The Invisible Hands Behind South Korea’s Errand Men

Human Rights

In the middle of the night, Rumi is woken up by a noise outside. Dozens of ‘errand men’ in blue vests and white helmets start smashing the window of her fried chicken restaurant with metal pipes. In no time, they break inside and drag her out. She resists fiercely. Meanwhile, Rumi’s mother, furious, gets into a car and charges at the men but fails to hit them. As they yank her out of the vehicle, she hits her head on the ground and loses consciousness. She dies a few hours later.

Psychokinesis, a tragicomedy released on Jan. 31, depicts privately hired security guards using violence against ordinary citizens, and the normally-invisible hands directing the guards. The movie is based on Seoul’s infamous Yongsan Incident. In 2009, construction companies working on ‘redeveloping’ parts of the city’s Yongsan district hired private security firms to forcefully evict residents and shopkeepers. In a confrontation between residents, guards and police, the temporary structure where residents were holding a sit-in protest caught fire, killing six people.

News report of the Yongsan fire in 2009. 

In South Korea, privately hired security guards, called yongyeok (‘errand men’), have been commonly used to drive out residents and business tenants from areas marked for redevelopment. They raid protest sites without warning, frequently covering their faces with masks to hide their identities. Their frequent violence has prompted some to label them ‘outsourced gangsters.’

Yongyeok are also often seen at labor strikes. Compared to workers in Japan and Taiwan, those in South Korea have relied more heavily on strikes to express grievances at employers. In recent days, such protests by irregular workers have been on the rise.

Irregular workers — employees on fixed-term contracts, often with no job protection or union membership — have been forming unions of their own, which companies often refuse to recognize. In return, the workers have taken to holding sit-ins as a last resort.

Read: “Assault Case in Ulsan Highlights Labor Hierarchy”

For employers, yongyeok have become an easy solution to the problem of protesting workers. Hired men not only forcefully break strikes but provide temporary labor to make up for personnel shortages. Over the last two decades, large corporations like GM Korea, E-land and SK Hynix have all deployed yongyeok in response to strikes. 

Perhaps the best-known example is that of Ssangyong Motors. In 2009, the company dismissed around 1,000 regular employees as part of its restructuring plan. Fired workers occupied a factory for 76 days in the city of Pyeongtaek, a 90-minute drive from Seoul, demanding reinstatement. Management locked the protesters inside and an army of yongyeok prevented outsiders from passing in food and water. NGOs and civic organizations heavily criticized the firm for violating workers’ human rights.

“They don’t treat us as human beings. They stamp on us and beat us with clubs,” a union member told In-depth 60 Minutes, a South Korean TV show that focuses on investigative journalism.

Companies can easily deflect blame by describing the strikes as illegal and justifying use of force by yongyeok as a form of self-defense. In some cases, yongyeok will even goad protesters into using violence.

“We provoke the protestors first. If they fight back after being beaten up, we take the video as evidence and pass it on to management,” an anonymous yongyeok told In-depth.

Yongyeok tussle with vendors who refuse to relocate to a new building at Noryangjin Fish Market last April. Read about the background here

Government figures have often condoned the use of violence by yongyeok, who join forces with police to manage property disputes, trespass claims and labor strikes. Conservative administrations under Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) regarded strikes as threats to business stability and took strong measures to subdue them. Under the Park administration, labor activists were routinely arrested and punished. Yongyeok were seen as a necessary partner of government in dealing with disobedient workers.

The use of yongyeok has become routine enough to spawn its own industry, with thousands of businesses. According to an exclusive by daily newspaper Kyunghyang, in 2009, two security companies that dispatched yongyeok to break protests staged against Ssangyong motors respectively earned 6.2 billion won ($5.8 million) and 2.1 billion ($1.9 million) won in less than six months. A simple search on Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine, yields multiple results about different yongyeok services.

Read: “Jae-gaebal: Resisting Seoul’s Brutal Apart-ization”  

Recently, the government has begun taking steps to curb aggressive yongyeok behavior. The Moon Jae-in administration that came to power last May assured the public that the government would not arbitrarily intervene in peaceful protests.

Moon, a human rights lawyer from the center-left Minjoo Party, appears more sympathetic towards labor rights than the past two presidents. He has increased the minimum wage by 16.4 percent, while maximum working hours are due to be reduced to 52 per week, from the current limit of 68.

The change in government has had other positive effects. Since Moon came to power, there has been more freedom of peaceful assembly. A general labor strike on Jun. 30, 2017 proceeded with no reported clashes; under the previous Park government, the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Han Sang-Gyun, was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal assembly following a series of rallies in 2016 that resulted in violent clashes with the police.  

While this change is praiseworthy, it is not yet time to celebrate. On Nov. 15, 2017, around thirty yongyeok appeared at a strike site in the southeastern city of Changwon. Irregular workers of GM Korea had been holding a sit-in protest for two months to challenge their mass dismissal. GM Korea has been suffering from a drop in both home market sales and export revenue. The company is planning to shut down its factory in Gunsan, in the south-west of the country, and cut thousands of jobs in the long run; recently, almost 2,500 GM Korea workers applied for a redundancy package

This was the first time yongyeok had emerged at a strike scene under the current government. On Jan. 10, they appeared once again, this time numbering an alarming 200, though they did not clash physically with GM workers. Although the current government appears to be pro-labor, it remains to be seen whether it can stop companies and police hiring yongyeok, or prevent the abuses so often associated with the errand men.

Yongyeok companies argue that they are legitimate businesses. But critics say many companies are connected to organize crime, and know full well that violence can be part of the job description. The South Korean government has yet to assume responsibility for providing a safer environment for citizens to protest against more powerful entities, be they companies, government or even landlords evicting tenants.

“This is not a fight we can win.” In Psychokinesis, Rumi’s father, Seok-heon, urges his daughter to give up protesting as a group of yongyeok marches in to evict Yongsan residents. Eventually, Seok-heon stops the yongyeok violence using psychokinesis, a skill he magically develops. It’s a surreal twist (spoiler alert) that ends in tragedy: When the head of the construction company threatens to kill Rumi, Seok-heon backs off. All residents get evicted and Seok-heon is sent to prison for possessing a ‘secret weapon’ from North Korea.  

The movie is a cynical critique of South Korea: The human rights abuses aren’t just about the violent yongyeok, they’re caused by the shady connections between services and employers, and the lack of regulations that allows the violence — a reality for which even psychokinesis is no match.

 

Cover image: A scene from the movie Psychokinesis. (Source: Psychokinesis trailer)

Shin Mijoo received a master’s degree in comparative politics from London School of Economics. She is interested in social movements and government-business relations. Her work appeared in Korean Political Science Review.