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[Contribution] Korea Customs Service’s war on drugs

Korea Customs Service Commissioner Lim Jae-hyeon (KCS)
Korea Customs Service Commissioner Lim Jae-hyeon (KCS)
This June, a telescope arrived in South Korea as an express consignment from the US. 

At a glance, it looked like an ordinary item, but when customs officers examined it closely, they discovered a steel plate welded onto the original product. Through an intrusive search, officers seized 442 grams of methamphetamine hidden inside.

Earlier in March, 4 kilograms of methamphetamine disguised as sea salt was found among international parcels from the US. It amounted to a whopping 150,000 doses. The perpetrators’ M.O.s are constantly evolving, such as hiding methamphetamine in a letter or wet wipes or concealing marijuana in canned food.

Everyone is aware of the danger of drug use, which threatens not just the health and well-being of individuals, but also their families and the entire society. Yet, we still hear news about drug-related crimes from the media day after day.

The white paper on drug crimes published by the Public Prosecutors’ Office showed that the number of drug offenders in Korea stood at 18,050 in 2020, a 12.5 percent increase compared to the last year (16,044). If a country’s “drug crime coefficient,” which is calculated by the ratio of the convicted drug users per 100,000 people, exceeds 20, the country is considered as likely to be vulnerable to drug threats. Korea’s number has already reached 28, so its previous reputation as a “drug-free nation” no longer holds.   

Even more worryingly, the number of teenage drug users under the age of 19 was 313 in 2020, surging 158.7 percent from the five years before. An analysis attributes the rising phenomenon to easier access to drugs with social media, which also can arouse public curiosity towards illicit drugs.

In the past, using drugs has been a social taboo in Korea, as narcotics were regarded as something associated with gang members and red-light districts. However, it has now found its way into the lives of office workers, homemakers, and even teenagers, becoming one of the gravest threats to society.

Exactly how much methamphetamine were seized by law enforcement agencies worldwide? In the US, 85 metric tons were seized in 2020, an increase of 14.5 percent from the previous year’s 74 tons. Globally, the combined quantity of meth seizures was 270 tons in 2019. Now, look at the whooping numbers! Not in kilograms but in tons! This is of genuine concern.

Even for the smallest amount of drugs, once it finds its way into Korea, it becomes difficult for law enforcement agencies to track them, as drug transactions are usually made through the website, social media, and the dark web without any physical contact. Considering this trend, I believe that the most effective way to block the trade of illicit drugs is by intercepting them at the customs border.

In this context, this year has been a turning point for the Korea Customs Service. As a result of the reorganization of the jurisdiction of police and prosecutors in criminal investigation proceedings, the Korea Customs Service was able to broaden the scope of its direct investigation.

In the first six months of this year, the Korea Customs Service handled 662 cases totaling 214 kilograms of smuggled drugs, a respective increase of 59 percent and 153 percent compared to the same period last year. Among the drugs, methamphetamine accounted for 61 cases totaling 43 kilograms, a 61 percent and 77 percent increase.

A point worth mentioning is that when drug smuggling through passengers became impossible due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, drug traffickers have quickly recovered from the initial setback by turning to contactless transactions, such as through international mail and express shipments. As a result, smuggling attempts through these channels have surged, accounting for 91 percent (605 cases) of the total seizures. 

Only six months have passed since the direct investigative power of the Korea Customs Service over drug-related crimes was expanded. However, at the Korea Customs Service, we are dedicated to pursuing and promoting an efficient approach to drug control and building capacity as the frontline agency at the border, one step at a time.

Once the COVID-19 vaccination campaign is fully rolled out, people will start traveling again, and drug smuggling attempts by travelers will grow once again. In response, the Korea Customs Service will strive to enhance its capabilities by expanding its workforce on drug investigation and improve its officers’ expertise in detection and analysis. As a part of its effort to make Korea a safe place from drug threats, it will strengthen cooperative ties with other law enforcement agencies in the country and enhance the global network with international organizations such as the United Nations and World Customs Organization, Drug Enforcement Administration of the US, and other customs authorities around the world.

By Lim Jae-hyeon