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K-Pop and K-Cops? South Korea Hopes to Export Policing Model

FILE - A fan of K-pop idol boy band BTS poses for photographs with cut-out of BTS at a pop-up store selling BTS goods in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 24, 2019.
FILE - A fan of K-pop idol boy band BTS poses for photographs with cut-out of BTS at a pop-up store selling BTS goods in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 24, 2019.

South Korea's police force has overcome a troubled and sometimes violent legacy in order to build trust with citizens. Now it's trying to export its crime-fighting practices across the globe.

South Korea's K-pop music and film industry are some of its best-known cultural products. But the so-called "Korean Wave" also includes the country's police forces — known as K-cops.

The Korea National Police Agency (KNPA) says it has a lot to offer countries that want to improve their law enforcement systems. In 2015, the KNPA launched the K-cop program to share that knowhow and has worked with overseas partners in 110 nations.

"It's a way for us to collaborate with other countries to fight international crime," said the KNPA's chief of international cooperation, Yeo Tae-su. "The international border system has been weakened, so we need to work together to stop things like drug trafficking, terrorism and other organized crime."

Through the K-cop program, the KNPA holds workshops for visiting law enforcement officials and dispatches KNPA officers overseas for training projects.

Yeo tells VOA that most of the agency's partners are interested in enhancing their cybercrime investigation capabilities.

The agency describes some of its capacity-building initiatives as "smart policing," which relies heavily on technology-based systems. That includes surveilling the internet for illicit videos or suspicious activity, as well as using a network of closed-circuit television cameras to monitor areas where crimes have been reported.

Yeo adds that partners can also learn from South Korea's own experience of building up its police force over the past 70 years.

"After the Korean War, everything was destroyed here and we needed to rebuild all of our society's systems," he said, noting that South Korea received assistance from the United States and some European countries in that process.

"Developing countries can look toward South Korea today as a model to improve their own systems," Yeo said.

Overcoming 'awful reputation'

South Korea's police force hasn't always been seen as a good model.

Michael Breen, author of the book The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, tells VOA that the KNPA had an "awful reputation."

He explains that during South Korea's Cold War-era military dictatorship, the national police force "became the most anti-Communist agency in government" and was tasked with quelling student-led pro-democracy movements, which authorities often labeled as sympathetic toward North Korea.

Some rallies would "get out of control" with students hurling Molotov cocktails and pieces of concrete at the riot police, who in turn fired canisters of tear gas at the protesters, said Breen, who reported for British and American newspapers in the 1980s. "It made Korea look like a war zone."

And if students were apprehended by the police, any rules regarding the treatment of detainees were "either non-existent or ignored," he said.

The torturing to death of a student activist in 1987 at the hands of the police is widely credited with sparking the democracy movement that compelled the country's leadership to call for free elections later that year.

Breen says it was at this point that the KNPA determined that it needed to "win the trust" of the people and it gradually implemented reforms to prevent further clashes with citizens.

"The police years ago realized the students were violent because of their own tactics," he said. "Now the whole nature of protests has changed."

'Human rights code of conduct'

In late 2016 and early 2017, millions of South Koreans took part in weekly demonstrations against former president Park Geun-hye, which eventually led to her removal from office. Despite the large crowds and presence of thousands of riot police, the rallies remained peaceful.

Choi Ji-eun, who participated in the so-called "candlelight movement," says she never felt threatened by the police during those rallies.

Because of the history of protests "the government wouldn't dare use violence" against demonstrators now, said the 32-year old, who works for a research institute in Seoul. "I felt the crowd and riot police developed empathy for each other."

In June, the KNPA took further steps to right some of the wrongs of its past when it adopted what it calls a "human rights code of conduct" that the agency says is meant in part to honor its activist victims from decades ago and foster a better "understanding" between officers and civilians now.

"Protests in South Korea have become peaceful. There's a mutual respect between the demonstrators and police," said Kim Jin-hyung, a KNPA security and safety official.

Non-violent crowd control practices are something that South Korea's K-cops can teach overseas partners, too, says the agency's Yeo Tae-su.

"We haven't had any requests to provide riot police training, yet," Yeo said. "But we'd be happy to offer it to any other country."