is it fair to call her an officer anymore now that she has demonstrated her powerlessness?
Yet another case that demonstrates their inadequacy is the 2008 Ilsan schoolgirl kidnapping attempt. The situation where a man who threatened and tried to kidnap a young girl in an elevator was discovered by a nearby neighbor, who reported the incident to the police. The police, however, did not realize the direness of the case and simply classified the incident as just another misconduct. Furious about the lazy investigation, then-president Lee Myung-bak stepped out of his office himself and dismissed the 6 personnel in charge of handling the case. Even worse, the perpetrator had already violently sexually assaulted 5 schoolgirls 13 years prior to the 2008 incident who only served 10 years in prison. Whether it’s 1998, 2008, or 2018, one perennial principle of the Korean police is that they do not change—and not in a good way.
Due to such a powerless police force, many Korean netizens are frustrated and feel that despite changes being made in the system, there is still not enough progress to truly make officers as powerful as those in the United States, China, and other developed nations. Making fundamental justice reforms and large changes in the Korean justice system is unlikely to happen at least in the next several years, but perhaps there still remains a possibility for it to happen in the more distant future.
JoongAng Ilbo. “‘조두순 소주 샀다’ 마트 목격담에 ‘손 떨린다’ 올라온 글 [출처: 중앙일보] ‘조두순 소주 샀다’ 마트 목격담에 ‘손 떨린다’ 올라온 글.” JoongAng Ilbo, 2 Apr. 2021, news.joins.com/article/24026455.
The Chosun Ilbo. “일산 초등생 납치범, 13년 전에도 ’짐승’이었다.” The Chosun Ilbo, 2 Apr. 2008, www.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2008/04/01/2008040101065.html.
The DONG-A ILBO. “내 생애 최고의 수술]<2> 조두순 사건, 나영이에게 인공항문 달아준 한석주 교수.” The DONG-A ILBO, 30 May 2011, www.donga.com/news/It/article/all/20110529/37629825/1.
“대림동 여경: 영상 논란이 남긴 질문 3가지.” BBC News Korea, www.bbc.com/korean/news-48331609. Accessed 4 June 2021.
“저는 경찰관입니다 국민여러분 제발 도와주세요..” The Blue House, www1.president.go.kr/petitions/233999. Accessed 4 June 2021.
“주민 신고엔 뒷짐졌던 경찰, 대통령 질책 6시간만에 검거.” The DONG A-ILBO, 25 Sept. 2009, www.donga.com/news/Society/article/all/20080401/8562084/1.
한혜원. “<카드뉴스> 성폭행범 징역 1천503년…한국은 왜 안될까?” Yonhap News Agency, 25 Oct. 2016, www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20161025175400797.