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The Street Leaders of Seoul and the Foundations of the South Korean Political Order (Modern Asian Studies 2016)

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In the decade and a half following Korean liberation from Japan in 1945, a category of men prowled Seoul’s back alleys and also its halls of power. These figures might be called street leaders, for they were directly linked on one hand to private
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   Modern Asian Studies  50 ,  2  ( 2016 ) pp.  636 – 674 .  C  CambridgeUniversityPress  2015 doi: 10 . 1017  /S 0026749 X 14000560  First published online  19  March  2015 The Street Leaders of Seoul and the Foundations of the South Korean PoliticalOrder ∗ ERIK MOBRAND  Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, Singapore Email: emobrand@nus.edu.sg  Abstract In the decade and a half following Korean liberation from Japan in  1945 , acategory of men prowled Seoul’s back alleys and also its halls of power. Thesefigures might be called street leaders, for they were directly linked on one handto private agents of violence and on the other to the top state and politicalelites of the country. The most notorious individuals included Kim Tu-han, agang leader who became an elected politician, and Yi Ch˘ong-jae, a ‘politicalgangster’ who helped party politicians with their dirty work. Street leaders likeKim and Yi were on the scene at key moments in the republic’s early politicaldevelopment. An examination of the political careers of Kim and Yi reveals howimportant cooperation between such actors and elite politicians was to state-building, political mobilization, and design of electoral institutions—processesthat created the contemporary South Korean polity. Both the alliances betweenpoliticiansandstreetleadersaswellasthedestructionofthosealliancesleftdeepimpressions on South Korean politics. Introduction On  22  May   1961 , six days after soldiers took control of the SouthKorean government in a coup, a man named Yi Ch˘ong-jae headed aprocession of alleged hoodlums trudging reluctantly through central ∗ For helpful suggestions on the article, I would like to thank Tae-gyun Park, Suzy Kim, John DiMoia, Jamie Davidson, Lynn White, Hyejin Kim, anonymous reviewersfor the journal, and participants in the  2011  Kyujanggak International Symposiumon Korean Studies at Seoul National University. This work was supported by a grantfrom the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS- 2009 -R- 65  and AKS- 2010 -R- 65 ) and onefrom the National University of Singapore. 636 terms of use, available at http:/www.cambridge.org/core/terms. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X14000560 Downloaded from http:/www.cambridge.org/core. Seoul National University (SNU), on 05 Oct 2016 at 11:30:46, subject to the Cambridge Core  STREET LEADERS OF SEOUL  637 Seoul. Hands bound, Yi plodded along the boulevard as a placardhanging from his neck announced his name to onlookers. Above hishead, a banner proclaimed him a ‘gangster’. Yi was a gang boss withhighpoliticalconnections—orapoliticalactivistwithunderworldties,depending on one’s perspective. Under a regime that had collapsedthe previous year, Yi’s gang had served as a paramilitary wing of the ruling Liberal Party. This unit helped the party rig an electionand suppress subsequent protests. The administration in power atthe time of the coup had prosecuted Yi but the courts failed to handdown a serious sentence. Seeking to shore up its credentials, the juntaimmediately rounded up Yi, his underlings, his patrons, and otherunderworld characters who had performed political functions. Theparade was a public display but the new rulers meant business. Stiff punishments followed. Yi would hang before the year was out.The swift, decisive action taken against Yi and figures around himindicates the seriousness with which the military rulers regarded theproblem of cooperation between street gangs and political parties.Such cooperation was hardly new. For many years gang bosses had puttheir organizations at the disposal of party and state actors. In thedecade and a half following Korean liberation from Japan in  1945 , acategory of men prowled Seoul’s back alleys and also its halls of power.These figures might be called street leaders, for they were directly linked on one hand to private agents of violence and on the other tothe top state and political elites of the country. The most notoriousindividualsincludedKimTu-han,agangleaderwhobecameanelectedpolitician, and Yi Ch˘ong-jae, the ‘political gangster’ who helped party politicians with their dirty work. Kim and Yi, whose political careersare the focus of this article, are the stuff of legends in South Koreanpopular culture. Perhaps because of their status as television and filmcharacters they have not received serious academic treatment. 