The drunken man banged the door of his cell in the police station with his knee. He ripped the padding off the walls, throwing shreds and spouting curses at the police officers outside the bars, who ignored him as if such rampages were part of their nightly routine.
Such scenes, captured on police security videos shown on television, are common in South Korea. They say much about that society’s acceptance of heavy drinking and about the peculiar relationship between the country’s citizens and their police.
Almost every night in almost every police station lockup in Seoul, drunken men — and sometimes women — can be found abusing officers verbally and even physically, as a widely tolerated way of banishing anger. They usually are allowed to sleep it off and go home, their punishment no more than a small fine.
“They consider the police station a place to let off steam,” a police superintendent, Park Dan-won, said. “They consider us pushovers.”
Now the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has decided that enough is enough.
In May, large banners went up around the city announcing a crackdown on drunken violence. It is intended to prompt the drinking public to behave more responsibly, to reassert police authority in a country that remembers, resentfully, when the police served as henchmen for Japanese colonial masters and military dictators, and to challenge South Korea’s general tolerance of misbehavior by the intoxicated.
In Seoul last year, nearly 77 percent of those charged with obstruction of justice — like abusing public servants — were drunk at the time. But in only 15 percent of such cases did the police seek to hold the offender for any length of time, and they succeeded in only half of those cases because of judges’ and prosecutors’ traditional leniency toward people brought before them on drunken offenses.
“We hesitate to use force against unruly drunken citizens because then we’re likely to face charges of police brutality,” said Cho Tai-il, senior police inspector in the Guro district of Seoul.
Since the police campaign began, the police have arrested nearly 230 serial offenders — individuals who had been investigated an average of 26 times, but arrested only occasionally, over various offenses they committed while drunk, including hampering the police in the course of their duties.
Many South Koreans, who work some of the longest hours in the world, believe that one of the quickest ways of building friendship and office camaraderie is to get drunk together. “He who drinks more works better” is a common saying here, and the working person’s drink of choice is often “the bomb,” a shot glass of soju, the local grain liquor, added to a glass of beer. The concoction is then downed in unison by all around the table to shouts of “One shot!” or “Bottoms up!”
According to the World Health Organization, South Koreans rank No. 13 in alcohol consumption over all but No. 1 in hard liquor consumption. A Korean Alcohol Research Foundation survey in 2010 found that about 44 percent of college students said they had experienced blackouts from excessive drinking.
“A problem with the way South Koreans drink is that they drink fast to get drunk fast,” a foundation official, Chang Ki-hwun, said. “In a society with a strong collective mentality, people are not trained to say no to coercive drinking.”
It is also cheap to get drunk in South Korea. A 360-milliliter bottle of soju, about 12 ounces, costs about 1,200 won, about $1, at ubiquitous all-night stores. Young celebrities like the Olympic figure-skating champion Yuna Kim appear in liquor advertisements. On television, some celebrities brag about how much they can drink.
On weekend nights, it is easy to find besotted men, some in suits and ties, vomiting or sprawled in the subways or on the street. (Some take off their shoes and glasses and sleep using their briefcase or a concrete curb for a pillow.) They are such a fixture of Seoul’s night life that there is even a blog about it: Black Out Korea.
Choi Jeong-wook, an assistant police inspector in the Yeongdeungpo district of Seoul, said 80 percent of the work at his station involved dealing with drunks, like the elderly man who was brought in on a recent Friday night for punching another man in a fight over a woman.
At one point, the man grabbed an officer by the collar and pushed him against a wall. He was released, and police officers expect he will get a small fine. People at the station said he boasted of having already been fined a total of four million won, an estimated $3,500, for drunk and disorderly conduct offenses.
During Japan’s colonial rule, from 1910 to 1945, Koreans resented the police for working with the Japanese authorities. After Korea’s liberation, many officers ran the national police force, which formed the front line in suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations.
After the country’s democratization in the late 1980s, the relationship between citizens and the police was upended. Fear of officers was replaced with an attitude of “citizens are your boss.”
In the busy Sinshon district on a recent night, a jaywalking man blocked a police car, kicked the bumper and pulled the antenna, challenging the “jjapsae” — derogatory Korean slang for cops — to a fistfight while amused pedestrians watched. The officer urged him to go home.
“We’re not asking people to fear us,” Inspector Choi said. “We’re just asking them not to abuse us.”
Some South Koreans, though, accuse the police of continuing to act as a tool of the politically powerful. Kwon Kyung-woo, an online columnist and a critic of the police crackdown on drunks, many of them jobless or homeless, said it reminded him of the old military dictatorships, when disorderly citizens and petty criminals were taken to brutal re-education camps in the name of “social purification.” He argued that the police had found an “easy target” in drunken miscreants to divert people’s attention from economic troubles and corruption scandals implicating associates of President Lee Myung-bak.
Not everyone agrees. When officers took a drunken man from the 7-Eleven outlet, the store’s manager, Yang Seung-guk, praised the police for finally doing their job. “He demanded free liquor,” Mr. Yang said. “When I said no, he lay down on the floor, talked to the A.T.M., kicked the trash can and drove the customers away. Good riddance.”