SEOUL — Koreans have a curse — “You should be tattooed.” — that reflects the ancient practice of using tattoos to brand thieves and slaves.
But a nationwide police search this month for men with tattoos has rounded up a new breed of criminals: young men who use the body art to try to evade mandatory military service, crucial to South Korea’s defense against the communist North.
About 170 men have been arrested for “willfully tampering with their bodies to avoid military duty,” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. National media showed the disgraced young men, handcuffed, heads bowed and shirts removed to reveal large tattoos of such things as dragons, scaled fish, birds and roses.
Though there is no law against tattoos, South Koreans consider them symbols of disgrace, often associated with gangsters. Similarly, in Japan, tattoos carry a stigma for their association with the underworld “yakuza,” who cover their bodies with them.
South Korea’s conscription law rules men with large tattoos unfit for the military because they cause “abomination among fellow soldiers.”
Before they reach 30, able-bodied men must serve for at least 26 months in South Korea’s 650,000-member military, which faces the North’s 1.1 million troops across a heavily guarded border.
Most see military service as a manly duty. By law, those seeking top government jobs or running for parliament must reveal not only their own service records, but those of their children.
“In South Korea, you are not a man until you finish your military duty,” said Chang Myong-ki, 40. “If you don’t behave in a manly manner, they might ask, ‘Have you been to the military yet?’”
But some complain of having to interrupt careers and schooling to serve. Disenchantment has grown after repeated scandals showed many of the country’s rich and powerful pay bribes or help their sons get U.S. citizenship to keep them out of the service.
Authorities regularly hunt for draft dodgers. To get exemptions, some turn to overeating or fasting. Some have doctored X-rays or had surgery to damage ligaments or knee cartilage. A few have even feigned insanity.
With old perceptions fading fast, tattoos are increasingly popular among young South Koreans. Hundreds of tattoo artists operate illegally — without medical certification required by law — soliciting customers through the Internet, and offering an avenue for young men seeking a way out of the draft.
“There is a need to warn those who would do anything to avoid military service,” Judge Kim Sung-keun said this month as he sentenced a 24-year-old father of two young children to eight months in prison for using tattoos to avoid conscription.
Authorities base their arrests in some cases on a suspect’s history of military physicals. If a young man goes through one exam without overly large tattoos, but comes back for another round with an outsized dragon and secures an exemption, he would be under suspicion.
Investigators also have questioned tattoo artists about their customers’ motives.
In the early 1980s, the ruling military junta cracked down on political dissidents and organized crime under its “campaign for social purification.” Many with tattoos were sent to military-run camps, regardless of their criminal history.
“I am afraid that the draft dodgers are bringing back the bad image to tattoos,” said an operator of a Web site for tattoo enthusiasts, who gave his name only as Song.
Korean fishermen of an earlier day turned to full-body tattoos believing they brought protection from sea beasts and shipwreck. Other uses were more negative. Authorities tattooed “Thief” or “Stealer of Government Money” on the foreheads of criminals. Slaves wore tattoos on their forearms showing who owned them.
Confucianism, the centuries-old code of social behavior, urged people to “preserve the body, hair and skin inherited from ancestors.”
Today, however, plastic surgery, hair dyeing and body piercing are booming industries.
When soccer star Ahn Jung-hwan scored a winning goal against Japan this month, he threw off his shirt and flashed tattoos on both shoulders.
“In the following days, I had 10 times more people visiting my Web site,” said Kang Ho, a Seoul tattoo artist who calls South Korea’s regulations on tattoos “out of date” and “ridiculous.”