Korea Must Beware of Growing Crime by Foreigners

      May 19, 2011 13:59

      At Columbus Park in the middle of New York's Little Italy, Chinese senior citizens practice Tai Chi in the morning and spend the afternoons playing Mah-jong, while Mott Street, which was the scene of the mafia movie "The Godfather," has been taken over by Chinese street vendors. Little Italy had long been the home of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the early 20th century, but now that symbol of Italian-American heritage has been mostly absorbed by Chinatown, and only a handful of Italian restaurants remain on Mulberry Street to the south.

      In the 19th century, a wave of Irish immigrants was followed by Jewish and Italian immigrants, and their arrival led to the rise of gangs who sought to protect their own groups. The decline of Little Italy mirrors the demise of the Italian mafia. But even the feared Chinese triads in Chinatown are unable to handle a Vietnamese gang called "Born to Kill." Hardened by the Vietnam War and brought to the U.S. among the boat people, these gangs do not fear death and have a reputation for viciousness.

      Ethnic Koreans from China started arriving in Korea in the late 1990s and settled in the Garibong-dong area of Seoul. There a gang from Yianbian, China clashed with one from Heilongjiang in 2000 and was pushed out. But in 2004 the Yianbian gang regained its dominance. Police estimate there are some 2,000 Chinese gangsters in Korea who are part of 16 groups linked with either of the two gangs. They are involved in gambling, prostitution, illegal smuggling, telephone fraud and drug trafficking.

      More recently, Vietnamese gangs, including a gang from Hanoi, have been increasing their clout. They open gambling parlors near factories and engage in loan sharking, prostitution and violence. Gangs from the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh are also active. There are 1.26 million foreigners in Korea including illegal residents. Last year more than 9,000 foreigners were arrested on charges of murder, theft and other serious crimes.

      A police crackdown that ended early this month led to the arrest of 1,249 foreigners and 79 indictments. Most cases involved extortion and violence. And the foreign gangs are seeking to join hands with organized Korean crime. It is only a matter of time before they expand their reach into Korean society. The country needs to think twice about welcoming foreigners without proper screening. There has to be a system of background checks and records of visitors. Without it, Korea could be headed toward a dangerous future.

      By Chosun Ilbo columnist Oh Tae-jin

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