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The Korean Underworld: From its birth to its rise and current state of criminal affairs

By Joe Francis for Gangsters Inc.

The history of Korean organized crime is mostly unknown to the public outside of Korea. Everyone knows about Lucky Luciano and Pablo Escobar and men from their part of the world, but no one knows about men like Kim Du-han or Cho Yang-eun. Despite the lack of recognition, gangsterism is a frequent theme in Korean films. Movies like the General's Son (장군의 아들) and shows like the Rustic Period (야인시대) are big hits in Korea. Korean gangsters, also known as kkangpae (깡패) actually have a long history dating back to the early 1900s.

Yakuza rule

Gangsters probably have always existed in Korea, but they first became more organized and recognized during the days of Japanese occupation. Korea was under Japanese rule for over 30 years starting in 1910. Japan also has a long history of organized crime with the yakuza and they introduced this element into Korean society. The Japanese occupation pushed many Korean farmers off their land and many were forced to leave the country side and move into the poor crowded streets of Seoul. This new urbanization of Seoul created poverty and homeless, and the streets of Seoul became breeding grounds for criminals. During these times only the best skilled fighters joined gangs because Koreans and Japanese gangsters rarely used weapons. Even today most Korean gangsters are trained in wrestling, boxing or martial arts.

During the occupation the Japanese yakuza dominated most of the Korean underworld from Seoul. There were some Japanese gangs in the North of the peninsula, but they were mostly centered in the South. They were primarily involved in smuggling of goods, drugs, extortion, prostitution and adult entertainment. They were also running many legitimate businesses such as bars and markets. The yakuza were rivaled by some disorganized Korean gangs, but many other Koreans worked for the Japanese.

Hayashi

The first prominent gangster of this time that we can point to was a man named Hayashi (하야시). Hayashi (right) was born in Taedong, Korea in 1909, but his family moved to Japan when he was 5. During this time many ethnic Koreans in Japan joined the yakuza to avoid discrimination. Hayashi moved up quickly and was under the leadership of the famous Toyama Mitsuru (頭山 満). Hayashi was sent by Mitsuru to run the colonial branch of the yakuza in Seoul.

By the 1930s most of Korea’s crime fell under the control of Hayashi. He dominated the entire area of Myeong-dong, Eulji-ro, and Chungmuro. He took bribes from the adult entertainment industry and also opened legitimate stores for the sub-bosses to operate. Most of his henchmen were Japanese but many Koreans, such as Kim Dong-hwe (김동회), worked for him as well. Kim was Hayashis main enforcer and was known for his standout judo skills. He was involved in many illegal smugglings, beatings and robberies to expand Hayashi’s empire.

Hayashi’s Korean rivals were tough but unorganized. Korean gangs at this time were disunified, lacked funds and were frequent targets of law enforcement, so they resorted to robbery and extortion. In the early 1930s, there were Korean hoodlums like Kim Ki-hwan, Goo Ma-juk, and Shin Ma-juk, who were all known for being great fighters. Kim Ki-hwan was one of the most powerful Korean gangsters at this time. He was a former boxer and known to be a vicious street fighter. His turf was the Jongno district of Seoul, where Japanese merchants opened pubs and the adult entertainment near theater districts. There was a famous theatre in the Umikan hall called the “Umikan Theatre”. Kim Ki-hwan was manager and protector of this lucrative theatre.

Kim Du-han and the fight against the Yakuza

Around this time a tough young man was working in a Umikan snack bar. His name was Kim Du-han (김두한). Kim Du-han was born in 1918 and was the son of a famous independence fighter named Kim Chwa-chin (김좌진). Kim grew up homeless after both of his parents were killed by the Japanese. During his childhood he was begging for money and fighting on the streets of Seoul. Another tough kid named Lee Sang Wook (이상욱) aka “Jongno kid” was best friends with Kim on the street. While Kim was known for his two-leg high kick, Lee was known for his devastating headbutt. Kim Ki-hwan eventually brought Kim Du-han into the underworld. Du-han eventually formed his own gang the “Umikan gang” and he started fighting the disunified Korean gangs. By the age of 18, Kim united most of the Korean gangs under his leadership and had over 70 loyal fighters from all over Korea. Kim Ki-hwan was arrested and sent to prison and Du-han absorbed the remaining Korean gangs by 1935.

Now that Kim had a united Korean front, his main rivals were Hayashi and the Japanese. After years of the Japanese yakuza being deemed untouchable, now they faced a real threat. Kim’s gang was individually tougher than the Japanese but they lacked funds, so they resorted to robbery quite often. Kim started many gang wars against the yakuza to take over various territories and rackets. The Koreans and Japanese would brawl on the streets until one side surrendered. Hayashi heard about Kim’s fighting skills and put a Japanese police officer named Manmarooka against Kim. Manmarooka was an undefeated judo master and Kim was a just a young street fighter. Manmarooka lost his first fight against Kim and this is when Kim became known as the best fighter in Seoul.

