The New Korean Mafia: Rise of the Backstreet Mobster

Korean gangsters showing their tatoos

While most of us will be familiar with their Japanese counterparts, the Yakuza, outside of Korea very little is known about the Korean mafia. Known in Korean as the Kkangpae, Jopok, or sometimes Geondal, the Korean mafia is thought to have a history that stretches as far back as the 17th century, although it was not until the 1960s that organised crime became more widespread. In recent years the Korean mafia have been popularised within Korea in films such as ‘A Bittersweet Life’, ‘Breathless’, and the series of comedy films ‘My Wife is a Gangster’, lending a dangerous, dark glamour to the gangster life.

But now a new breed of ‘gangster’ is emerging that the police and the media are terming the ‘backstreet mobster’ (golmok jopok). Working alone and threatening citizens and small businesses with violence, the backstreet mobster is increasingly becoming a social problem. [The police have released a YouTube animation entitled ‘What is a Backstreet Mobster?’ describing for the public exactly what a backstreet mobster is.] As this feature posted on Nate shows, netizens are highly critical of these criminals, with many agreeing that such people are simply thugs.

From Nate

They Take Money and Even Threaten People with Hand-Axes: The Many Faces of Backstreet Mobsters.

‘Fear of Reprisals’ Leads to Reluctance to Report Crimes, Encourages Damage…Reporting is the Only Way Forward.

Hey, X! Bring a bowl of dog stew over here!

Midday on July 6, when the summer rain was falling, pitter-patter. In a dog-stew restaurant in Shim-gok dong, in Bucheon city in Gyeonggi-do, ‘that guy’s voice’ resonates.

There is no one from the whole Shim-dong area in the restaurant who doesn’t know Mr.Lee (45), a well-built man who stands 180cm tall. On days when he can’t work because of the rain, Lee, who is a labourer, comes to this local restaurant, which is run by a single woman, and picks fights with customers for no reason, causing chaos at the restaurant.

When asked to pay for a meal that he has eaten of just over 10,000 won ($10), he curses unspeakable words at customers on the table opposite, and it is a daily occurrence for customers to leave the restaurant as though they are being pursued.

[His behaviour] is a real headache. It’s the first time I’ve seen a person like this. I’ve been working here for three years, but even the owner has said he doesn’t want to accept that man as a customer if at all possible. Because he’s harming our other customers.

Lee’s actions make the proprietors of the restaurant very angry, but they can’t deal with Lee directly, and think that ‘since the cost of the damage is not too high, and he is someone from our own neighbourhood, it’s enough if we just don’t let him in.’

While traders deal with him reluctantly, Lee’s tyranny has gone on for three years, and local restaurant traders have had to lose over 2,000,000 won in restaurant bills.

The traders at Suwon city Nammmun market have also been vexed over the past year because of ‘homeless Kkangpae‘ who use violence.

Mr. Song (47), who has eighteen previous convictions, sleeps rough in the Nammun area, ‘hasn’t been out of prison that long’, and threatens traders, saying, ‘I’m asking nicely so give me some money!’

He grabs fruit and vegetables that are on the market stalls and eats them to his heart’s content, and regularly intimidates people: ‘Give me five hundred (50c) or a thousand won ($1)!’

When the traders didn’t give them money or they couldn’t drink free alcohol, they flatly harassed people. As regards shouting inside the market and whether or not they use violence, on the 29th of last month one man threatened traders with a hand-axe he had obtained from a construction site and was even charged by the police for his actions.

If trying to appease them by asking them not to do it doesn’t work, then it has become very normal to report them to the police. Seeing as there are a lot of women here, they are frightened and worried that they might encounter them, so they can’t report them properly themselves.

The damage caused by these so called ‘backstreet mobsters’ who go around traditional markets or street vendor stalls taking money and using violence is at a severe level. These people, termed gangsters or mobsters, persistently bother merchants, but because the damage is only minor or perhaps because they fear reprisals, they hand over money a few times, but this can also encourage the damage.

