Prevalence, activities, and methods of operation of criminal organizations, including Chinese, Japanese, and Russian syndicates; government measures and their effectiveness in reducing the level of crime and protecting victims (January 2004 - March 2006) [KOR101074.E]

General Situation

According to the 7 March 2006 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit's security briefing on South Korea, the country is "one of the world's safest societies," and the risk posed by organized crime to foreign investors is "small." The briefing states that

[o]rganised crime as usually understood barely affects foreign business, with even the yakuza (organised crime networks) phenomenon much less pervasive than in Japan. It is possible but rare for a foreign firm to find its Korean partner subject to such pressures (Economist Intelligence Unit 7 Mar. 2006).

The security briefing goes on to say that the risk of extortion is very low and the risk of kidnapping, non-existent (ibid.).

However, other sources indicated that organized crime is a problem in South Korea (The Korea Times 23 May 2005; Yonhap 15 Mar. 2005). Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan has stated that violence by organized crime rings was "rampant" in his country (ibid.). By May 2005, the government estimated there were some 27,300 gang members in Korea, of which 1,700 were incarcerated (The Korea Times 23 May 2005).

According to The Korea Times, criminal organizations were increasingly turning to drug trafficking, as their traditional sources of income from bars, nightclubs, and loan-sharking were becoming more difficult to secure due to constant police monitoring and intervention (27 Dec. 2004).

There were indications that criminal syndicates were implicated in many makeshift loan-shark companies, some of which charge desperate borrowers interest rates of up to 700 per cent a year ( 16 Aug. 2005).

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), South Korea was one of several Asian nations that were considered a "key destination" of criminal organizations who trafficked women for sexual exploitation (23 Aug. 2005). Among the source countries were China, Russia, the Philippines and Thailand (Trafficking in Persons Report 3 June 2005). In its 3 June 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, the United States Department of State indicated that the South Korean government "fully complie[d] with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," and it praised South Korea for its efforts in prosecuting offenders and preventing trafficking, and for protecting victims.

According to the International Narcotics Control Security Report 2006 (INCSR 2006), the Republic of Korea "has become a transshipment location for drug traffickers due to the country's reputation for not having a drug abuse problem" (March 2006, Vol. I). However, the INCSR 2006 equally noted that measures taken by the government to combat the flow of drug trafficking through its borders have been "aggressive" and "proactive" (March 2006, Vol. I).

Despite reports that criminal organizations had associated with organized crime groups involved in human or contraband smuggling, among other activities, the INCSR 2006 claimed that the Republic of Korea "[was] not considered an attractive location for international financial crimes" due to the stringency of its foreign exchange controls (March 2006, Vol. II). For example, the September 2001 Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) criminalizes the laundering of money originating from organized crime, provides for the confiscation of criminal proceeds, and calls for imprisonment or fines for anyone receiving, disguising, or disposing of illicit money (INCSR 2006 March 2006, Vol. II).

Foreign-based Syndicates

In November 2005, a number of Korean media sources, citing a report produced by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), indicated that such criminal syndicates as Chinese triads, Japanese yakuza and Russian mafia were expanding in the Republic of Korea (Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005; KBS 24 Nov. 2005; Yonhap 24 Nov. 2005). The report indicated that the NIS had investigated 407 cases and had already arrested 2,640 gang members (ibid.). According to the NIS, Asian mobs cost the South Korean economy approximately US$5 million a year (Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005).

Chinese Triads

Mainland Chinese triads were reportedly involved in the trafficking of human beings and narcotics (ibid.; KBS 24 Nov. 2005) and were being assisted by local gangs (Yonhap 24 Nov. 2005). Hong Kong triads purchased luxury items with fake credit cards, an activity for which four members were charged in September 2005 (Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005). In March 2005, Seoul police arrested seven members of a Malaysia-based Chinese triad gang after they were caught buying expensive watches and purses with fake or stolen credit cards (ibid. 2 Mar. 2005).

Japanese Yakuza

According to the NIS report, Japanese yakuza were involved in various activities as they attempted to "set up bases of operation" and "expand [their] business" in the Republic of Korea (KBS 24 Nov. 2005; Yonhap 24 Nov. 2005). The Sumiyoshikai yakuza purchased a hotel, while members of eight yakuza groups, including the Yamaguchigumi yakuza, aided by Korean organized crime group members (Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005; Yonhap 24 Nov. 2005), attempted to infiltrate the financial and real estate markets (ibid.; Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005; KBS 24 Nov. 2005).

Russian Mafia

The NIS report also mentioned that "[t]wenty of the notoriously unsubtle Russian mafia gangs" were illegally involved in Korea's fishing industry (Chosun Ilbo 25 Nov. 2005; KBS 24 Nov. 2005; Yonhap 24 Nov. 2005). According to Russian Presidential Aide Sergei Prihodko, South Korean fishing companies were working with the Russian mafia to avoid paying tax on Russian fish products brought into Korea (Interfax 18 Nov. 2005).

