Korea, once touted by the government as "drug-free," is seeing a fast rise in drug offences. Experts say the government’s belated crackdown is not enough, and prevention and rehabilitation efforts are needed alongside it.
A country with 20 or fewer offenders out of every 100,000 people is generally considerd a drug-free nation, although there is no international index to measure it.
Based on that figure, Korea hasn't been drug-free since 2015, and the number of offenders is rising each year.
“In the past, drugs were managed quite well compared to other countries and it was not common to see drug addicts around,” a presidential official told the Korea Herald, requesting anonymity to speak frankly about the issue.
“However, with the recent development of the internet and the development of private transactions, (we found) it is not well controlled, and the number of people who use drugs is increasing and the number of addicts is also increasing."
In the first half of this year, the total number of drug offenders increased by 13.4 percent to 8,575 compared to the same period last year, and the number convicted for smuggling and distribution increased 32.7 percent to 2,437.
The increase is more stark among minors, with number of teenage offenders increasing 11-fold in the past decade.
Pathway to illegal drugs
Kim Young-ho, a professor at Eulji University’s addiction rehabilitation and social welfare department, said many people start with the misuse of prescription drugs before going on to illegal drugs.
They include sleep inducer zolpidem, appetite suppressant phentermine and benzodiazepines, which are used as tranquilizers.
“These drugs are legally prescribed in hospitals for ill people, but they are being used illegally in many cases,” the professor said. “But, we don't have an addiction treatment system or preventive education on such drugs.”
According to data received from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety released last week by Rep. Kang Ki-yoon of the People Power Party, prescriptions for fentanyl patches for people in their 20s increased 38.5 percent from 44,105 in 2019 to 61,087 in 2021. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as pain medication. It is similar to morphine, but around 100 times more potent. This means it is effective at much lower doses, and recreational use is riskier.
Another reason for the proliferation of drugs is easy access via social media, experts said. It is also much more difficult for young people, who start to get curious after seeing celebrities involved in drug cases, to overcome addiction, they said.
According to the Prosecutors' Office statistics, the number of teen drug offenders last year was 450, a record high. In addition, there were 5,077 drug offenders in their 20s, accounting for 31.4 percent of the total, the most significant proportion among all age groups.
An April to August analysis by nonprofit group Korean Association Against Drug Abuse showed 72.8 percent of 1,419 online drug sales cases took place via Telegram. It was followed by KakaoTalk with 210 cases, Line with 80 cases, and individual websites, which accounted for 42 cases.
Choi Jin-mook, head of the drug addiction counseling office at Incheon Chamsarang Hospital, said in a radio interview last month that most drug transactions take place through social media.
“People in their 10s, 20s and 30s can easily access (drug) markets on SNS (social networking services). And there are a lot of young Koreans who think that cannabis is OK because they are legal in developed countries,” said Choi, who was addicted to drugs for 23 years before becoming a counselor. “But the thing is that once you buy cannabis inside (the online market) and do it, all the other drugs are there and it becomes easy to experience others.”
He said such sales are “very, very, very” prevalent in Korea and it is difficult to crack down on them because they are individual transactions.
Ramping up regulations
Authorities are seeking to strengthen crackdowns to bring drug abuse under control.
Prosecutor General Lee Won-seok said Friday that it was the prosecution's responsibility to protect the safety of the public and that his office would conduct a joint regional investigation into narcotics cases.
"Recently, drug crime has spread rapidly through online transactions across borders, regardless of age, gender, region or class, and has crossed the threshold,” he said. "We plan to conduct a joint investigation at the regional level in cooperation with relevant agencies.”
Early this month, Kim Young-ran, chairperson of the Supreme Court's sentencing committee, said at the National Assembly's Legislative and Judiciary Committee that it was necessary to review drug crime sentencing standards.
When Rep. Jang Dong-hyeok of the People Power Party asked about the sentencing standards for a drug crime, Kim replied, "Some sentencing standards have been slightly raised in 2020, but overall it is necessary to review them.”
It was the first time Kim directly mentioned the review of sentencing standards for drug crimes amid growing criticism that the punishments have been too weak.
Lack of rehabilitation
Experts say authorities are too focused on crackdowns in tackling Korea's drug problem and failing to adopt a comprehensive approach.
“To truly solve the drug problem, punishment and rehabilitation treatment must go together because drugs have a high recidivism rate,” said Eulji University's Kim Young-ho.
“However, there is currently little budget, infrastructure and legislation for rehabilitation treatment,” he said, adding, “This is because drug users are seen as only criminals.”
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in order for drug addicts to receive government-funded treatment, they must visit a ministry-designated hospital for treatment and protection of drug addicts.
In the past five years, 21 institutions have treated a total of 1,130 drug addicts. Of these, Incheon Chamsarang Hospital treated 496 patients, followed by Bugok National Hospital with 398 patients.
National support for rehabilitation, however, remains insufficient.
The cost of treatment for one-month's hospitalization at a drug clinic is at least 5 million won (about $3,500), local media reported. However, the budget allocated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the treatment of drug addiction patients this year is only 410 million won. That means the budget is only enough for 164 addicts to go through a one month hospitalization.
“Drug addicts are 10 times more difficult to care for than alcoholics,” professor Kim said. “It is not easy for a private hospital to handle such cases without state support.”
The senior presidential official mentioned earlier admitted that Korea has not built enough infrastructure for drug addicts, as the past situation meant there was not much call for it.
“Now it seems we have come to a stage where we need to further expand the infrastructure and increase the input (to control drug addicts).”