1  Yet 1 Partial exceptions include Kim Pong-jin, ‘Migunj˘ong-gi Kim Tu-han ˘ui “paeksaekt’er˘o” wa taehan minju ch’˘ongny ˘on tongmaeng’ (Kim Tu-Han’s ‘white terror’ andthe Taehan Democratic Youth Alliance during the period of the American Military Government),  Taegu sahak  (Taegu history)  97  ( 2009 ), pp.  35 – 75 ; Cho S˘ong-gw˘on,‘Haebang hu uik ch’˘ongny ˘on tanch’e-es˘o hwaldonghan p’ongny ˘ok chojik-˘ui s˘onggy ˘ok: 1945 – 1953 ’ (The formation of criminal organizations out of rightwing youth groupsafter liberation:  1945 – 1953 ), paper presented at the Korean Political Science Association Meeting,  19  April  1997 ; Cho S˘ong-gw˘on, ‘Han’guk chojik p˘omjoe-˘ui kiw˘on-kwa t’˘uks˘ong:  1953 – 1960 ’ (The origin and characteristics of Koreanorganized crime:  1953 – 1960 ),  Hy˘ ongsa ch˘ ongch’aek y˘ on’gu  (Criminal policy research) 8 ( 3 )(Autumn 1997 ),pp. 135 – 68 .TheaccountsbyKw˘ondrawheavilyonthepopular,embellished memoirs of the actors involved. terms of use, available at http:/www.cambridge.org/core/terms. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X14000560 Downloaded from http:/www.cambridge.org/core. Seoul National University (SNU), on 05 Oct 2016 at 11:30:46, subject to the Cambridge Core  638  ERIK MOBRAND streetleaderslikeKimandYiwereonthesceneatkeymomentsintheearlypoliticaldevelopmentoftheRepublicofKorea.Intheimmediatepost-liberation period, state officials and party organizers deployedKim and his gang to fight alleged leftists. This activity put them atthe nexus of state-building and party mobilization. The country’s firstfew elections brought the patrons of gang violence into high office,and street leaders also tried their hand in electoral politics. Yi andhis group were involved in the excesses of the Liberal Party that ledto president Syngman Rhee’s downfall and that provided part of theexcuse for the military coup of   1961 .On one hand, there should be little surprise that street leadersplayed a role in the early years of South Korean politics. After 1945  nonstate violence in multiple forms had been a regular featureof politics in Seoul. Parties had paramilitary wings. ‘Youth groups’brought together specialists in violence who claimed to serve as vanguards for particular politicians or causes. Demobilized soldiers,former guerrilla fighters, and common street thugs put their skills topurportedpublicpurpose.Policeenlistedthesupportofviolentagentsto fight suspected leftists; patrons of militias became elite politicians.Street leaders formed one type of agent of nonstate violence amongmany. On the other hand, in light of subsequent political regimes,street leaders hardly look like important actors. The junta wipedout street leaders. The parade of May   1961  marked the beginningof the end of a period in which leaders of street gangs cavortedopenly with political elites. Such interactions would never happenagain.Thestatethatoversawthecountry’squickmodernizationinthedecades from  1961  was remarkable for its coercive capacity and forits independence from social forces. Next to this powerful state streetgangsappearedpitifullysmallandinsignificant,evenifpoliticiansandofficials sometimes called on them for help.Through an investigation of the political careers of two figures,this article draws attention to the significance of street leaders forthe building of the South Korean political order. A source of thissignificance was that alliances between street leaders and politicalelites altered power relationships. State and party influentials whoacted as brokers for nonstate violence expanded their power by calling on gangs to serve political functions. Not only did this calculusstrengthenright-wingparties,butithelpedlaunchthecareersofmany long-serving elite party politicians—most of whom belonged to theopposition under authoritarian rule. The suppression of street leadersalso stemmed from these power considerations. The most serious terms of use, available at http:/www.cambridge.org/core/terms. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X14000560 Downloaded from http:/www.cambridge.org/core. Seoul National University (SNU), on 05 Oct 2016 at 11:30:46, subject to the Cambridge Core  STREET LEADERS OF SEOUL  639 threat to alliances between underworld violence and political activismcame not from movements espousing an alternate ideology but fromstate actors who competed against the patrons of street leaders.When the junta eliminated street leaders, their disappearance cameat a cost. The military rulers linked the delegitimation of ‘politicalgangsters’ to the delegitimation of a wide variety of forms of politicalactivity,includingnonviolentandnoncorruptones.Thislinkinggainedarticulation in electoral institutions. This cost continued to be borneeven after South Korea’s transition to democracy. Thus, long afterstreet leaders had been sidelined, their patrons—whom they hadhelped empower—remained prominent politicians in a system in whichtheeliminationofgangviolencefrompoliticswasanopportunity to curtail political participation more broadly. The narrative thatfollows clarifies these legacies.TiesbetweentheunderworldandpoliticsarehardlyspecifictoSouthKorea. In other parts of East Asia the significance of private violenceto public politics is better documented. In China and Japan vigilantegroups and coercive organizations participated in mid-twentieth-century struggles to assert authority and subvert enemies. In  1920 sand  1930 s Shanghai, the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party formed analliancewiththenotoriousGreenGang,whichhadextensivenetworksin labour unions, business circles, and the drug trade, to suppresscommunists and extort support from businessmen. 