Country Risk

Organised crime groups in South Korea increasingly operating hybrid licit-illicit businesses, hampering law enforcement efforts

02 March 2018

Key Points

  • Despite strict laws and close monitoring, domestic organised crime in South Korea is evolving into hybrid businesses with licit and illicit operations.
  • This not only challenges law enforcement agencies in their attempts to stamp out organised crime in South Korea, but also means that foreign investors and operators face a higher risk of interacting with these firms.
  • In contrast, extortion is declining as a source of revenue for these groups, and intergang violence will probably continue becoming less frequent.


The ongoing diversification and sophistication of domestic crime organisations pose a reputational and legal risk to foreign operators and investors in South Korea.

Evolution of criminal groups

Organised crime groups have expanded across South Korea because of less stringent policing following the end of military dictatorship in 1987. In 1990, the government announced a “war on organised crime” and sharpened the laws and penalties pertaining to organised criminal activities.A general view of the Miari red light district on 31 March 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. (Jean Chung/Getty Images)A general view of the Miari red light district on 31 March 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. (Jean Chung/Getty Images)

The most recent publicly available study conducted by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO), published in 2006, estimated that 47,251 active members of 383 groups were operating throughout South Korea. The highest concentration of organised crime groups is in the capital Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, followed by the southeastern Gyeongsang region and the harbour city of Busan. According to the latest data available in the 2016 White Paper issued by the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), 3,160 people from 44 different criminal groups were arrested in 2015 (of whom 591 were incarcerated). The document recorded that 1,106 suspects were members of newly established criminal groups.

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