After negotiations to relocate street vendors failed earlier this month,… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Seoul — 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."