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World & Nation

S. Korean errand men operate in shadows

In South Korea, they’re known as “errand men”: hired street muscle who play often-violent mercenary roles in property disputes that law enforcement agencies refuse to handle.

Their ranks are filled by physically fit young men who, critics allege, lurk in the gray area of the law, using violence and intimidation to assert the will of clients such as landlords, businessmen and even the government .

A Seoul government ward office recently has resorted to using yongyeok, errand men, to chase away illegal street vendors from a popular tourist district.

As police looked on, scores of intimidating men converged on a quaint cobblestone street in the popular Insadong area. In one incident, captured by TV news cameras, about 250 burly men knocked over carts, spilling traditional candies, hot snacks and handmade souvenirs onto the ground as female vendors wailed and cried.

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Several street merchants were thrown to the pavement — one elderly man was later taken away on a stretcher — as the melee descended into an old-fashioned street rumble. Shoppers looked on dumbfounded.

“How can you do this?” one female vendor shouted. “People are lying on the street!”

Nationwide, there are 3,000 yongyeok companies specializing in property disputes and trespass claims that police insist they’re too busy to handle. Though many errand men claim to be legitimate businessmen who operate within the law, critics say others have connections to organized crime and resort to any means to evict a tenant or scare off vendors, often labeled squatters.

As South Korea launches major urban redevelopment projects, yongyeok have been used by developers to scare off poor tenants in low-income housing to clear the way for profitable, high-rise buildings, detractors say.

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In 2009, landlords in the Yongsan area of Seoul used errand men to harass restaurant owners who refused to relinquish their businesses to make way for a high-rise apartment building. Later, police officers stormed a building where activists had barricaded themselves and a subsequent fire killed four protesters and a policeman.

“The government has realized that it’s not a good idea to clash with everyday citizens over these profitable redevelopment projects, so they hire someone else to do the job,” said No Gi-deok, president of the Korean Coalition for Housing Rights. “South Korea has a bad reputation over these forced evictions, and the government is just turning its head. It’s absolutely embarrassing.”

Police share the blame, he said.

“In many of these incidents, [police] assume the attitude of an onlooker,” he said. “Many of these residents have just claims, but the police won’t acknowledge them. They treat residents as though they have no rights.”

For business owners, yongyeok are an expedient alternative as overworked police draw the line at becoming involved in civil disputes.

“So people seek other means,” said Brendon Carr, a Seoul attorney. “It’s like going to the mob, in a way.

“You pay a price to get someone to do what the government won’t do for you; for some it’s considered justifiable and unavoidable,” he said. “But what often results are instances of harassment and thuggery from which there is often little protection.”

When police fail to act, Carr said, the only recourse left to victims injured by yongyeok is to sue the errand men in civil court.

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Kim Oh-hyeon, a local government ward official here, said he negotiated with 76 vendors in Insadong for months before deciding to take action. When police declined to assist in relocating the vendors, Kim paid a yongyeok firm $20,000 a day for its services, or about $80 per errand man.

“The vendors wouldn’t listen to reason,” he said. “We had to show them we had a strong will to pursue this.”

Cheon Seong-hyeon, a spokesman for the National Police Agency, said the force has limited resources to handle such matters.

“The job of the police is to protect people from danger and threats, not to confiscate illegal carts,” he said. “Only when there is illegal activity or violence will the police move in.”

When told about yongyeok violence against so-called squatters in Insadong and Yongsan — incidents captured on video as police stood by — Cheon said anyone injured by yongyeok can sue in court. “Then the police will conduct a thorough investigation.”

Park Seung-min, whose yongyeok company handled the Insadong contract, insisted that he does not break the law.

“My firm is different from illegal yongyeok companies, which hire people to do violent things,” he said. “We try to be as nonviolent as possible.”

When asked about injuries to vendors, Park said such incidents are unavoidable.

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“When 250 men go to work, random things can happen,” he said. “Because they are human, they might have a burst of emotion or get worked up when people curse at them.”

Yongyeok violence has even featured in Korean pop culture. Last month, a well-known artist published a cartoon strip depicting a college student who works as an errand man to pay his tuition.

Bar owner Carmen Lee says she has endured real yongyeok intimidation first-hand. Since a dispute with her landlord, she says, she and her terminally-ill daughter have been harassed.

“These tough guys peer inside the bar window and yell at customers to bully them and make them scared.” She said she was hit with a bottle opener and assaulted by one man.

Lee reported the incidents to police but has seen no letup. So she installed a surveillance camera in her bar to collect evidence and has developed a network of friends she can call at night when she feels outnumbered or intimidated.

“My daughter is my weakness. If I want to keep my business, I know I have to be strong, but I’m often alone,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.”

For months, Insadong street vendor Sohn Byeong-cheol, who sells red-bean paste pastries, thought he had a lucky charm against yongyeok violence. Sohn, 54, and his wife are deaf and mute, and he was once singled out by President Lee Myung-bak for his hard work despite the physical challenges he faces.

With his cart bearing the president’s signature, Sohn figured the yongyeok would leave him alone. But this month, several errand men surrounded his cart, hauling it away and turning it over to the city.

A newspaper photo here showed Sohn squatting on the pavement, wiping away tears of frustration, unable to call out against his attackers, who have vowed to keep up the pressure until the vendors give up their spots.

“I’m afraid of them,” Sohn wrote in response to a reporter’s question just days before losing his cart. “I’m always aware. Because I know they’ll come back.”

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.


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