A backstreet mobster caught on CCTV

A backstreet mobster caught on CCTV. Source

Actually, in Nongok-dong in Shiheung, people like Mr. Jeon (50), who runs a fishery, and nine other fishery owners like him had 4,200,000 won in total stolen from them by a man who said he would ‘report their illegal activities’ over a period of a month from last January.

Mr. Noh (59), who has fifty-three previous convictions including blackmail, said ‘Fisheries are a goldmine’ and explained that one fishery owner who had reported Noh to 112 [the number for the police in South Korea] and the city hall several times had given him 30,000 to 50,000 ($30 -$50) thinking that it would get rid of him.

No had also habitually threatened noraebang owners like this, but finally on June 5 he was put in prison.

Police ‘Wiping Out Retalliatory Crimes at the Source Through a Dedicated Police Hotline’

The police policy is to eradicate backstreet mobsters who are obstructing businesses by taking money and valuables and threatening violence.

While Gyeonggi police, who are stampng out backstreet mobsters together with drunken violence and organised violence, are operating 63 special investigation teams comprising 306 people, they are also increasing patrols in the vicinities of playgrounds and parks, and focussing on prevention.

Though the Gyeonggi police arrested 130 people in 2011 under the extortion and violence law, up to May this year they have already made 123 arrests.

They have also prepared strategies to protect those who report crimes.

From the stage of reporting a crime to preventing the outflow of information about those who report the crimes, there is a plan to protect the safety of those who report crimes and those who suffer losses through the ‘Review Committee For Prevention of Reprisals’. Furthermore, they are co-operating with self-governing bodies and citizen groups and are also implementing strategies to educate those who suffer losses and to prevent second offences.

Along with this the police are also asking that citizens actively report crimes.

A Gyeonggi police spokesperson explained:

If only we have citizen reports then the police can take affirmative action against the damage caused by backstreet mobsters in people’s lives.

He went on:

For citizens who are frightened of reprisals like harassment and so on, we intend to do our best to prevent reprisals through establishing dedicated officers and a hotline.’

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Comments from Nate


For the seven months that remain of the president’s term of office, if he fought against organised violence, drunken violence, gangsters, and school bullies, had a war against crime and cleaned up the government, then this would be a respectable acheivement worth the 22 trillion won more than the Four Major Rivers Project.


All the left-wing are real gangsters.


Seems like the law’s on their side, right? Stop that kind of scum. Try fighting fire with fire….It’s because of the stupid laws in this country. National assembly members, make some laws that make sense for once!


Why do we distinguish between gangsters and thugs based on their actions? ㅡㅡ ke ke I guess the difference is whether they’re a gangster or a thug, have a gang or not. No matter, they’re all just the same scum.


Difference between a gangster and a thug
Gangster: Doesn’t pick fights with normal citizens
Thug: Goes around behaving wildly like they were a gangster
Therefore, these guys are just run of the mill thugs on the street. Bastards.




I don’t know about other things, but this must be one of the things that President Chun Doo Hwan did well..Because of the Samcheong education camp where they tightened the screws on the thugs and several gangs after arresting them, I want to acknowledge that the crime problem kind of disappeared…[‘Samcheong education’ refers to the re-education of supposed gangsters at the notorious Samcheong camp under the rule of Chun Doo Hwan] They should arrest the gangsters and put them on a deserted island and let them fight it out amongst themselves like in the movie ‘Battle Royale’. Then the prick who comes first would be given the right to live happily in prison…Fucking hellCrazy sons of bitches


Honestly, most of that kind of person are originally from Jeolla province or their parents are from Jeolla province.


They’re scum, all different kinds of cunt-scum going around


Nowadays even in the health club I go to there are a few gangster bastards like that, and every time I shower they’re gathered there in a group snickering and swearing, giggling as they look you up and down, but seriously if those stupid gangster bastards are there alone, they’re completely silent, can’t even open their mouths. If those disgusting bastards get tattoos, do they think they’ll be frightening? Animal bastards.


Are the human rights commission seeing this?


Aren’t gangsters always like ‘What’s a life you live once? We only live once, do others live twice?’ The ignorant attitude that you can solve everything through violence is really a social ill.


Just kill yourselves! What are you living for?


