Daekwang Chemical (hereafter DK) is the largest manufacturer of tear gas products in South Korea. DK was founded 2001 and initially its major area of business was sales of fireworks products. Before DK focused on tear gas business, the company’s sales volume was relatively small. Annual sales volume of DK recorded around USD 1 million. DK’s so-called “Success Story” is a classic example of how this kind of company profits from war or internal repression.
From the beginning, DK attempted to export tear gas products to a number of countries, and succeeded in making some deals with countries including Malaysia, Nigeria and Israel. However, tear gas products export made up a only small portion of DK's revenue chart until the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Arab Spring and DK’s Golden Age
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, the company’s revenue chart recorded a steep increase. According to Representative Hana JANG, member of National Assembly of Republic of Korea, the company has sold a total of 2.7 million tear gas products between 2011 and 2013. Among DK’s major clients were Bahrain, Turkey and Syria. DK’s biggest client of all was Bahrain, to which the company sold a total of 1.45 million canisters in 2011 and 2012; nearly half of their products went to Bahrain. The second largest customer of DK was Turkey, to which DK supplied 643,060 tear gas canisters. DK’s sales volume, which was recorded around USD 1.1 million at the end of 2008, rapidly increasing to USD 13.5 million by the end of 2012. Throughout the Arab Spring - from 2011 to 2013 - DK sold USD 23.1 million worth of tear gas.
As DK’s revenue soared, the people of Bahrain and Turkey suffered from the massive volume of tear gas supplied to their countries. Between 2011 to 2013 in Bahrain alone, at least 39 people died from direct or indirect effects of the tear gas. Bahrain’s use of tear gas was widely criticized by international society. In a report titled “Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians”, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) made the criticism that “Bahraini law enforcement officials routinely attack civilians inside their homes with toxic gas”. The organization further stated that “the frequency of the routine attacks on civilians as well as the lack of accountability for officials who commit such attacks implies intent on the part of law enforcement to use toxic chemical agents as a weapon against peaceful civilians” and recommended the international community to suspend export of tear gas to Bahrain. In PHR’s view, the most similar situation to 2012 Bahrain was 1987 South Korea, where the authorities used massive volume of tear gas canisters. What an irony of the history it is, that a country which suffered from tear gas during pro-democracy movement roughly 25 years ago has now become the supplier of the same tool of repression.
DK’s shady deal was exposed to the public by Bahrain Watch’s international campaign, “Stop The Shipment” at the end of 2013. According to the campaign, DK was trying to pursue yet another deal of 1.6 million canisters to Bahrain, in addition to the 1.45 million tear gas supplied to Bahrain by the end of 2012. After a successful international campaign, this deal was prevented when South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), export control agency for the country, suspended all export to tear gas to Bahrain in early January of 2014.
Due to the temporary suspension of tear gas export authorization, DK was not able to pursue a deal with repressive governments in early 2014. However, the suspension only lasted for a few months. From November to December 2014, DAPA resumed issuing export licenses for DK to supply approximately 1.45 million canisters to Turkey. As we have witnessed in 2013, the Turkish authorities are well known for their indiscriminate use of tear gas against peaceful protestors. In 2013 alone, at least 9 people have died because of tear gas. A number of international NGOs - including PHR and Amnesty International - have strongly condemned the use of tear gas in Turkey. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled on multiple occasions against the Turkish government, that Turkish authorities have violated rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. In its most recent finding, the court emphasized that “so long as the Turkish system did not comply with the requirements of the European Convention, the inappropriate use of potentially fatal weapons during demonstrations was likely to give rise to violations similar to that in present case.”
Despite prevalent evidence that there are high risks that Turkish authorities would use the tear gas to repress its people, DAPA authorized export of approximately 1.45 million tear gas canisters from DK. At the of end of January, the first consignment of 650,000 canisters was expected to be delivered to Turkish authorities and the current status of rest of the shipment is unknown. When this shady deal was criticized by media and South Korean activists, the CEO of DK, Jongbae KIM, wrote an OP-EP piece in a South Korean newspaper claiming that, contrary to public “misunderstanding”, tear gas is for the protection of civilians. He also emphasized that DK fully supports government policy of “Creative Economy” and by continuously endeavoring to open up a new market, DK is contributing to the national economy. In another media interview, the CEO stated that “tear gas is a non-lethal weapon. It’s not our responsibility if they misuse it. And if we don’t export, other countries will. You also have to consider that tear gas export contributes to foreign currency earning of the country.” Unlike other major arms companies, DK seems to be proud of their deals and, is showing its intention to continue their business with repressive governments.
Recent Allegations against DK
Fortunately, DK’s vision to expand its tear gas sales worldwide is likely to be crushed soon. In addition to domestic and international campaigns to stop tear gas export to Turkey, DK is being scrutinized by national authorities for multiple illegal activities including tax evasion, smuggling of gunpowder, illegal manufacturing of explosives, and submitting false information for export license application. According to an anonymous source, a recent export license application to DAPA was denied on the ground of allegations stated above. Depending on the result of the investigation, DK could lose its tear gas manufacture license. At the moment, it is not clear which of these allegations are true, but it seems to be enough reason to suspend all export licenses issued to DK. However, DAPA has not yet suspended the previous licenses issued to DK.
Currently, an international campaign to stop tear gas export to Turkey is being organized. Campaign Against Arms Trade, WRI, and World Without War are preparing international action on Feb 10, targeting the South Korean government. The organizations are calling South Korean authorities to revoke export licenses granting tear gas exports to Turkey. Here’s what you can do:
Organize a protest in front of the Korean Embassy in your country on 10th Feburary 2015;
Send a public letter to the Embassy calling for immediate suspension of tear gas export to Turkey.