At first glance, middle-aged Seoul housewife Jennifer Chung hardly looks like a bounty hunter tracking down lawbreakers, but every morning, after sending her two sons and husband off to school and work, she sets out in search of local scofflaws — such as cram-school teachers, restaurateurs or owners of beauty salons.
“Some of them charge parents more than state-set tuition limits, don’t disclose on the menu the origin of food they serve or give skincare treatments which only doctors are allowed to perform,” 54-year-old Chung said.
“These are all against the law … I need evidence to report them to the authorities,” she said, sporting a high-definition camcorder hidden in her purse with the lens peeking through a tiny hole.
On a typical undercover mission, Chung poses as a regular customer, videotapes conversations or scenes at offending establishments and sends the videos to authorities.
Each time she collects cash rewards from various departments which add up to more than two million won (US$1,700) a month.
Chung is far from alone. Many South Koreans, especially middle-aged women, have joined a growing number of “paparazzi” snoopers. They cash in by videotaping minor lawbreaking by fellow citizens, instead of the lives of the rich and famous. With the government continually expanding such rewards, schools for snoopers are thriving. They teach pupils how to stalk their prey and get them on film, and even how to play the innocent to dodge suspicion.
“This has become a pretty lucrative industry now … some people are doing this as a full-time job,” said Moon Seung-ok, founder of Mismiz, a paparazzi school in Seoul.
The number of students spikes during economic slowdowns when housewives seek ways to supplement family incomes, he said.
Moon himself is a longtime paparazzi focusing on everything from speeding drivers to drug dealers. He said snoopers help officials and the police, who are too understaffed and overworked to enforce regulations.
“Some people accuse us of having no conscience or being a rat, making money by taking advantage of others’ weakness,” he told four nervous-looking students — all housewives in their 40s or 50s — during a class this month.
But there’s no need at all to feel guilty, he told them repeatedly.
“These are criminals, making pots of money by breaking laws. They deserve punishment!” Moon said, describing the job as “kind of a patriotic duty … with benefits.”
A textbook he wrote lists scores of violations linked to rewards, ranging from dropping cigarette butts or dumping trash in the wrong bag to prostitution and insurance fraud. The most common targets in the education-obsessed nation are cram-school owners who overcharge parents or run late-night classes, breaking state rules aimed at curbing spending on private education and pressure on kids.
“Cram schools are everywhere, and housewives can easily act like ordinary parents asking for quotes for tuition,” Moon said.
The education ministry said it had paid 3.4 billion won in rewards since the system was adopted in July 2009, with one person alone raking in nearly 300 million won by making more than 920 reports.
A cat-and-mouse game has developed between snoopers and their increasingly wary prey. Chung often sneaks into a cram school in the evening and hides in a toilet for hours, until teachers have locked the door from inside to try to keep out the snoopers.
“Janitors often catch me in the toilet. I tell them I had sudden diarrhea and urgently needed to go to the bathroom,” Chung said.
Critics say snoopers are squeezing mom-and-pop businesses trying to survive in tough times.
Cho Young-hwan, spokesman for South Korea’s cram school association, called them “merciless predators” who forced many small cram schools to shut down.
Many schools are pressured to run late-night classes because parents demand that their kids study until late, he said.
“These professional bounty hunters are turning a place of children’s education into a playground for their profiteering,” Cho said.
Oh Chang-soo, a law professor at Jeju National University, called the situation worrying.
He said the rewards had become “a cash cow for bounty hunters” and did not encourage a healthy civic spirit or genuine sense of justice.
“These paparazzi ... set up a trap and eagerly wait until someone violates a rule. A practice like this will only fan mistrust among members of society,” Oh said.
‘CONFESSED’: A court in Beijing said that former CCP member Ren Zhiqiang abused his power at a state firm and embezzled almost US$7.14 million of public funds A Chinese tycoon who called Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) a clown and criticized his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was yesterday jailed for 18 years for corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds. Ren Zhiqiang (任志強) — once among the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) inner circle — disappeared from the public eye in March, shortly after penning an essay that lambasted Xi’s pandemic response. His outspokenness had earned the former chairman of state-owned property developer Huayuan Group the nickname “Big Cannon.” Yesterday’s verdict said that Ren embezzled almost 50 million yuan (US$7.4 million) of public funds and accepted bribes worth 1.25 million
AUSTRALIAN SITE: China has had a contract with SSC’s Yatharagga station since at least 2011, but the last time it used it was in June 2013. No final date has been given China would lose access to a strategic space tracking station in Western Australia when its contract expires, the facility’s owners said, a decision that cuts into Beijing’s expanding space exploration and navigational capabilities in the Pacific region. The Swedish Space Corp (SSC) has had a contract allowing Beijing access to the satellite antenna at the station since at least 2011. The station is located next to an SSC satellite station primarily used by the US and its agencies, including NASA. The Swedish state-owned company said it would not enter into any new contracts at the Australian site to support Chinese customers after
OFF BORDER ISLAND: The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel wearing a life jacket and leaving behind his shoes, indicating an intentional move, Seoul said North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a COVID-19 precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said yesterday. It is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill. The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, the official said. More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and
The scarcity of commercial flights landing at Sydney Airport has been a disaster for airlines and workers, but for hobby pilots the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity of a lifetime. The quieter-than-usual runways mean that private pilots have been given the chance to land at the international airport for the first time. When Sydney Flight College club captain Tim Lindley put out a call, he received an overwhelming response. He eventually organized for 14 light aircraft to fly into Sydney airport on Sunday. “For a lot of the pilots involved, including myself, it was a childhood dream to land in a big