Cheese it, the morality cops!Military time: 2130. One by one, middle-aged men in fatigues approach a trailer with a green and black camouflage design near Ujang park in Gangseo district.
The men are former marines.
People who pass by the boxy edifice peer at the incongruous group of 20 men with wide-eyed curiosity.
“Look at those soldiers,” an elderly man tells his grandson as they walk past the container unit. “Could you salute like they can?” The little boy tries to imitate a military salute by raising a small hand.
From a distance these marine veterans appear intimidating ― even a tad fearsome. But up close the group members’ wrinkled brows belies much worry of serious harm. Most of the men are in their late 40s or early 50s. At least one veteran’s hair has turned white, and he seems to be missing several teeth. Some of the most senior corps members are Korean War veterans. Regardless of age and appearance, these ex-marines’ pride is displayed on their chest ― a crisp green and black military uniform, with red name tags affixed to the left breast.
Lots of people have noticed these trailers scattered about Seoul’s parks, or in vacant corners of side streets. They may have even seen their chase vehicles’ red-and-blue roof lights flashing as they whiz down the city’s boulevards. But it’s fair to say most folks don’t know who these guys are.
You might call the Korean Marine Corps Veterans Association a sort of morality police, as their primary assignment is to protect teenagers from exposure to crime, sex and violence. Each of Seoul’s districts, including Gangseo, has 25 such platoons.
“Not many people have seen us but we’re not here to take credit for what we do,” says Yoon Cham-mo, general secretary at the Gangseo office. “We’re here to keep our community safe; our job is not to arrest but to simply keep things in order.” Marine veterans must agree to patrol at least three nights a week, according to Mr. Yoon. They have been a volunteer force in Korea for 10 years.
“We’re not doing this because we want to get recognition,” patrol member Park Jae-hong says. “Most of the expenses come from our own pockets, but it’s our duty and because we’re proud of being a marine.”
Most of the ex-marines balance their nighttime patrol work with daytime jobs. Occupations vary from an interior designer to clothes shop owners to a legislator’s secretary.
After a brief report and salute, the patrolmen swiftly pile into two vans. Their mission: to patrol off-the-beaten-track areas where teenagers are most likely to engage in indecent or unlawful behavior. “We stop underage [youth] from drinking alcohol, having sex, smoking and sniffing butane gas,” which acts as a hallucinogenic drug, patrol captain Kim Jong-su explains.
Patrols of 41-square kilometer (16 square mile) Gangseo district usually get underway by 9 most evenings and wrap up by 2 a.m.
The old-timers get a boost in manpower on Saturdays, when greenhorns fresh from military duty arrive for a joint patrol with the police to bust taverns and beer hofs which illegally allow teenagers to quaff brews.
The volunteer corps also participates in other community safety projects, such as managing a safe driving campaign and escorting tipplers to hospitals in emergencies.
During a pass through a small park, the marine contingent amble beside a pond, coming upon a family of ducks.
“Do you think that duck has an owner?” one marine asks.
“I suppose so,” says another.
“Do you think we should eat them?” another marine jokes.
Before long, nearly all of the marines have focused their attention on the waterfowl. But Mr. Kim, the group captain, stays alert for activity by Homo sapiens, particularly the younger members of the species.
“Stop looking at the ducks!” Mr. Kim commands his troops, eyeing a distant corner. “Isn’t that a couple over there?”
In seconds the marines move swiftly toward two figures huddled in the dark.
It is only a few seconds before the platoon swoops down on the affectionate couple, who are so stunned to find themselves surrounded by the former marines that they make no attempt to stand on their feet.
The scene: a high school girl squeezed between her boyfriend’s thighs. There are two empty beer cans beside them.
“How old are you kids?” Mr. Kim inquires. “It seems like your girlfriend here is still too young to be drinking, eh?”
The boy denies that the beer can belongs to them. But he’s no match for Mr. Kim, who commands “Give me your student ID!”
Within moments, the corps have identified their suspect as a Seoul National University student. Standing before the couple, they interrogate the hapless students.
Under pressure and perhaps a hint of fear, the college lad finally breaks down and confesses to all charges. Yes, his girlfriend was a high school student, and yes they were drinking beer ― and yes, he was aware she was not old enough to drink booze. Nineteen is the legal age for drinking in Korea.
The marines issue a warning to the tipsy teens and tell them to go on home.
The couple were not the night’s only underage drinking bust. Like hunters flushing wild turkeys from the brush, the ex-marines seem to find raffish boys with beer bottles in hand ― and swift feet ― all over.
Later on, the patrolmen converge on a neighborhood of cheap motels and bars, and pull up alongside a woman handing out promotional fliers for a saloon. After apologizing, the woman vows never to tout the tavern again ― and disappears into the shadows.
“We can’t actually prosecute them because we’re not law enforcement,” Mr. Yoon explains. “All we can do is warn teenagers and prevent them from entering places where they are prohibited, such as bars.”
On this day, the ex-marines encounter no serious or life-threatening situations ― the worst being a drunk offering them a mock salute. But Mr. Kim recalls instances in which a drunk wielding a kitchen knife threatened to attack them. “The only defense we have is our pepper gun and our fists,” Mr. Park says.
Kim Myeong-ja, an apartment dweller in Gangseo, feels the patrolmen serve an important purpose, “especially since the park where I exercise is full of teenage boys drinking beer and smoking,” Ms. Kim says. But their platoon size raises in her mind some question about their efficiency. “I wish those men could somehow patrol in small groups.”
Military time: 0030. The patrol returns to its base, satisfied to have completed a night’s work without serious mishap.
“You know, many people will ask us why we do what we do but all I do is protect the neighborhood and I’m doing it because I’m proud to be a marine,” Mr. Yoon says, as the rest of the crew signals their agreement. “We’re doing it for our country.”
by Lee Ho-jeong