SEOUL, South Korea — With his debts mounting and his wages barely enough to cover the interest, Im Hyun-seok decided he needed a new job. The mild-mannered former English tutor joined South Korea’s growing ranks of camera-toting bounty hunters.
Known here sarcastically as paparazzi, people like Mr. Im stalk their prey and capture them on film. But it is not celebrities, politicians or even hardened criminals they pursue. Rather, they roam cities secretly videotaping fellow citizens breaking the law, deliver the evidence to government officials and collect the rewards.
“Some people hate us,” Mr. Im said. “But we’re only doing what the law encourages.”
The opportunities are everywhere: a factory releasing industrial waste into a river, a building owner keeping an emergency exit locked, doctors and lawyers not providing receipts for payment so that they can underreport their taxable income.
Mr. Im’s pet target is people who burn garbage at construction sites, a violation of environmental laws.
“I’m making three times what I made as an English tutor,” said Mr. Im, 39, who began his new line of work around seven years ago and says he makes about $85,000 a year.
Bounties have a history in South Korea; for decades, the government has offered generous rewards to people who turn in North Korean spies. But in recent years, various government agencies have set up similar programs for anyone reporting mainly petty crimes, some as minor as a motorist tossing a cigarette butt out the window.
Snitching for pay has become especially popular since the world’s economic troubles slowed South Korea’s powerful economy. Paparazzi say most of their ranks are people who have lost their jobs in the downturn and are drawn by news reports of fellow Koreans making tens of thousands of dollars a year reporting crimes.
There are no reliable numbers of people who have taken up the work since governments at all levels have their own programs, but the phenomenon is large enough that it has spawned a new industry: schools set up to train aspiring paparazzi.
Moon Seong-ok, 64, runs a school that trains would-be bounty hunters. “Koreans’ character of being impatient and constantly in a hurry makes them commit a lot of infractions, such as running a red light, changing traffic lanes illegally, cutting in line and throwing cigarettes,” he said. “As long as this Korean trait exists, paparazzi will have a good business.”
The outsourcing of law enforcement has also been something of a boon for local governments. They say that they can save money on hiring officers, and that the fines imposed on offenders generally outstrip the rewards paid to informers. (The reward for reporting illegal garbage dumping: about $40. The fine: about 10 times as much.)
For most infractions, rewards can range from as little as about $5 (reporting a cigarette tosser) to as much as $850 (turning in an unlicensed seller of livestock). But there are possibilities for windfalls. Seoul’s city government promises up to $1.7 million for reports of major corruption involving its own staff members.
In a country where corporate whistle-blowing is virtually unheard of — such actions are seen as a betrayal of the company — turning in neighbors can also carry a social stigma. Mr. Im has not told his parents what he does for a living. But like many others in his line of work, he says he had little choice when he started tracking petty crimes.
Bang Jae-won, 56, an eight-year veteran of the trade, said he felt proud of the times he caught people dumping garbage at a camping site or exposed marketing frauds, one of which once bankrupted him. “I regret the early, desperate days when I reported the misdemeanors of people as poor as I was,” said Mr. Bang, who turned to this work after he was told he was too old by prospective employers.
“I don’t tell my neighbors what I do because it might arouse unnecessary suspicions,” he said. “But, in general, I am not ashamed of my work. To those who call us snitches, I say, ‘Why don’t you obey the law?’ ”
Critics, however, say the reward program has undermined social trust. “The idea itself is good, but when people make a full-time job of this, it effectively privatizes law enforcement and raises ethical questions,” said Lee Yoon-ho, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Paparazzi usually develop a specialty, for example, going after hakwon, or private cram schools, that charge more than government-set prices. The Education Ministry has paid $2.9 million to paparazzi since 2009, when it began relying on bounty hunters to help tame the ballooning cost of private education — a particular burden for citizens in a country laser-focused on educational achievement.
Called hak-parazzi, these people disguise themselves as parents and approach hakwon managers to ask about prices. They secretly record their conversations with hidden video cameras.
Hakwon owners hate them. “The government unilaterally sets unrealistic prices and then unleashes paparazzi in a witch hunt,” complained Cho Young-hwan, a vice chairman of the Korean Coalition of Hakwon. “This is deeply humiliating and anti-education.”
Ju Myong-hyun, an Education Ministry official in charge of the program, said: “We don’t say this is the perfect approach in a democracy. But we will maintain it until hakwon clean up their act.”
Mr. Im, the former English tutor, warns that despite his high earnings, few others make enough to be full-time paparazzi.
“People have a mistaken notion that to be successful, paparazzi must dress and act like spies and use super high-tech gear,” said Mr. Im, who runs a popular blog under his paparazzi alias, Song Mung-suk. “But what matters the most is to work and think hard.”
In 2005, he noticed that virtually all coin-operated coffee machines in Internet game parlors he visited lacked proper sanitary inspection tags. So he called hundreds of Internet parlors, telling them, “I left my wallet near your coffee machine,” to find out which ones had such a machine. He compiled a list and reported all of them, collecting $2,600.
There can be abuses. Paparazzi say some colleagues cut separate deals with big corporations that are guilty of infractions and fear government fines and bad publicity.
Mr. Im said that some businesspeople had deployed him against competitors, like the pharmacist who urged him to report a drugstore next to his for hiring an unlicensed pharmacist. (He did.) “Once, someone asked me to report an illegal restaurant inside a national park,” he said. “It turned out that the guy himself was running an illegal restaurant right next door.”
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