South Korea announced Wednesday that it sought to revive the recently abolished conscripted police system to strengthen the state's crime prevention capabilities.
According to the announcement, which came amid the recent surge of crimes seemingly targeting random people, the government plans to add up to 8,000 conscripted police within nine months.
"In order to enhance (the police's) capability to prevent the occurrence of crimes, the government will proactively move to reintroduce the conscripted police system," Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in an announcement at the Government Complex Seoul on Wednesday.
Han said that the measure is for "ensuring safety and protecting the lives of ordinary citizens from 'senseless crimes.'"
The conscripted police system -- in which draftees serve as an alternative to regular compulsory military service -- was phased out under a policy direction announced in 2017 by former President Moon Jae-in, due to the shrinking population and the shortage of military-aged men.
During his election campaign, Moon pledged to recruit more regular police instead, as part of a wider drive to increase public sector jobs. After the liberal former president's election in 2017, a policy plan included 20,000 additional police, to be hired between 2017 and 2022.
Figures from 2021, the latest year for which data is available, show about 12,500 more police were added compared to 2017. The similar uptrend existed before Moon's initiative, as the number of police increased by over 11,200 from 2013 to 2017.
Before the phaseout, Korea had some 25,000 auxiliary conscripted police. Recruitment ceased in December 2021, after which the numbers fell as recruits completed their mandatory military service, until the last conscripted police left this past May.
The conscripted police system was founded in 1967, under the Park Chung-hee authoritarian military regime, which ruled South Korea for nearly two decades. Since democratization in the 1980s, the auxiliary police were frequently dispatched to protest scenes.
Under the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration's preliminary plan, the national police will conscript over 3,500 auxiliary conscripted police for deployment in emergencies, and over 4,000 conscripted police to patrol in vulnerable locations, according to National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who attended Wednesday's briefing.
The move will come alongside the reorganization of the police to put the policing of the neighborhood the top priority in its tasks -- over others like investigations, traffic control, cyber crime deterrence, foreign affairs and more -- as well as the augmentation of the surveillance system such as via the installation of more closed-circuit cameras and emergency bells in crime-prone areas, according to Han.
Korea's national police currently has some 140,000 police officers nationwide, but among them no more than 30,000 are available for deployment on the streets for patrolling or other public safety roles such as crowd control, according to the police commissioner general. The reorganization will "have more police officers visible," he said.
He added that the government was considering increasing financial and other support for some 97,000 community-based crime prevention volunteers across the country, as they have suffered from a lack of financial support since the groups were given legal status in April.
Meanwhile, Han said the government looks to endow the court with the authority to send people with diagnosed mental illnesses who are judged to be a potential threat to others into compulsory custody in psychiatric wards.
But a diagnosis often doesn't come until after a crime has been committed, as there is an incentive to claim mental illness as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Under Korean criminal law, those who suffer mental disorder and thus are found to be deficient in making reasonable judgments or controlling their will are to have their criminal punishment mitigated, often leading to the violent crime perpetrators' defense at the courtroom seeking to prove that they were mentally disoriented when the incident happened.
Attorneys of 33-year-old Cho Seon, who has been charged over a stabbing rampage that killed one and injured three in July near Sillim subway station in July, brought up this extenuating factor as the court trial began Wednesday, arguing that Cho suffered from a delusional disorder and mistook those he stabbed for stalkers.
A 22-year-old Choi Won-jong, who killed one and injured 13 by ramming the car through a shopping mall in southern Gyeonggi Province and went on a stabbing spree targeting bystanders early in August, appears to have adopted a similar ploy by telling reporters that he was being pursued and bullied by a group of stalkers, and he committed the crime to "make the existence of a group of stalkers known to the world."
According to Ministry of Health and Welfare, 35 percent of the mental illness patients get hospitalized involuntarily, either due to their guardians' decision or under an administrative process. Such involuntary hospitalizations came at the cost of high hospital expenses burdened by the guardian, or the malicious complaints that enforcers had to suffer.
The government is "capable of discerning the types of mental illness that are likely to trigger violent crimes from the types that are not," Han told reporters at the Government Complex Sejong on Wednesday afternoon.
Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said that having the court eligible to order to detain those suffering mental illness would "boost efficiency" in the detention process.
During the speech, Han also reiterated his pledge to introduce the life sentence without the possibility of parole, which was first announced the previous week. He also hinted to expand fiscal support to the victims randomly targeted by motiveless crimes.
Han stressed now was the time to come up with fundamental measures to reduce crimes by addressing "structural problems."
"Recent senseless crimes ... appear to have been motivated by a number of factors including the social disadvantage that suspects have experienced, as well as the rise of social media that boosts the sense of deprivation of the marginalized relatively," Han said. "None of them could serve as justifications for their hideous crimes."
President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday ordered Han in their regular weekly meeting to come up with "fundamental measures" to stem motiveless crimes.
In a separate announcement, Seoul Metropolitan Government unveiled plans to strengthen surveillance infrastructure in trails for hiking and trekking after Mayor Oh Se-hoon met with heads of 25 district ward offices Wednesday.
The municipal government also pledged to set up surveillance cameras in all Seoul subway cars by 2024. The closed-circuit camera will be gradually replaced with the ones capable of automatically detecting violence and abnormalities and alerting the nearest police and fire stations.
Also, all 25 districts in Seoul will operate accompanied walk home service for women walking at night in her neighborhood. Seoul did not elaborate on the timing of expansion of the service -- available in 15 districts in Seoul as of currently.