Backstreet mobsters what a load of shit…they’re just thugs tut tut They assume that because someone is weaker than them they’ll just take it…but they’re not even worth the effort.


If even by reporting them reprisals follow, then…from the start make it so that they can’t take revenge; re-start the Samcheong education camp, these bastards deserve hard labour. We should make their lives hell


This is nostalgic for Chun Doo Hwan…This is, this is…..just so nostalgic, Chun Doo Hwan, sir.


Mobsters’ shitty neighbourhood, thug bastards’ neighbourhoods, even the thugs are embarrassed, so they don’t do this kind of thing. Freaks. Fuck off, scum.


Backstreet mobster bastards, chop off their wrists…..blind rats!


They’re from Jeolla, and no mistake.


Like shit they’re gangsters… They just like scummy neighbourhood thugs…


Shoot gangsters dead on sight!! They’re just human waste, scum; they don’t even have any purpose in an upright society.


Bastard human scumbags~ You bastards are worth even less than dog shit.

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  • makaveli-killuminati

    im old enough to go to war, but i aint old enough to drink

  • Eddie

    The biggest problem is that the police can’t be everywhere and stop every crime. Thank God I live in America, a land where ordinary citizens can buy guns. Let’s see some back alley thug try to extort my business for money. After I’m done with him, the cops will be picking him up with a sponge.

    • alex

      When guns are widely available, the back alley thug also has access to them… it’s a stalemate that escalates conflict and also makes room for nutters to go on killing spree’s… yeh give thanks for that.

      • Digitalsoju

        Yes, because criminals follow gun laws. If they want really want guns, they’ll find a way to get them anyway. You think Korean gangsters don’t have guns?

    • Reiss

      lolz, haven’t you heard about Walt Wawra, a policeman from Kalamazoo recently? Canadians made so much fun from USA presenting data that said there were 15 murders in 1.1 million Calgary and 14 in his own 75k city???

    • Ruaraidh

      Gun ownership increasing safety is one of the stupidest things I regularly read. If everyone is unarmed, you can still be killed but it’s fairly hard to do and it’s much easier to keep out of arms reach. If everyone has knives you could be killed much faster, but you still need to be within arms reach. If everyone has guns you could be killed very quickly and at a considerable distance.

      The amount of murders that take place in a society is a function of the propensity for violence and the capability of killing in that society. When you increase the level of armament of a society you will increase the capability to kill and hence the number of murders. No one is going to worry too much about whether the person they are about to rob/kill is armed, because first mover advantage with firearms is so much larger than with melee weapons.

      In your case here is how it would realistically work. Someone’s been in a few hours earlier and had a recce of your business, then they come in with a firearm ready and demand all your money. Either you make a fast movement for a weapon and get shot, or you give them the money.

      If it’s a regular extortion and you decide to be ready and waiting, you take first mover advantage and kill the interloper. Then a couple of days later all his gangster friends drive down to your house for a party you didn’t know you were having, and the next day the coppers spend their morning picking your body up with a sponge.

      • Eddie

        I’m sorry but I completely disagree with you. I say this because I was the victim of an attempted home robbery once. Four men broke into my house and tried to make off with my things. They stole money and electronics from my living room and then they started to break down my bedroom door. Luckily I had a pistol in my dresser drawer. I shouted warnings at them and told them I was calling the police, and when they didn’t stop, I fired two rounds through the door and they ran away.

        I have absolutely no doubt that my gun saved my life that day. If guns had been outlawed, I probably would have had to fight 4 robbers with my bare hands or a knife. I most likely would have been murdered in my own house. So you can spout off whatever hypothetical situation you want, but you are wrong. Guns do save lives.

        • Sunshinefiasco

          That’s anecdotal evidence at best and crap at worst. The most likely outcome is that if you’d had no gun you would have been robbed or maybe beaten and robbed. The reason you feel like they would have killed you is because a) it was traumatic, and b) in the US, most criminals have guns. Even if they had actually tried to kill you, it’s a much more uncommon breed of person that’s comfortable getting in someone’s face and stabbing them to death (typically a fairly involved process) versus pulling a trigger a few times from 5-10m away.