Government Measures

In September 2004, South Korean police began a crackdown on the country's prostitution industry (Asia Pulse 6 Oct. 2004; Yonhap 10 Dec. 2004). Shortly afterwards, there was an apparent rapid decline of business throughout the country's red-light districts (Asia Pulse 6 Oct. 2004; Yonhap 10 Dec. 2004), although some brothel owners were thought to be risking severe sanctions by continuing to run their businesses (ibid.). According to Asia Pulse, brothel owners, whose profession is illegal in South Korea, "are usually linked with organized crime rings and bribe ... policemen" (6 Oct. 2004).

In December 2004, The Korea Times reported that Korean police had arrested 37 members of 10 different crime groups involved in drug smuggling, and had indicted 24 of them (27 Dec. 2004). The arrested gang members received jail sentences of 18 to 24 months (The Korea Times 27 Dec. 2004).

In May 2005, The Korea Times noted the arrest of 34 members of the Yonhap Saemaul-pa gang, including the gang's leader; police put an additional 43 members of the gang on a wanted list (23 May 2005). The gang, which was known to use violence, had approximately 100 members in Seoul, Kyonggi Province, and Taejon (The Korea Times 23 May 2005).

A joint team made up of police and prosecutors told The Korea Times in May 2005 that "[o]rganized crime rings these days pretend to be legal. We're doing all we can to dissolve them by tracing money flows and confiscating their illegal profits" (ibid.).

Given The Korea Times' assessment that the activities of organized criminals are a major factor in the level of violence in the Republic of Korea, the government announced in June 2005 its intention to monitor private loan markets and mergers and acquisitions to catch potentially illicit elements posing as legitimate businesses (ibid. 14 June 2005). The government also indicated that it would set up a rewards program to encourage Koreans to report allegations of organized criminal activity (ibid.).

On 19 December 2005, The Korea Times reported the arrest of 31 members, including the leader, of a gang known as the Eagles Group; an additional 24 members were "put on the wanted list." The Seoul-based gang was suspected of extorting money from businesses, including construction companies, using threats to secure its own construction contracts and using violence against those who opposed its money-making activities (ibid. 19 Dec. 2005). The gang apparently acquires its newest recruits from the middle and high school student gang network Ilchinhoi, of which there are said to be approximately 400,000 members in the country (ibid.).

Information on government measures used specifically to protect victims of organized crime could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Additional information on organized crime in the Republic of Korea and the government's response prior to 2001 can be found in a paper written by Yong Kwan Park, the director of the First Prosecution Division, Prosecution Bureau of the Ministry of Justice for the Republic of Korea, which is posted on the Website of the United Nations Asia and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (UNAFEI) (Yong 5 Apr. 2002).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Asia Pulse. 6 October 2004. "Police Crackdown Targets Seoul's Red-Light Districts." (Factiva)

Chosun Ilbo [Seoul]. 25 November 2005. "Asian Mob 'Taking Over Korea.'" (Factiva)

_____. 2 March 2005. "South Korean Police Arrest Seven Malaysian Triad Members." (Factiva/BBC Monitoring)

The Economist Intelligence Unit. 7 March 2006. "South Korea Risk: Security Risk." (Factiva)

Interfax. 18 November 2005. "Russia Wants S. Korea to Cooperate in Fight Against Poaching." (Factiva)

International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2006 (INCSR 2006). March 2006. Volumes 1 and 2. "South Korea." United States Department of State. [Accessed 3 Apr. 2006]

JoongAng Daily [Seoul] ( 16 August 2005. Kim Joon-sool and Jung Ha-won. "Lending Group Trying to Get Rid of Loan Sharks." (Factiva)

Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) [Seoul]. 24 November 2005. "Int'l Gangs Setting Up Bases in Nation." (Factiva)

The Korea Times [Seoul]. 19 December 2005. Lee Hyo-sik. "31 Gangsters Arrested." (Factiva)

_____. 14 June 2005. Kim Rahn. "Online Video Clips to Receive Ratings." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2006]

_____. 23 May 2005. "34 Gang Members Arrested." (Factiva)

_____. 27 December 2004. Bae Keun-min. "37 Gang Members Smuggle Drugs." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2006]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) [Prague]. 23 August 2005. Ron Synovitz. "World: Sex Traffickers Prey on Eastern Europeans." [Accessed 23 Aug. 2005]

Trafficking in Persons Report. 3 June 2005. "Republic of Korea (Tier 1)." United States Department of State. [Accessed 24 Mar. 2006]

Yong Kwan Park. 5 April 2004. United Nations Asian and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (UNAFEI). "Transnational Organized Crime and the Countermeasures in Korea." 116th International Training Course Visiting Experts' Papers. [Accessed 24 Mar. 2006]

Yonhap News Agency [Seoul]. 24 November 2005. "Spy Agency on Alert Against Foreign Organized Crime Groups." (Factiva)

_____. 15 March 2005. "Gov't Declares War on Circulation of False Rumors." (Factiva)

_____. 10 December 2004. Lee Chi-dong. "Crackdown on Prostitution Revolutionizes Sexual Morality." (Factiva)

Additional Sources Consulted

Internet Sites, including: Amnesty International (AI), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), British Journal of Criminology [Oxford], The Economist [London], European Country of Origin Information Network (ECOI), Foreign Affairs Canada, Freedom House, Global, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Korean National Police Agency (KNPA),, Interpol, Organised Crime Registry, Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United States Department of State, World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems.