With his debts mounting and his wages barely enough to cover the interest, Im Hyun-Seok decided he needed a new job. The mild-mannered former English tutor joined South Koreas growing ranks of camera-toting bounty hunters.
Known here sarcastically as paparazzi, people like Im stalk their prey and capture them on film. But it is not celebrities or politicians they pursue. Rather, they roam cities secretly videotaping crimes and capture fellow citizens breaking the law. They deliver the evidence to government officials and collect the rewards.
Some people hate us, said Im. But were only doing what the law encourages.
The opportunities are everywhere: a factory releasing industrial waste into a river, a building owner keeping an emergency exit locked, doctors and lawyers not providing receipts for payment so they can underreport their taxable income.
Ims pet targets are people who burn garbage at construction sites, a violation of environmental laws.
Im making three times what I made as an English tutor, said Im, 39, who began his new line of work around seven years ago and says he makes about $85,000 a year.
Bounties have a history in South Korea; for decades, the government has offered generous rewards to people who turned in North Korean spies. But in recent years, various government agencies have set up similar programmes for anyone reporting mainly petty crimes, some as minor as a motorist tossing a cigarette butt out the window.
Snitching for pay has become especially popular since the worlds economic troubles slowed South Koreas powerful economy.
Paparazzi say most of their ranks are people who have lost their jobs in the downturn and are drawn by media reports of fellow Koreans making tens of thousands of dollars a year reporting crimes.
There are no reliable numbers of people who have taken up the work since governments at all levels have their own programmes, but the phenomenon is large enough and that has spawned a new industry: schools set up to train aspiring paparazzi.
The outsourcing of law enforcement has also been something of a boon for local governments. Not only can they save money on hiring officers, they say the fines imposed on offenders generally outstrip the rewards paid to informers. (The reward for reporting illegal garbage dumping: about $40. The fine: about 10 times as much.)
For most infractions, rewards can range from as little as about $5 (reporting a cigarette tosser) to as much as $850 (turning in an unlicensed seller of livestock). But there are possibilities for windfalls. Seouls government, for instance, promises up to $1.7 million for reports of major corruption involving its own staff members.
In a country where corporate whistle blowing is virtually unheard of — such actions are seen as a betrayal of the company — turning in neighbours can also carry a social stigma. Im has not told his parents what he does for a living. But like many others in his line of work, he says he had little choice when he started tracking petty crimes.
Bang Jae-won, 56, an eight-year veteran of the trade, said he felt proud of the times he caught people dumping garbage at a camping site or exposed marketing frauds, one of which once bankrupted him.
I regret the early, desperate days when I reported the misdemeanours of people as poor as I was, said Bang, who turned to this work after he was told he was too old by prospective employers.
I dont tell my neighbours what I do, because it might arouse unnecessary suspicions, he said. But, in general, I am not ashamed of my work. To those who call us snitches, I say, Why dont you obey the law?
Critics, however, say the reward programme has undermined social trust. The idea itself is good, but when people make a full-time job of this, it effectively privatises law enforcement and raises ethical questions, said Lee Yoon-ho, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Paparazzi usually develop a speciality, for example going after hakwon, or private cram schools, that charge more than government-set prices. The education ministry has paid 3.4 billion won, or $2.9 million, to paparazzi since 2009, when it began relying on bounty hunters to help tame the ballooning cost of private education — a particular burden for citizens in a country laser focused on educational achievement.
Called hak-parazzi, these people disguise themselves as parents and approach hakwon managers to ask about prices. They secretly record their conversations with hidden video cameras.
Hakwon owners hate them.
The government unilaterally sets unrealistic prices and then unleashes paparazzi in a witch hunt, complained Cho Young-hwan, a vice chairman of the Korean Coalition of Hakwon. This is deeply humiliating and anti-education.
Ju Myong-hyun, an education ministry official in charge of the programme, said, We dont say this is the perfect approach in a democracy. But we will maintain it until hakwon clean up their act.
Im, the former English tutor, warns that despite his high earnings, few others make enough to become full-time paparazzi.
People have a mistaken notion that to be successful, paparazzi must dress and act like spies and use super high-tech gear, said Im, who runs a popular blog under his paparazzi alias, Song Mung-suk. But what matters the most is to work and think hard.
He gave an example of his own work ethic. In 2005, when he noticed that virtually all coin-operated coffee machines in Internet game parlours lacked proper sanitary inspection tags, he hit on an idea. He called hundreds of Internet parlours, telling the owners, I left my wallet near your coffee machine, to find out which ones had such a machine. He compiled a list and reported all of them. He collected 3 million won (about $2,600): 5,000 won each for 600 machines.
There can be abuses. Paparazzi report that some of their colleagues cut separate deals with big corporations that are guilty of infractions and fear a heavy government penalty and bad publicity.
Im said that some business people have gamed the system, deploying him against their competitors, like the pharmacist who urged him to report a drug store next to his for hiring an unlicensed pharmacist.
Once, someone asked me to report an illegal restaurant inside a national park, Im said. It turned out that the guy himself was running an illegal restaurant right next door to the one in the park.
Like any good spy, Im shrugged off the obvious question: Did he turn in both men?