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[Eye] Being a responsible man

South Korea's police chief discusses destiny as an officer, controversy over violent protests, future of Korean police

Men in uniform were the objects of pure admiration for Kang Sin-myeong, South Korea’s police chief, who now commands more than 140,000 police forces across the country.

Recalling his childhood when money, not his grades, was an issue for him to enter prestigious universities in the capital city of Seoul, Kang said he may have been destined to become an officer. He was offered to study at the Korean National Police University, an elite school established to nurture young police officers with four years of full scholarship.

Kang Sin-myeong, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Kang Sin-myeong, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Competition was high at the state-funded national university as fellow students were all eager to become servicemen in uniform with certain beliefs that they would make the country a safer place to live in. The military-styled school offered intensive courses on law, public administration, ethics and physical education, all essential for becoming a police officer with knowledge and virtue. In their free time, Kang and his friends even studied English to broaden their perspectives by reading English newspapers.

Things were different, however, after he graduated.

His first job was to command a small unit of riot police between 1986 and 1988 when the nation’s pro-democracy movement peaked along with the confrontation between the people and police.

“For me, the most difficult time was when I was at the forefront of the demonstration (watching) the people’s demand (for democracy) and the duty of the police (for maintaining social security) colliding,” Kang told The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul.

People took to the streets to show their determination in resisting the iron-fist rule by the military general-turned-president Chun Doo-hwan. The reality was harsh as the rallies sparked bitter, bloody clashes, causing massive damages on both sides.

“Overall, (South Korean society was experiencing) the transition to democracy at that time … so there were a lot of conflicts on such issues such as the police’s duty,” he said.

Almost 30 years have passed since the nation achieved full democracy. The problem of violent protests, however, still remains unresolved.

The use of force by police, as well as the violent culture of street demonstrations, was hotly debated after an antigovernment protest on Nov. 14 ― arranged by the nation’s second-largest umbrella union ― turned violent.

Expressing his regrets for the serious injury of a farmer during the protest, the commissioner general said that the case reflects the need to establish a fresh demonstration culture that both the police and the protesters keep their lines in accordance to the law. Antigovernment protestors and civil groups have since upped their demand for the police to guarantee a peaceful demonstration, claiming that their right for resistance is guaranteed by the constitution. The police have been rejecting it, saying that holding a peaceful rally is just an ethical concept to justify their actions that violate the law.

“Occupying the street peacefully, holding an unregistered street parade peacefully and making noises peacefully that causes discomfort to the people? This cannot be tolerated in an advanced country,” he said.

“The police have guaranteed the right to hold rallies and parades so far, and will indefinitely to do so as long as they are kept within the boundary of the law.”

Highlighting that Korea today is a free democratic state, Kang contended that Koreans are not living in a military past anymore when the people’s right of resistance was justified in the name of democratic struggle. “During the democratic struggles in the past, the right of resistance was recognized to a certain extent. … But today in an advanced and a free democratic country, this should not be the logic (for holding illegal rallies).”

“If the people want to make their voices heard, they should strictly observe the law first. Then the police wouldn’t have to engage in conflicts,” he said.

Born in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, in 1964, Kang built his career specializing in intelligence and public safety. Named by President Park Geun-hye in August last year as the nation’s 19th commissioner of the Korean National Police Agency, Kang was the first graduate of KNPU to take the top place. He previously served as a presidential secretary for social security affairs and the commissioner for the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, one of the regional offices under the KNPA.

Throughout his service in police for nearly 30 years, Kang has witnessed the dramatic changes ― both structural and quantitative ― within the Korean police.

Launched in 1945, the police agency had only 15,000 officers in 145 stations across the country, it now has more than 140,000 officers rotating around 251 stations. Beyond the manpower, the developments in equipment, vehicles, investigative methods and software have modernized the Korean police. Changing social values and developments in human rights also shifted the police’s focus from traditional crimes to child abuses, domestic and school violence.

For the future, the Korean police is seeking ways to better prevent crimes by utilizing the nation’s scientific advancement, and to increase the people’s participation in securing public safety, according to Kang. The government has injected R&D investment in the police sector to better cope with new criminal cases in cyberspace and to introduce highly advanced scientific methods to solve cases. A smart police car is being developed, Kang said, noting that this technological transition will allow officers to identify suspects right away by fingerprint identification or DNA tracking system installed in the car without having to go back to the science lab in nearby stations.

In preparation for Korea’s unification, Kang said the police have been devising ways to maintain the unity between people from South and North Korea. Another focal point is to protect North Koreans first, he said, if there is a collapse of the reclusive regime. The important element of public security is to maintain the level of security equally throughout the peninsula, he said.

For more than a year, Kang has been leading the police, stressing “responsibility” as a core value of the police.

“I believe that we are all responsible for pursuing a faithful life, and do our best for our family and the people around us,” he said.

“(In this respect), being a responsible person is important for every police officer because the police department is an institution that is responsible for the people’s safety and security,” he said, reading out his motto written in calligraphy on the wall of his office.

For junior officers who may question the future of the Korean police, Kang advised them to never give up on gaining the people’s trust and have a sense of pride in serving the people.

For decades, the Korean police has faced the daunting task of eliminating its past image as a guardian of dictatorships, as well as securing the institution’s political neutrality.

“Gaining the people’s trust and getting closer to the people ― this will forever be our goal.

“The police should try to get closer to the people by responding promptly to the people’s call at times of urgency,” said Kang, adding that being a friendly police is not about providing unpaid services like helping a car driver who runs out of gas.

“Of course, the police should be more open to the people, friendly and fair. But saving the people from crimes and other dangerous situations is what we are here for.”

By Cho Chung-un (

Staff reporter Ock Hyun-ju contributed to this article. ― Ed.
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