The godfather of Chungchong pro-vince, south of Seoul, certainly loves his cutlery. Last Aug. 13, the day Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stirred Korean anger over his country's wartime past by visiting Yasukuni Shrine—a notorious symbol of Japanese militarism—13 of Cho's men sent a message to Tokyo. Draped in Korean flags, they knelt on the ground in Independence Park in Seoul and each laid a pinkie finger on a flat, wooden scything board. As television cameras rolled, they lopped off the last joint, wrapped the bloody stubs in a Korean flag and headed off to present them to the Japanese embassy. Police stopped them and confiscated the severed digits.
It may have seemed like a bizarre, one-off media moment, but in recent months, gangsters like Cho have been intruding into Korean public life with disturbing regularity. A long-running influence-peddling scandal in Seoul has yielded a steady stream of revelations about unsavory ties between gangsters and politicians. One of the biggest shockers came in October when the eldest son of President Kim Dae Jung was forced to admit he had met at least twice with the powerful mobster-cum-political-fixer at the center of the scandal. Koreans nervously laughed off the finger-cutting protesters as nationalistic nitwits, but they were more alarmed by allegations of shady backroom deals between gangsters, law enforcement officials and politicians close to the President. Yeo Un Hwan, the mobster who met the President's son, is now under arrest. Yeo allegedly tried to bribe politicians and prosecutors to help prominent businessman Lee Young Ho, now in jail on charges of embezzlement. A newly appointed special prosecutor started interrogating Lee and Yeo last month and is now quizzing prosecutors suspected of corruption. One lawmaker has dubbed the scandal "Gangstergate."
All the same, many Koreans remain enthralled by their wiseguys. The myth of the noble mafioso may be badly frayed in most countries but Korea's gangsters—or "fists," as they are called—are still folk heroes. (The term comes from a traditional preference for fist fights—not until the 1970s did Korean gangsters move up to sashimi knives, and guns are still rare.) Fists are the subject of best-selling books, and most of last year's hit movies were gangster flicks. In real life, most mobsters make their living from extortion, prostitution and gambling. But films about the underworld tap into nostalgia among the older generation for a simpler Korea when loyalty, sacrifice and respect for hierarchy counted for more.
Godfather Cho has done as much as anyone to burnish the image of the gentleman gangster. He has had 21 books published, mostly thinly disguised autobiographical screeds with rosy depictions of gang life. Of course, the books are pure pulp—a sample chapter heading from one 382-page tome: "Oh, Finger Cutting! Such a Bittersweet Glory"—but readers lap them up. His Son of the Fire sold 200,000 copies. Cho chopped off his own pinkie in public in 1974 after an ethnic Korean gunman from Japan shot the wife of dictator Park Chung Hee. Called danji (finger chopping) the gesture was immortalized by independence fighter Ahn Jung Geun, who in 1909 swore to assassinate Japanese political leaders, writing the oath in blood from the stump of his severed finger. (Japan's yakuza also cut off their own digits, but that's usually to atone for blunders.) Cho's idol is Kim Du Han, the legendary gangster who battled the yakuza during Japan's colonization of the peninsula: "He was 100% nationalist." Cho is helping the families of the men who lopped off their pinkies last August. Some of them are still on the lam, sleeping in abandoned houses in the mountains. (A local police officer says the men are wanted for extortion and other crimes, not for finger cutting.)
The godfather is coy about Gangstergate and his own political connections, although he says he has received requests to "help out" in this year's presidential race. Politicians, he says with disgust, "use you and then get rid of you." Mobster Ahn Sang Min says he, too, has been approached by politicians seeking to fix the December election. Ahn, more menacing than dapper in olive sports jacket, black turtleneck and white slip-ons, is best known for ordering three murders—the last one while in prison. (He says he's now counseling young people.) Gangstergate? "They can't touch the big gangsters," Ahn says, "they are too well connected to the political power."
The scandal has already badly bruised President Kim: despite his announcement of a nationwide crackdown on organized crime, his party got thrashed in critical October by-elections. Newspapers and opposition politicians have hinted for months—without providing evidence—that Yeo was trying to bribe pols in the President's party to help a businessman from Cholla province, Kim's home region. Yeo was convicted a decade ago of running the biggest gang in the Cholla city of Kwangju.
Shadowy figures like Yeo have sparked concern about the growing influence of what Koreans call "political gangsters," powerful godfathers who mingle easily in business and political circles. The media never fail to point out that Yeo also comes from Cholla, an underdeveloped region famous for its gangs. Oppressed by Korea's previous military governments, Cholla politicians and gangsters got to know one another, sometimes in prison. The gangsters acted as bodyguards and did other favors for pols, says Kim Kyu Hun, head of the Seoul district prosecutor's violent crimes division. When President Kim's party came to power, the fists crawled out of the woodwork. "Now," the prosecutor says, "they want the favors returned."
There is no evidence the President's son, Kim Hong Il, himself a legislator, broke the law. His crime may be the company he keeps. Ahn says Cholla's pols should have stopped meeting gangsters once they became important figures in government: "What's the public going to think? If you remain friends with fists, they are going to ask you for favors." Koreans may root for gangsters in the movies, but nobody wants to see the fists getting their hands on real power.