    • Stories of butts

      Oh goody, the good ol’ west will return to its Wild West days. We’ll be livin’ the golden age once more.

  • k

    Guns arent going to help…itll just make it that much easier to be gunned down by one of these punks…altho I think these guys r getting away with alot because they arent afraid to make a scene and koreans are frightened of people who r confrontational and loud in public…it seems the owners give in to save face when really they should be louder, meaner, and more threatening to the thug. If 5-6 korean guys gathered on one of these punks, he wont be doing it again.

    • Patrick

      And the police doing the great job they do, would probably confuse those 5-6 to be the gangsters.

    • Reiss

      They don’t have guns… To get the gun you have to know some ‘people’. Namely the real mafia guys around the town. They don’t know them and mafia poeple would simply get rid of them as they’d cause too much problem for them.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    Backstreet mobsters are a “cancerous presence” in society. They shaked dwon money from mechants and street vendors working hard from dawn to night.

    Those thugs and goons shoud be mopped out immediately with tougher punishment, if necessary through the enactment of a law stipulating harshier penalizing.

    A slap on thr wrist can cause those brazen offenders to commit another frowning-upon offence after serving their prison term.

    That’s exactly what is behind unwillingness in reporting by those suffering financial damage.

    Thus, the police’s swift establishment of a dedicated team and a hotline deserves applause.

    Kudos to the police!!

  • hun

    I clicked on this because i thought it was about actual mafia’s, and after reading, it has nothing to do with mafia’s. I’m disappoint. It’s just koreans robbing other koreans.

    “But now a new breed of ‘gangster’ is emerging that the police and the media are terming the ‘backstreet mobster’ (golmok jopok). Working alone and threatening citizens and small businesses with violence, the backstreet mobster is increasingly becoming a social problem.”

    Gangsters/mafia/mobsters work together to extort, even then they still protect you from other rivalries. What this article describes is just a thug/mugger/robber.

  • Ian

    “Mr. Noh (59), who has fifty-three previous convictions including blackmail…”

    Here is the real problem. Fifty-three convictions?!!?!? How is he not already in jail for LIFE!? If he’d been locked away, say after the twentieth conviction, I don’t think he’d be out on the street robbing people.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    To Hun

    I thinkr yo have misunderstanding about a new breed of gangster.

    This article describe as backstreet mobster a person who has criminal records but not affiliated with a bigger gang group.

    They does not protect traders and stores from rival gangs and just ask traders and restaurateurs of money or free meal by making a threantening fuss, thereby customers around quickly leave the place.
    This is a real disruption to a mom and pop store.

    The owners of stores disgruntingly pay troublemakers some money or give them free meals in a desperate bid not to offend other patrons or for fear of the new ganster’s threat materializing.

    Thus there is a noticeable distinction between habitual misdemeanor offenders and an organized gang that get ready to risk a life in a bloody battle using knives and guns.

    • hun

      Not a new breed of “gang”sters just extorting thugs.
      You can’t compare a bully to an organized crime.
      I was trying to say that the title and usage of words are misleading. You can’t become a “New Korean Mafia” or “gangster” riding solo, which this paragraph clearly states, “Working alone and threatening citizens and small businesses with violence, the backstreet mobster is increasingly becoming a social problem.” This article makes it seem like these new type of thugs are on the same level as gangsters when in reality, they’re just bullies with axes.
      Blown out of proportion.

      So why does this article mention mafia’s,yakuza’s and Kkangpae/Jopok/Geondal again?

      • Beth

        Hun, I see what you mean about the article being seemingly misleading. In fact, when I first came to translate it, I also thought it would be about the mafia in the jopok sense — ie “organised crime”. I mention geondal etc in my introduction because many of our readers may not know anything at all about organised crime in Korea. But the golmok jopok, the “backstreet mobsters,” are generally just people who act alone, and are probably more what we in the West might see as robbers or petty thieves. The interesting thing is, though, as some other commenters have correctly pointed out, is that these golmok jobpok are being perceived along the same lines as gangsters, not only by the media but also by those who commented on the original article. They are a new phenomenon, and I think that the element of fear on the part of people who encounter them for the first time is what makes people liken them to the mafia. That’s why I also included the link to the youtube video with the animation made by Gyeonggi police — they are trying to educate people as a means of empowering them to stand up to these bullies.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    To Hun

    You have a point to a degree.
    But the phrase” a new breed of gansters “cab be vindicated. Traditionally-and still valid- the organized gansters have hardly done such a silly thing as making a scene at restaurants in broad daylight as there is presumably a tacit rule saying that organized gansters jockey for dominance of nightlife entertainment. They do not normally interfere small businesses of ordinary people unless there are big stakes because such a disrupting action could put the organization as a whole in danger in a law-enforcing massive operation.