Kim eventually convinced Kim Dong-hwe (right) to leave Hyashi’s faction to join him. According to Kim Dong-hwe’s account: “Sometimes, up to 100 people from each faction would meet at an empty field. We’d go at each other. We only stopped if someone was seriously injured.” These fights were conducted early in the morning, to avoid the attention of the police. No knives, no guns, just bare fists. “Those rules were never broken.”

To make matters even tougher, after brawls, Japanese gangsters wouldn’t go to jail, because police would only target Koreans and sometimes force them into the army. Korean people needed heroes in those days, they needed hope, and the gangsters fighting against Japanese filled that role. Word on the street got around about Kim Du-han’s fighting against the Japanese and they were treated as heroes up until the days of liberation.

Liberated, but divided

When Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, many Japanese fled and the yakuza became weakened. Kim Du-han (left) eventually took over Seoul completely after Hayashi surrendered and he became the number one gangster in Korea. The two rivals then became friends and Hayashi ended up financially supporting him.

A whole new era of gangsterism was about to start. Korea was in turmoil while trying to create a new nation. After WWll, the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japan by the US and the Soviet Union. The capitalist US controlled and liberated the south, while the communist Soviet Union controlled and liberated the north. Although liberated, now Korea was politically divided like never before. The north and south adhered to their liberators’ ideology and a Korean split occurred. During this post occupation period, Kim Du-han’s gangsters from the Umikan gang joined political movements. Half of them became left wing and the other half became right wing. Kim led a right-wing organization and had many of his gangsters carry out terrorist attacks on left wingers.

The new nations of South Korea and North Korea were eventually formed in 1948. This led to a new wave of gangsterism and is known as the second generation of gangsters in South Korea. Kim Du-han was considered a hero and was awarded a spot in the new right-wing government as a politician and anti-communist activist. Kim left many of his rackets on the streets but he brought many of his thugs into the political world. Now the gangsters were no longer only in the streets. They were now running the government. The new government of South Korea was led by Syngman Rhee and the Liberal Party. Despite its name, the Liberal Party was very anti-liberal, anti-communist, authoritarian and nationalist.

The Dongdaemon gang

Photo: Lim Hwa-soo (bottom right) with celebs

Syngman Rhee and the Liberal Party used Kim Du-han to recruit gangsters in order to silence or suppress their political opponents. Frequent beatings, killings and other terrorist attacks were arranged by Kim and his men. The Dongdaemon gang was the primary gang involved in these acts. The gang was established by Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) in 1953. Lee was born in 1917 and was a tough kid and accomplished wrestler. He served in the Japanese military and was later recruited by Kim Du-han to be a police officer. Lee eventually met gangster Lim Hwa-soo (임화수) and they formed the gang. Lim Hwa-soo was a hoodlum but also an intelligent business man and film maker. The government used him to make pro liberal party, and anti-communist films. He hung out with celebrities and was known for beating and extorting some of them. They eventually recruited Yu Gi-Kwang (유지광), & Lee Seok-jae (이석재), and these 4 were the main leaders of the gang.

The Dongdaemon gang was notorious for its political terrorist attacks, including the National Assembly Audience riots for Constitutional Reform Intervention of 1954, the interruption of the Liberal Party’s founding party in 1955, the rally of opposition of the presidential election in 1956 and the terrorist attacks in Jangchungdan Park in 1957. All of these attacks silenced protestors against the corrupt regime.

The Myeongdong gang

Photo: Lee Sung-soon, also known as Sirasoni, center

While Lee and the Dongdaemon gang primarily focused on political bullying and terrorism, they were being outdone in the finance world by their rival gang, the Myeongdong gang, which was led by Lee Hwa-rong (이화룡). Lee Hwa-rong (right) came from North Korea and dominated the Myeongdomg market after the Japanese yakuza and merchants left. He was known as a tough fighter and economic mastermind. lee was also a film producer and was involved extensively in the entertainment industry.

Another Myeongdong boss was a man named Lee Sung-soon (이성순) aka “Sirasoni” aka “the lynx”. Lee was a refugee from North Korea and was known at the time as the toughest fighter in all of Korea. He grew up fighting Japanese and Korean gangs and was rumored to never have lost a fight. He also supposedly won a fight against 40 men alone. Lee ran the Busan sect of the Myeongdong gang. Everyone feared the lynx including the Dongdaemon gang. The lynx and Lee Hwa-rong were the only men in the way of the Dongdaemon gang’s plans to take over all crime in South Korea.

Since Lee Jeong-jae was too occupied with politics, he didn’t always know what his soldiers were doing. Lim Hwa-soo planned an attack on the lynx without Lee Jeong-jae’s permission. A group of men ambushed the lynx in his place in Busan with shovels, axes, knives and bats. The incident left the lynx partially paralyzed. Lee Jeong-jae (right) didn’t want beef with Myeongdong gang so he apologized and tried his best to reconcile the issue. Then another man visited the lynx in the hospital and tried to break his other leg. He managed to fight off the man and escaped. This damaged relations even further and made Lee Jeong-jae look even more guilty. The Myeongdong called for a hit on Lee Jeong-jae. He was ambushed at a restaurant, but survived. Lee Hwa-rong was arrested and Sirasoni eventually retired in the late 50s/early 60s.

