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In South Korea, vigilante-paparazzi patrol the streets

It's not starlets they're after -- they want neighbors or shopkeepers who commit small crimes because these 'gotchas' get them reward money. 'It's shameful work,' one says.

February 15, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — With his dapper red scarf and orange-tinted hair, Kim Rae-in is a card-carrying member of the "paparazzi" posse, cruising across Seoul on his beat-up motorcycle on the lookout for the next "gotcha" moment.

He's not stalking starlets or pop singers. He's after the real money-making snaps: the slouching salary man lighting up in a no-smoking area, the homeowner illegally dumping trash, the corner merchant selling stale candy to kids.

The former gas station attendant isn't choosy. Even small crime pays big time -- more than $3,000 last month alone, he says. "It's good money. I'll never go back to pumping gas. I feel free now."

The skinny 34-year-old is among a new breed of candid-camera bugs across South Korea -- referred to as paparazzi, though their subjects are not the rich and famous, but low-grade lawbreakers, whose actions are caught on film that is peddled as evidence to government officials.

In recent years, officials here have enacted more than 60 civilian "reporting" programs that offer rewards ranging from as little as 50,000 won, or about $36, for the smallest infractions to 2 billion won, or $1.4 million, for reporting a large-scale corruption case involving government officials. (That one has yet to be made.)

The paparazzi trend has even inspired its own lexicon.

There are "seonparazzi," who specialize in pursuing election law violators; "ssuparazzi," who target illegal acts of dumping garbage; and "seongparazzi," who target prostitution, which is illegal in South Korea.

Amid the nation's worsening economic crisis, officials say there are fewer government investigators to maintain public order. So they increasingly rely on a bounty-hunter style of justice.

Many paparazzi are out-of-work salary men, bored homemakers and college students who consider themselves deputized agents of the South Korean government.

To meet a growing demand, scores of paparazzi schools have sprung up nationwide, charging students $250 for three-day courses on how to edit film, tail suspected wrongdoers and operate button-sized cameras.

Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, schools estimate that 500 professional paparazzi now work in South Korea, where most celebrities still walk the streets unhindered.

But not for long -- at least one paparazzi academy is offering a course in stalking well-known people.

Few officials question the ethics of arming a citizenry against itself with zoom video and long-range lenses.

"They don't violate any laws, so there's no reason to restrict them," said a National Tax Service official, who declined to give his name. "They don't infringe on others' private lives, do they?"

Yet many believe these furtive photographers are doing just that. Some paparazzi students say they hate ratting out their neighbors, but the money is too good to resist.

"It's shameful work -- I'm really not proud of it," said one student who declined to give her name.

Said another, who also asked to remain anonymous, "Let's put it this way: I don't want to be called a paparazzi; I'm a public servant."

Experts say most South Koreans would rather look the other way when it comes to petty infractions.

"In Korean culture, we don't want our neighbors spying on us," said Park Heung-sik, public policy professor at Seoul's Chung-Ang University. "In elementary school, when a classmate reports on another's bad behavior, there's bad blood. A student might get beat up. It's the same with adults."

Paparazzi school administrators remain unapologetic.

"The paparazzi critics are usually the ones who are breaking the law," said Moon Sung-ok, head of the Mismiz Report & Compensation School in Seoul. "The clean ones, the innocent citizens -- they have no problems with us."

Shin Gi-woong used to own a sushi bar; now he runs the Posang Club paparazzi school, with its logo featuring the cross hairs of a gun's scope in the "o" of Posang.

The 38-year-old got involved in the trade after a car accident in 2002 with a driver he says made an illegal U-turn.

That gave him the idea to document such accidents. For years, he was a "car-parazzi," cruising for traffic violations, until the government outlawed the practice.

So he shifted gears. He started nailing store owners selling outdated candy to children. He busted jewelers and pharmacists who didn't give receipts (as required by law). He nabbed a political candidate for taking a free meal, also verboten.

Then in 2004 he started the Posang Club. He stocked his closets with inexpensive cameras and shirts and blouses that featured hidden cameras in their buttons. He put his shingle out for students.

Shin teaches his wards that upholding the law is the important thing. "Money doesn't come first," he said.

But for student Kim Rae-in, it's all about the cash.

Kim focuses on merchants who don't offer receipts, and he often uses a small video camera hidden inside a black bag the size of a shaving kit that he keeps under his arm.

He chooses his cases by instinct, doing Internet research on store sales volumes before hopping on his motorcycle each day. He sends a DVD of his evidence to the proper government agency and collects his cash in a few days.

He says he plays by the rules, and so should everyone else. "People don't abide by the law anymore because they know there aren't enough investigators," he said. "That's why paparazzi emerged. These crooks get what they deserve."

Kim demonstrated his camera inside a small convenience store. Later, the 27-year-old clerk said she wouldn't be angry at Kim if he busted her for not handing out a receipt.

But it wouldn't necessarily end her life of small crime.

"It would teach me a lesson," Jang Eun-hye said. "Then I'd know I'd have to be more careful next time."

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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