Gangs in Korea
To Hell with Rome.
31, I was teaching English in South Korea. Once I made a funny face at a kid — which American men of my generation grew up doing to express playful regard. The kid burst into tears. Later someone told me it’s because he would have been warned to be careful of men like me — because I’m a gangster. A gangster?
I’d run a landscaping company for a number of years and had adopted, quite fondly, a low-maintenance military-style haircut — a “high and tight”. I kept it when I started taking graduate courses because it made undergraduate boys on sports scholarships with more piss and vinegar than wisdom think twice before trying to push me around. It’s the bright orange fish effect — nature’s warning mechanism.
When I went on leave to see the world and work abroad, I had no idea the haircut was also a trademark style of gang members in the Korean underworld, known as jopok (조폭) or geondal (건달) and street gangs or kkangpae (깡패). I didn’t know about the extortion racket that preys on the poorest people who have only a little money, no ‘leverage’ with the powerful to help them, and little sway with politicians or the police.
So I also didn’t know what I was walking into — not exactly — when I saw a dozen young men with haircuts matching mine surrounding, kicking, and beating an elderly man. The guy was clearly past retirement age, was outnumbered, and he had one of the carts for collecting cardboard boxes for recycling (there are a LOT of cardboard boxes in Korea), which earns him a small stipend from the government.
It was not going well for the old man, and I had to decide what to do quickly, or it wouldn’t matter. I’d only been there a couple of months and could barely speak any of the language. I tried shouting and gesturing at the windows of surrounding shops, but people either turned away, shut their doors, or initially laughed and then refused to look when they saw what was happening.
The codger was on the ground now, and they were still kicking him. I knew exactly two swear words and one bad name. So I advanced and started shouting at them that they were the insane penises of the North Korean dictator. I punctuated that with an American middle finger and shouts of “oi!” — a borrowed cockney interjection which I’ve learned, when trying to get a taxi driver’s attention on a New York City street, carries much farther with greater volume than “hey!” and sounds far less like a land pirate trying to board an ocean vessel than its original form: “(a)hoy!”
A bit of that finally got their attention. First, confusion. It was like a group of tuxedo penguins (they all wore black suits) spotting a bizarre creature coming toward them on a patch of floating ice. They hesitated, looked at me, and no sign of recognition crossed any face. Then the leader gestured at the others, barked out a brief order, and the group divided instantly and neatly in half.
That’s how I counted. Within moments, six young men had charged across the pavement and formed a circle around me, squeezing and boxing me in, forcefully but not yet violently, while an equal number closed ranks around the old man and continued kicking and beating him. I pushed, wrestled, struggled, and tried to break free. I tried to get my arms into a proper stance for fighting them off, which might have partially succeeded if I’d understood that order, but this was a well-trained group that seemed particularly bent on obeying. What I saw on their faces when, momentarily, I broke partially free was fear — not of me, but of failing. I was more worried about the old man than ever, but I was out of ideas.
In a few minutes the other circle broke, the man lay still, and the leader walked slowly up the street with his entourage, and there were now a dozen guys in short hair cuts and black Korean-cut suits in a tight circle around one American with no one calling out on his behalf. No sirens in the background. I figured I was in for the same beating as the old man. But I was the weird anomaly. Later I learned these were a cut above the street gangs. They wouldn’t beat an American senseless on the street without a direct order from farther up the chain. I was a nuisance, but they had to answer to gangsters in nicer suits. The chief reached over the heads of the others, knocked me upside the head, laughed, and said “come on” in Korean. They walked up the street and got into cars, while I went to the old man.
He lifted his head a little, saw me, and put up his hands — not for help, but to ward off being hit again. I tried to tell him I wanted to help, but he lumbered painfully to his feet, and limped away as quickly as he could, leaving behind his cart. I was the strange foreigner with the haircut of a geondal.
Later, I was scolded by people I knew. This is not done in Korea. You do not interfere. They can kill you if they want to. When in Rome, do as the Romans. Don’t get involved. I’ve never liked that expression. I don’t check my commitments at the door when my passport gets stamped. I’m not talking about American exceptionalism. It’s one thing to travel the world telling other people how to live (and bombing their cities and villages if they disagree). It’s another to just look the other way when the fundamental ‘tao’ of humanity is under attack. To Hell with Rome. Yes to the Code of Justinian; no to the Colosseum.
That wasn’t the only run-in I had with gangsters over protection money. But not all stories need to be told.