2 In Meiji Japanpolitical activists who specialized in violence made nonstate coerciona common part of political struggle; in the early twentieth century underworldbossesdirectlyenteredformalpolitics. 3 Inpost-warJapan,thegovernmentandrightistsworkedwithviolentsocietiestodecimatelabour as a political force. 4 Seoul’s street leaders can be understoodalongside these other regional examples.In Korea, unlike in other parts of the region, the organizationsrun by street leaders did not draw on deep traditions of secretsocieties. The Green Gang, as well as other Chinese underworld 2 Parks M. Coble,  The Shanghai Capitalists and the Nationalist Government,  1927   – 1937  (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University andHarvard University Press,  1980 ), pp.  36 – 40 ; Brian G. Martin,  The Shanghai GreenGang: Politics and Organized Crime,  1919  – 1937   (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,  1996 ). 3 Eiko Maruko Siniawer,  Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists  (Ithaca, New York: CornellUniversity Press,  2008 ), chap.  2 – 3 . 4 David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro,  Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld   (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,  2003 ), chap.  2 . terms of use, available at http:/www.cambridge.org/core/terms. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X14000560 Downloaded from http:/www.cambridge.org/core. Seoul National University (SNU), on 05 Oct 2016 at 11:30:46, subject to the Cambridge Core  640  ERIK MOBRAND groups, traced their srcins to earlier organizations with religiousand political bases. Modern groups borrowed symbols, terminology,and organizational structures from their predecessors, even as they incorporated activities like dealing drugs and running protectionrackets. 5 Older traditions provided these groups with legitimacy, bothinternally among their members and in the communities in whichthey operated. While street gangs in Seoul had systems of swornbrotherhood and pledged ‘loyalty’ to the boss, the organizations didnot grow out of older traditions. Japan’s underworld organizations, yakuza, formed in response to commercial opportunities and theaccompanying advances in infrastructure, including new roads andgreater transportation. 6 In Korea, where commerce developed moreslowly, there were fewer opportunities for the vice sector to growuntil the twentieth century. An examination of the politics of private violence in post-colonial Seoul can reveal more about the similaritiesand differences across the region in the relationship between publicpower and private coercion. Seoul’s street leaders and their organizations Street leaders stood at the intersection of two very different social worlds. Because of this position, they look different depending onhow they are viewed. Seen against the broader political landscape,street leaders’ organizations fit among the myriad vigilante groupscalled upon by individuals connected to the post-colonial state.Sympathetic contemporary actors and later historians referred totheseorganizationsas‘right-wingyouthgroups’.When placedintheirlocal contexts, however, street leaders were as much gang bosses aspolitical activists. Their organizations were similar to other Seoulstreet gangs that possessed hierarchies and engaged in turf battles with each other. The organizations under discussion here need to beseenbothintheirnationalpoliticalcontextsandintheirlocalsettings.The regime that came to power in southern Korea in the autumn of  1945  engaged in a protracted counter-insurgency campaign againstpopular forces. Those forces had begun to articulate demands inthe immediate aftermath of the Japanese departure. The counter- 5 Martin Booth,  The Triads: The Chinese Criminal Fraternity  (London: Grafton Books, 1990 ); Martin,  Green Gang , pp.  9 – 14 . 6 Peter B. E. Hill,  The Japanese Mafia  (New York: Oxford University Press,  2003 ),chap.  2 ; Kaplan and Dubro,  Yakuza , pp.  7 – 10 . terms of use, available at http:/www.cambridge.org/core/terms. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X14000560 Downloaded from http:/www.cambridge.org/core. Seoul National University (SNU), on 05 Oct 2016 at 11:30:46, subject to the Cambridge Core
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