Comparing Police Crime Statistics in the 1940s

Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling has two wonderful postings (1, 2) based on his reading of Agnes Davis Kim’s I Married a Korean.

In the second posting, a considerable amount of the quoted passage given from the book talks about the widespread crime in the early postwar. For example this passage:

But when we arrived in Korea after World War II, everything was different. Through years of hunger and privation, the very nature of Koreans seemed to have changed. The calm dignity and courtesy which had marked them as a gentle people had given way to a defensively aggressive attitude that was often discourteous. Instead of a peaceful, law-abiding atmosphere in which everyone felt secure, the people lived under a constant threat of being robbed of what little they possessed. At night, a man might load his “jiggie” or cart with farm produce to take to market in the morning, only to find it was gone when he awoke and prepared to leave with it. Jars, pans, clothes left on the line to bleach, or anything removable what was left out at night, might be gone in the morning. This was almost unheard of happening during the pre-war days.”

However, the author doesn’t blame this on the disappearance of an orderly Japanese colonial master, but rightly notes one of highly disruptive causes for social instability:

The large amount of thievery which went on was not surprising however. During most of the time we were there under the United States occupation refugees from North Korea came into Seoul at a rate of about three thousand a day. These were people dispossessed of everything except the clothes they wore and what they could carry. So great was the refugee problem that relief facilities could not cope with it.

In the issues of “The Democratic Policeman” (民主警察) that I have been looking at the past few days there are all sorts of, often contradictory, statistics regarding crime in the early postwar period. You can also find wonderfully colorful charts and statistics in US military government publications for comparison.

The second issue of 民主警察 in the summer of 1947 opens with this overview of the crime fighting of the police for crimes including violations of US military orders, fraud, embezzlement, theft, and “other”:

1945.8 – 1945.12:
14,779 cases, 10,088 arrest cases, 12,607 people arrested 69.9% arrest rate reported
101,323 cases, 78,021 arrest cases, 108,793 people arrested 77% arrest rate reported1
36,168 cases, 27,284 arrest cases, 43,507 people arrested 75.4% arrest rate reported2

The rise in the number of cases when extrapolated is, of course, at least partly due to the fact that the Korean National Police, a very sizable number of whom were colonial period police who had fled their posts at liberation in the wake of violence and threats against accused collaborators. They were often only brought back to the job after the US forces arrived in September and were not fully functioning during the first months after August, 1945. In a letter, published in the journal, that the US advisor to the national police, Lt. Col. Harry E. Erikson, wrote to the head of the military government John R. Hodge with an accompanying new issue of the journal, Erikson asks Hodge not to be alarmed at the huge increase in the crime statistics because this merely reflected the “increase of efficiency” in crime reporting by the police.

However, Agnes Davis Kim’s report of the general state of crime and huge flood of refugees should be added to the fact that things were in fact, anything but stable, at least until after the suppression of the people’s committees throughout Korea after the uprisings of autumn, 1946. The starvation and poverty that contribute to the crime rate was also compounded by the division between North and South, US agricultural policies in South Korea, the loss of the Japanese market and supplies, etc.

One more interesting set of statistics can be found in the opening issue of 1948. An article by a 姜炳順 sets out to compare pre- and post-liberation crime in Korea. Here are the numbers it cites:

1942 Cases for 13 Provinces:
Investigated: 85,182
Indictments: 46,182
Convictions: 45,666

1943 Cases for 13 Provinces:
Investigated: 89,675
Indicted: 49,856
Convictions: 48,944

1945.8.16-1946.12 in Southern 9 Provinces:
Investigated: 34,199
Indicted: 17,687
Convicted: 17,220

Investigated: 65,661
Indicted: 28,516
Convicted: 27,9593

The author then goes on to make various comparisons based on these statistics. From our own 21st century perspective, we might begin by noting, for example, the huge percentage of convictions compared to indictments in both colonial and early postwar Korea, which is still common in Japan, as well as most authoritarian regimes of the last century.

However, what is most interesting here is the clear continuities argued, by the police authoring this article, between the crime statistics of late colonial Korea, and that of the postwar. Not only is there great consistency in the police staff across the divide of liberation, but the crime fighting work of wartime policemen of the colonial period were seen as worthy of fitting into a comparative essay.

Why not, you might argue? Aren’t murder and theft cases from 1942 pretty much the same as those committed in 1947 and thus worthy of comparison? What one might want to argue, especially from the perspective of a recently liberated people, is that given the wartime and colonial nature of the first half of the decade, many of the late colonial period “crimes” were of a justifiable political nature – even when the crimes appeared strictly economic or personal in nature. They were “weapons of the weak” wielded against a colonial oppressor. One might feel a little reluctant to throw them in together with more recent statistics when drawing a comparison without problematizing the nature of crime itself in each case.

This is not lost on the author of the article, however. He does show a bit of unease at the comparison, noting that the colonial period crime statistics include “thought” (思想) crimes that were “unnatural” (不自然). Since these colonial crime statistics include violations of oppressive colonial laws, he argues, we should be careful when comparing.

And yet, no sooner does the author say this but he makes a comparison of “regular” (一般罪) and “special” (特別罪) crimes across the divide:

Regular Crimes: 45,426
Special Crimes: 39,756

Regular Crimes: 28,650
Special Crimes: 5,549

Regular Crimes: 47,056
Special Crimes: 18,6054

Here, special crimes defined in the post-liberation context as crimes “arising from a clash of ideas or differences in political ideology.” (思想의對立과 政治理念의相違가原因이된犯罪) However, this likely does not merely include cases of Kim Ku’s goons assassinating his political opponents, or right-wing youth groups clashing with left-wing youth and labor groups but also arrests of, mostly of leftists, who were seen as subversives for either things they said or did. This is indeed something more consistent with the special “unnatural” crimes of “thought” that this policeman records from the late colonial period.

As always, it is really important to be very very careful with these statistics, since it is so hard to determine exactly what they include and exclude, how they were collected, etc. Compare, for example, what is in this posting with stats in an earlier posting I made on colonial period “thought” crime stats. Here, I’m not that interested in the data itself but how it was interpreted by one policeman in the autumn of 1947.

  1. Note: The 1946 statistics explicitly excluded crimes associated with “large incidents” – Here clearly referring to the hundreds of incidents of burning, looting, and brutal killings associated with the 1946 autumn uprising from late Septebmer to December.  

  2. 民主警察 1.2, in the opening article “해방이주년기념일를맞이하여:國內의治安基礎는鞏固”  

  3. 民主警察 2.1 姜炳順, “解放後의犯罪現象과其對策” p41  

  4. ibid. No mention here of whether or not the crimes associated with the 1946 uprising are included  

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