    In addition, categorizing the new variant into a bully is not enough. A bully ususally demands money from passers-by with violent threats on the streets, not in stores and restaurants.

    Thus the new criminals are in the grey area between a bully and a organized ganster, though I think they are closer to the latter;hence a justification of the somewhat eye-cayching phrase.

    • hun

      Let’s say there’s a guy that comes into a store every week to threaten the owner for money and food. Would you call him a gangster or something close to a mafia? No, he’s still a bully but with a weapon, better yet a robber. The reason these type of people aren’t considered mobsters are because they aren’t in an organized syndicate. They have no affiliation to anything or anyone thus bullies/robbers, they’re alone. It isn’t justifiable to even put them on the same latter as they are two completely different groups of people. One extorts,kills and has a blackmarket network, the other steals money and food. The Korean media/article is just exaggerating and over hyping the situation they are currently in when really it’s just a growth rate of bullies/robbers/thugs.
      To compare or mention these mediocre people to real gangsters is asinine.

      • hun

        It’s like comparing street gangs to mafia’s except this “backstreet mobster” is by himself which is even worse.*

  • mr. wiener

    What a bunch of loser wannabes, if they ever really created a public nuisance they’d have to hide from the real gangsters let alone the police. We have shit-heels like this in Taiwan too.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    Whether an analogy is persuasive depends on similarities drawn between comparing objects.

    In this case, in terms of intensity of violence or threat and group affiliation, the moeny- or food-extorting guys are closer to a bully or robber as you pointed out.

    However, frequent or regular appearances in certain places and types of their behaviors there place them closer to a new breed of gansters in ordinary Koreans’ mind.

    Although this sounds weird to non-Koreans, many Koreans will certainly see them closer to gansters when asked to place them between two categories.

    This may be attributable to movie scenes where many gansters makeca mess in and around stores.

    And robbers hardly get to places where they once stole things. it is rare to see bullies threaten bistro owners or street vendors here.

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움

    Finally, blatancy the new guys show in their threats anf acts far more similar to Korean mafia.

    Thus I think the analogu used here is tenable enough.

  • Cleo

    Give the money the gangster asks for to a desperate immigrant from Dongbei or North Korea to discipline the thug. It would be no different from hiring them to demolish a brick wall, right? If people can hire Mainlanders for very little money to commit acts of violence, why not use that discounted workforce against the thugs themselves.

  • Mirror On the Wall

    Wow not a single Korea bashing comment or generalizations on Koreans. I’m impressed. I thought this would be one of the perfect subjects to see the claims that Koreans are nothing but racist mobster gang criminals or something.

  • Stories of butts

    This just sounds like people robbing people…

  • 참을 수 없는 존재의 가벼움


    I am wondering how you, an awesome translator, learn how you learn the Koorean language.

    For me, Koreanbang is a pleasing source where I have been finding ways of thinking of Westerners, in terms of rhetoric in translation and and workings of their minds though I joined the forum not a long ago.

    Thanks to all of Koreabang translators and operators.

  • h3ll

    2 possible scenarios:
    -Real mafia will recruit them ,
    -Real mafia will kill them,because they hate people who pretend to be them.

  • KamenTeacher

    Street Punks and Korean Mafia members are two different story…. Korean Mafia don’t work in back alley…… Korean Mafia has own business, own business turf in Korea and Japan.. Those back alley mobsters in Korea are known to be debt collectors or loan sharks that works for Korean mafias………….

  • Korea21c

    Yes, Korean Mafia does exist. Korean Peninsula and Japan. Main Turf.

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