State Violence

As I was writing yesterday about the Gwangju uprising and the movie “A Taxi Driver” I got to thinking more about state violence. Although May 18th 1980 was only 37 years ago, Korea is a fast moving democracy and we have come a long way since then…. or have we? I am reminded of a thesis I read a few years ago and it still shocks me… “Police, Paramilitaries, Nationalists and Gangsters: The Processes of State Building in Korea” By Jonson Nathaniel Porteux (original link, my local copy). In the process of researching this topic the author embedded himself within  various korean social structures, even including the mob (usually referred to as 조폭 “jopok” or 건달 “geondal” in korean).

He found that gangsters are still used by local authorities and private businesses to handle disputes through physical violence.  Here is the opening to his thesis…

At 2pm on what seemed to be a normal day in Insadong, a historic tourist destination located in central Seoul, South Korea (henceforth, Korea), what seemed to be hundreds of police clad in riot gear suddenly appeared and quickly lined up into formation on either side of the street and in the back alley ways of the district. Ambulances were additionally positioned on opposite ends of the roughly 700 meter long road. 76 Street vendors as well were stationed next to their pushcarts, wearing red protest bands a cross their foreheads. Not long after the police were in position, did a group of 150 young thugs, both male and female, wearing yellow vests, start marching down the street, going from one vendor stall to the next, destroying them and beating any vendor who challenged them. Guiding the yellow clad thugs were a few intimidating men who seemed to be in their early to mid 40s, screaming their well followed orders. The process took about one hour the thugs having moved from one end of the street to the other and back again. The street vendors were selling their wares illegally and were labeled as public nuisances – they didn’t pay taxes to the state – they didn’t pay rent –  and they often sold the same goods as the businesses in the area which had to pay highly to be there. The violence committed against the street vendors however, was also a criminal act, and the services of the thugs were directly and formally contracted out by the Jongno-gu 2 district office. This event did not occur in pre-1987 authoritarian Korea. It occurred on May 24th, 2011 in a country which is often characterized and hailed as being a prosperous and consolidated democracy.
The events which transpired on May 24th are not isolated to either that day or to street vendors alone. Rather, the practice as described above is part of a larger phenomenon in which the state either directly contracts the services of private security firms, or tolerates their use in limited, highly controlled areas. Questions raised in my mind that day are the questions that motivate this study. If the vendors are breaking the law, why can’t the police simply arrest or otherwise sanction them in to compliance? How come Korean society, a society that has a well-documented history of being both contentiousness and in favor of civilian controlled rule, not be able, or more accurately, willing, to hold its elected leaders and the police accountable for allowing such acts to occur? Why would the state collaborate with groups to carry out criminal violence against its own citizens –  in broad daylight and in a democracy no less? This phenomenon directly contradicts the notion of the legitimacy of the state on the one hand, and on the other, the illegitimacy of the groups which engage in criminal violence. This dissertation is an attempt to understand this complex phenomenon.
What [….] are the conditions under which state actors in high capacity, democratic states would collude with private actors in carrying out extra legal violence within their own territorial boundaries, and against their own citizens whom they have been charged with protecting?!