In 1958, Lee Jeong-jae had a disagreement with Lee Ki-poong (politician), and he decided to retire. Lee left the gang’s leadership to Lim Hwa-soo. Lim made the gang even more dangerous than it already was. He used his main henchmen Yu Ji-kwang to commit terrorism against protestors, celebrities and politicians frequently. The situation got out of control and the entire public started to notice how corrupt the existing government was.

After years of frustration, on April 18, 1960, 3,000 Korea University students stood up against the corruption and protested at the National Assembly Building. They were eventually assaulted by Dongdaemon hoodlums. This assault triggered anger of the public which caused the historic event known as the April Revolution. This revolution established the Second Republic of Korea, which resulted in the Liberal Party and political gangsters arrest. However, they were all eventually released from prison after a few months. South Korea then had the May 16th military coup, which turned South Korea into a military run government, and most of the political gangsters were sent back to jail.

Lee Jeong-jae, Lim Hwa-soo, Yu Ji-kwang (right), Lee Seok-jae and many others were all sent to trial. This famous trial had many inconsistencies in the testimonies which hurt them. Yu Ji-kwang proved his loyalty to his gang by claiming full responsibility for everything to try and get his brothers free. At the same time Lim Hwa-soo gave extra information that led to the final verdict which resulted in Lee Jeong-jae, Lim Hwa-soo and others getting hung. Yu Ji-kwang and Lee Seok-jae escaped the rope to get time in prison instead. Kim Du-han managed to stay clear of charges but he was devastated at Lee Jeong-jae’s demise. He protested by throwing feces at the National Assembly. Kim stayed in politics until his death in 1972. This trial led to the extinction of gangsters in the Korean government.

The generation that stopped playing by the old rules

The gangster element of Korea was dying in the government and streets but one man was keeping it alive. Shin Sang-hyun (신상현) who was underboss to Lee Hwa-rong’s Myeongdong gang, managed to inherit Lee's control and he remerged in the late 60s early 70s as the Shin Sang Sa gang. This gang dominated the entire district of Myeong-dong, Chungmuro, Euljiro in Seoul. This gang led to the third and current generation of Korean gangsters. This new generation of the 70s and 80s didn’t play by the old rules. While the values of the world changed, so did the values of the gangsters. These new gangsters did anything for power and money. They managed to get a hand in many legitimate businesses such as the entertainment industry, construction, finance, night clubs, karaoke bars and massage parlors.

Three new powerful gangsters emerged from this era in a huge power grab to take over Shin Sang-hyun rackets. The first was Cho Yang-eun (조양은) (left), who arranged a famous attack on the Shin Sang Sang Sa group for control of the ho nam region. Cho was born in 1950 in Gwangju. Cho formed the Yang-euni family in the mid-1970s and he became the most powerful gangster in the country. This family was comprised of thousands of members in the mid-1970s. He was also an actor in some popular gangster films. Cho seemed to be the main player in the underground for a little while until others showed up.

Another man named Kim Tae-chon (right) (김태촌) rose up and formed his own crime family called the Seo Bang family. Also Lee Dong-jae (이동재) formed the OB Dong Jae group. Cho, Kim and Lee gangsters ran the countries underworld throughout the 70s and 80s, but it was not a glamourous life. Their lives were plagued by arrests and hard jail time, but they raked in millions of dollars through legal businesses which used gangster muscle to expand. Since the 90s the government has a strict policy on organized crime. now it’s a crime to form a crime group, similar to the USA REECO law.

Lee Dong-jae fled to the US after being attacked by Cho’s men in the late 80s. This left Cho and Kim to be the two main gangsters of Korea throughout the 90s and 2000s. The two became heated rivals and many men were beaten or killed on both sides. Cho was constantly in and out of jail, which gave a slight edge to Kim. Kim Tae-chon made headlines in 2007 when he threatened to kill a famous Korean actor named Kwon Sang-woo (권상우), for not showing up to a fan meet and greet. This event showed the public that the Korean mob is heavily involved in the entertainment world. Cho Yang-eun was under heavy pressure from law enforcement throughout the 2000s, and was discovered hiding in the Philippines in 2013. The same year Kim Tae-chon died of a heart attack. These two events led to the final and current generation of gangsters.

Today’s Korean underworld

In today’s South Korean underworld various gangs remain, but they are nowhere near as powerful as they once were. The most powerful gangster of the current generation is Lee Kang-hwan 이강환. Lee (photo below) is currently leader of Korea’s largest gang called Chillsung-pa which translates to Seven Stars gang. He was arrested in 2010 for extorting 400 million won from construction businesses. but his health is in decline.

Many other gangs such as New 20th century gang and PJ-pa are also a force in the underworld. Korean gangsters are still running many rackets in Korea, but they are also highly represented in the diaspora. Many Japanese of Korean descent are prominent yakuza members. Also many Korean-Americans are involved in street gangs. Organized crime in Korea will forever be stained in their countries’ history. The first generation was portrayed as heroes, while the current generation is viewed as enemies of the state. No matter which way you look at them, they are a permanent element of Korean society, and are going nowhere anytime soon. 

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