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[Lee Jae-min] Korea’s intoxication problem -- part II

In my last article entitled “The $1 Happiness that Soju Gives (Mar. 22, 2017),” I was being sarcastic about South Korea’s chronic problem of alcohol consumption. I cited some anecdotal examples to show how wrong Korean society is when it comes to drinking and alcoholic beverage marketing. In this article, as a sequel to the previous one, I am now going to be blunt and straightforward in criticizing this national problem.

Here is the conclusion: Korea’s widespread intoxication and, more critically, the social environment of Korean society to be lenient toward it are seriously wrong and should be remedied as soon as possible. We are already paying an incalculable social cost for our rampant alcohol consumption. 

It is not just about financial cost or health concerns -- it is more about societal ethics and values. Just consider violence and crime that is triggered and exacerbated by alcohol. Unless we take remedial action fast, our society will gradually decay. We know that we have already reached an abnormal point.

The unbelievably low price of the national spirit, soju, is simply absurd, given the nature of the beverage as hard liquor. No matter how we purport to describe it -- whether seen in a social or cultural context -- the fact that the content of the green bottle is hard liquor doesn’t change. The apparently government-suppressed price of $1 per bottle is the main reason that facilitates such high sales of soju. The pricing policy should be changed as soon as possible. The drastic increase in the price of cigarette prices as of last December is already reducing tobacco consumption. The effect should be the same for soju.

Marketing is another big problem. A variety of soju brands are being sold right beside the milk and soda sections in shops. They are also being sold around the clock day in and day out. Ubiquitous ads featuring famous celebrities further foster this national phenomenon. 

The names of soju brands are also misleading and deceitful. Just like cigarettes, the distillers should not be permitted to use tantalizing names such as freshness, mild, or dew. The brand names help lure young people. They also arguably entice a more receptive attitude toward drinking. So the government should scrutinize the marketing practices of these brands, in order to curb the increasing trend of alcohol consumption.

More than anything else, in our daily lives, the culture of being lenient to alcohol consumption should be rooted out. Drinking too much alcohol and suffering from a hangover the next morning should not be condoned at work or on campus.

In the legal arena, intoxication mitigation is another puzzle. Whenever I hear or read a decision or judgment citing drunkenness as a mitigating factor, I find it very troubling. Whenever there is a report of a soft response of the police toward intoxicated people being brought to and held at police stations nationwide, I find it quite embarrassing. This is not the way a civil society minds its business. As far as I can tell, there is no legal justification or moral argument for this. This is simply wrong.

The story that students were carrying 8,000 bottles of soju the other day and more stories of student violence and injuries recently show that our society is seriously ill when it comes to this problem. It seems that our society is falling deeper and deeper into a swamp. The victims are us. The victims are the next generation who are exposed to this environment and trained the wrong way.

The nationwide drinking binge should be taken seriously. Something needs to be done and done quickly. We should feel ashamed to be ranked first in the World Health Organization category of hard liquor consumption. It is so embarrassing and disheartening.

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By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.
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