The modern Seoul police as an organization descends directly from the Imperial Japanese colonial police forces which policed the Korean population during the colonial period. In recent days, we have seen some things about the modern Seoul police which may possibly be attributable to this institutional legacy, such as its strong conservative political orientation (to the point of acting to shield the Yoon government from responsibility for the Itaewon Halloween crowd crush), and its prioritization of monitoring crime over crowd control.
Indeed, it could be argued that institutional continuity with Imperial Japanese institutions ensures that some cultural attributes from Imperial Japan are difficult to erase from the police force, despite years democratic liberalization and reform. To explore this further, I’m sharing two articles, one from 1943 and another from 1944, which give us a glimpse into what Seoul police culture was like during the colonial period.
But before I delve into the articles, here is a passage from p. 38 of The Korean War by Max Hastings to provide additional context:
The suspicions of many Korean Nationalists about the conduct of the American military government were redoubled by the fashion in which the National Police, the most detested instrument of Japanese tyranny, was not merely retained but strengthened. It was the American official historians of the occupation who wrote that “the Japanese police in Korea possessed a breadth of function and an extent of power equalled in few countries in the modern world.” The 12,000 Japanese in their ranks were sent home. But the 8,000 Koreans who remained—the loyal servants of a brutal tyranny in which torture and judicial murder had been basic instruments of government—found themselves promoted to fill the higher ranks, while total police strength in South Korea doubled. Equipped with American arms, jeeps, and radio communications, the police became the major enforcement arm of American military government and its chief source of political intelligence. A man like Yi Ku-bom, one of the most notorious police officers of the Japanese regime, who feared for his life in August 1945, was a year later chief of a major ward station in Seoul. A long roll call of prominent torturers and anti-Nationalist fighters under the colonial power found themselves in positions of unprecedented authority. In 1948, 53 percent of officers and 25 percent of rank-and-file police were Japanese-trained. By a supreme irony, when the development began of a Constabulary force, from which the South Korean Army would grow, the Americans specifically excluded any recruit who had been imprisoned by the Japanese—and thus any member of the anti-Japanese resistance. The first chief of staff of the South Korean Army in 1947 was a former colonel in the Japanese Army.
Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo) August 13, 1943
Vowing to unite the people and the police
Patriotic group leaders hold roundtable discussion
“Recently, the leaders of the town council have not been well educated. We would like to have more qualified people on board”. “It’s a little too much to ask a female patriotic group member to work a night patrol position”. These were the first words uttered by the people at the “Urban Police Roundtable Discussion” organized by the Jongno Police Station, which was held to listen to the honest opinions of the fighting people of Seoul, to promote the unity of the police and the people, and to stabilize the lives of the people. The police station held the round-table discussion to listen to the voices of the fighting people at Whimoon National School in Anguk-dong, Jongno-gu from 2:00 p.m. on August 12, inviting more than 50 leaders from the patriotic groups and town councils in the area.
Following the national State Shinto ceremonies, Director Sano gave the following admonition: “We cannot win the Greater East Asia War unless the police who serve as the eyes and ears, and the people who serve as the hands and feet, completely fuse together and raise up all their strength”. The High Police Commissioner Okamura issued a warning regarding counterintelligence, irresponsible rumors, and fabricated lies. After this, they moved on to the round-table discussion session, where they frankly exchanged opinions on an open and friendly basis.
The people’s voices exploded incessantly trying to clearly express their feelings, with many people sharing their candid opinions, such as “The police officers do not show enough humanity towards the people as things are now,” and “We want more sincerity from our leaders”. The meeting was adjourned after 4:00 p.m., with the participants firmly pledging to work together as one for a concerted effort on the home front.
The roundtable discussion meetings will be held in each district (gu) until the end of September, and from now on, the Urban Police Roundtable Discussions will be held every Thursday and Saturday in order to listen to the voices of the people and to strengthen home front security.
Photo: at the round-table discussion
Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo) April 25, 1944
Reinforcing the principle of “trust, reward, and punishment”
Police Chief Oka: “Still Not Enough Self-Restraint by the People of Seoul”
The regular press conference with Police Chief Oka was held at 11:00 a.m. on April 24 in his office. Oka gave examples of recent police administration, self-restraint and public morals at entertainment venues, urban defense measures, and urban evacuation plans in response to questions from the press. First, he praised Sergeant Otani’s “pure heart,” citing the example of a man from the underworld who tried unsuccessfully to bribe the police in the cotton cloth case, and then said, “Recently, the police administration has been strengthening the principle of trust, reward, and punishment.”
◇．．．To produce good police officers, training is need. At the dōjō (military-style training center) in Aobachō, about 80 people are trained at a time for four days. Six hundred have already completed the training, but we will continue until all of them have participated. We are also planning to have the executive level officers of each police station participate in the training, and to extend the training to all local police stations. We can say that the effectiveness of the training is close to 100%, judging from the feedback that we have received from the participants.
◇．．． Enforcing self-restraint is a very difficult problem. The first-class restaurants were reduced in size by one-third to become smaller counter-style restaurants, but this has not been going well. We are working on a solution to the problem of ‘carrying women’. The problem of the public morals with respect to laid-off and unemployed kisaeng and female waitresses cannot be ignored. The number of “women of the underworld” in the back streets of certain districts is said to be increasing dramatically, but before blaming the women, we would like to urge the public to reflect on this issue as well.
◇．．．The number of visitors to Changgyeonggung on Sunday was said to have reached 60,000, so we cannot say that the people of Seoul are restrained. Of course, these leisure seekers may be representing only a small portion of the population, but I would like the public to reflect on this issue more.
The police are determined to thoroughly crack down not only on women at entertainment venues, but also on offenses against public morals in general. After this admonition, Police Chief Oka spoke about urban defense measures and urban evacuation plans, and the press conference ended shortly after 1:00 p.m.
Patriotic Groups (JP: aikoku-han, KR: aeguk-ban, 愛國班) were neighborhood cells which functioned as the local arm of the Korean Federation of National Power (国民総力朝鮮連盟, 국민총력조선연맹), the single ruling party of colonial Korea. Every Korean living in Korea belonged to a Patriotic Group. It typically consisted of a few households, led by a Patriotic Group leader, who normally acted as a mini-tyrant micromanaging the lives of everyone within the Patriotic Group. That included things like rationing food and goods, enforcing mandatory State Shinto prayer times and shrine visits, ‘volunteering’ laborers upon the colonial government’s request, arranging marriages, holding mandatory Japanese language classes, spying on ‘ideological criminals’, etc.
See also: The Korean War by Max Hastings, available on the Internet Archive.