The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Could Korea’s gun control offer any lessons?

Strict regulations on firearms lead to virtually no gun violence in Korea; prevalent reluctance among police officers to pull trigger

By Choi Jae-hee

Published : June 22, 2022 - 14:47

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Demonstrators hold placards as they take part in March for Our Lives, one of a series of nationwide protests against gun violence, in Washington, DC, June 11. (Reuters) Demonstrators hold placards as they take part in March for Our Lives, one of a series of nationwide protests against gun violence, in Washington, DC, June 11. (Reuters)

A police officer in South Korea is awaiting punishment after he lost his bullet holder with six rounds of ammunition in it on May 18. 

The incident, belatedly revealed to the media, made headlines, as he belonged to a special police unit in charge of security services for the office of President Yoon Suk-yeol in Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Criticism ensued over the police‘s lax management of firearms and slack discipline. In the aftermath, the police unit’s leader was replaced on Wednesday.

This, perhaps, is an example that demonstrates how different Korea and the US are when it comes to gun control. 

Gun violence rare in Korea

Most South Korean men are trained shooters, having gone through mandatory military duty. But due to a strict gun control policy, there have been far fewer mass shootings here like those we see so frequently in the US.  

The most recent case that could be described as gun violence was the fatal shooting in April of a taxi driver who was urinating near Bukhansan in Seoul by a registered hunter who mistook him for a wild boar. 

“Why was the hunter allowed to use a gun in the middle of a city? No civilians should be allowed to do that,” read a comment on an online news article. Other comments requested that the government tighten the hunting license system and better protect citizens.

According to local laws on the safety management of guns, swords and explosives, only authorized personnel in security-related fields, including police officers, soldiers and security guards protecting government figures or foreign delegates, can be in possession of firearms.

Competitive shooters, manufacturers and sellers of firearms, and those who need them for construction work or as a prop in movies and plays can get gun permits. 

Other than these examples, only licensed hunters are allowed to carry guns. 

There were about 35,000 hunters who passed the rigorous qualification process and now possess a hunting rifle, according to government data from 2021.

The 10-step process involves completing two major requirements -- a hunting license and a gun ownership permit.

An applicant must take a state-authorized written test, followed by training sessions at authorized shooting ranges or other institutions designated by the government. 

Applicants must also take a medical checkup at a general hospital to verify that they do not have any disqualifying conditions. Mental or drug-related issues will deprive the applicant of access to guns.  

Next, they need to get a gun ownership permit that is issued by the police. 

Even after purchasing a gun from local dealers, hunters are not permitted to keep it at home. Except during the hunting season in Korea, which usually falls between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, they are required to store it at the police station.
Police officers patrol around the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on May 22. (Yonhap) Police officers patrol around the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on May 22. (Yonhap)

Police guns just for show? 

Koreans think of guns as something that only police officers or soldiers can handle.

But even police officers have limited access to lethal weapons.  

Police officers can only carry a gun when they are on patrol, are dispatched to respond to a report, or guarding important government officials. Once they return to their base, they are obliged to place the gun and bullets in a top-security storage space within the police station. 

The law allows police officers to use firearms to protect citizens and themselves, but in practice, they rarely use them. Even in violent crimes, civilians are generally not expected to carry guns, so an officer‘s use of a lethal weapon tends to face major scrutiny for it to be justified.

A 43-year-old police officer at Seoul Hyehwa Police Station’s guard division said officers are reluctant to use guns.  

“When it comes to gun use, many of us fear that lawsuits may be filed by suspects who get shot. Also, past cases where police officers were disciplined for firing the service weapon have made us prefer tear gas guns or stun guns,” the officer surnamed Yeom told The Korea Herald. 

A study released in April by a joint research team from Dongseo University and Hansei University supported Yeom‘s views. 

The study, based on interviews with 25 police officers working in Incheon, found that officers were reluctant to pull the trigger because of the “negative views of the media and the public toward the use of force by the police,” “civilian complaints,” “prospects of legal troubles” and “fear of facing disciplinary action.”

Bullet shells (123rf) Bullet shells (123rf)

Soldiers comb ground for bullet shells

Soldiers in the country’s armed forces are also subject to strict firearm control measures. 

All soldiers are required to collect their empty cartridges after each rifle drill. One spent shell means a soldier has fired a shot. 

The practice of keeping track of every shot fired is aimed at “reducing risks of accidents caused by concealment of live ammunition,” an official at the Defense Ministry said. 

“If a soldier loses a bullet, he should submit a letter to the unit managing firearms explaining why. He won‘t be punished, but his commanding officer’s reputation could be damaged,” he said. 

Loopholes remain

Despite tough oversight of firearms, a black market is still in operation. 

Between 2018 and June last year, there were a total of 138 illegal transactions of firearms, according to Rep. Park Wan-soo of the ruling People Power Party, who cited data from the National Police Agency.

An NPA official said some of them may have been smuggled into the country. 

“Also, we can‘t exclude the possibility that some may have come from American forces stationed in Korea. There could be various illegal channels,” the official said. 

A 2009 report from SBS showed police confiscating a cache of military items held by an illegal dealer in Seoul, including firearms with “Property of US Government” written on them. 

In 2017, a man was arrested for attempting to rob a bank with a gun, which police assumed to be a remnant of the 1950-53 Korean War. He reportedly found the weapon in a cellar of an acquaintance more than 10 years ago. 

Every year since 1972, the Korean police have run a nationwide campaign to encourage those who own guns illegally to voluntarily turn them in. The monthlong campaign is held twice a year, in April and in September.

During this period, police don’t ask where someone got the weapons and do not pursue criminal charges. Under the current law, the illegal manufacture, sale or possession of firearms is punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years or a fine of up to 100 million won ($77,400). 

By Choi Jae-hee (