This will be a short post where I talk about my experience with the police in South Korea. Since it’s a short post, I also included what my former coworker, who is from Liberia, told me about police there.
I often think about something I read on facebook that stuck with me once. Someone was stationed in South Korea in the military. They claimed that South Koreans were much more afraid of police than Americans. A lot of this was allegedly because there were so many security cameras everywhere.
However, if you have ever been to South Korea, it’s immediately obvious this isn’t true. I spent a summer in Seoul when I was in college. Several times saw cops bothering someone for panhandling or public drunkenness, and passerbys would yell insults at and pick fights with the cops. Often times, if cop cars are trying to get by in back streets, pedestrians don’t move.
[If you want more on my time in South Korea, I wrote a post about healthcare I received there, compared to US healthcare]
I looked for English language sources that comment on the South Korean disdain and rejection of police, but they’re extremely hard to find, and I’m not sure why. But it is well-known within Korea. I had people acknowledge it to me out of the blue, not like it’s a matter of analysis, but something that’s immediately noticed. For example, in one of my study abroad classes – Korean Religions – the professor said to the class, “I’m sure you’ve noticed people don’t like police here.”
The way my Korean Religion professor explained it, there are several factors why. The two biggest reasons are, for one, the Korean police force traces itself back to Japanese occupation, and the police still carry a specter of Imperialist traitors because of that.
The second reason is, one of the police forces in South Korea is the Auxiliary Police. Someone can join this police force in place of their military service. It was originally created as a part-time, reserve police force in 1982, to help the current police, after the curfew was lifted in South Korea. From the end of the Korean War, until 1982, it was illegal to be outside between midnight and 4am.
The auxiliary police are like your regular beat cop that you might see strolling around, getting donuts, harassing a homeless person, etc. So imagine if most cops you just see on the street were also perceived as someone trying to take the easy way out of serving an otherwise mandatory military service.
As for Liberia, I don’t have first-hand experience, I’ve never been there. But I used to have a Liberian coworker who told me some info about cops in Liberia. He grew up in Monrovia, the capital, so maybe this tidbit is unique to there (I say all this to emphasize it’s from secondhand anecdotes).
But he told me that in Liberia, if a cop car with its sirens on is trying to pass through dense traffic, cars don’t pull over to let the police through. He said that if an ambulance or firetruck went by, they would certainly pull over to let them by, but not police.
He said the reasoning that people have is, the police are there to enforce the government’s laws. But if the government is unable t0 manage their traffic issues, then the people enforcing their laws have to do that too.
What we see from both of these is that, on some level, these societies see the police differently than Americans do. Sure, I gave a limited scope, but both the Korean and Liberian perspective depend on seeing cops, the government, and the general public, as three distinct parties with distinct interests.
They recognize that the government exists to preserve their interest. The police exist to protect those interests. The general public can, but usually doesn’t, have overlapping interests with the government.
However, in the US, all of those things are tied together. When a cop kills an innocent person, it’s often treated as if the cop if just one person, and the victim is just one person. They don’t signify any larger power structures. In the US, when a poor person calls a politician a douchebag or something at a restaurant, the media treats it like they’re on equal footing.
This post is a loose sketch of ideas, I don’t have more insight to add.