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[Newsmaker] Fall of Korean ‘drug king’ expected to expedite probe into local drug networks

A South Korean man believed to be one of the biggest drug traffickers in the country was expatriated from Vietnam last week, after a three-year international joint operation that zeroed in on a major drug smuggling ring based in Southeast Asia.

The 47-year-old suspect, identified only by the surname Kim, known by the alias “Sara(salagim)” in the underground market, is believed to be the pinnacle of the drug ring suspected of supplying illegal substances through Telegram.

Kim is suspected of providing liquid methamphetamines and synthetic cannabinoids to other South Korean drug smugglers, namely an individual named Park, who earned the moniker “Telegram Drug Lord” through his operation in the Philippines, and a North Korean defector surnamed Choi whose main base was in Cambodia.

Kim, Park and Choi are believed to be the main suppliers of the illegal substances circulated on the South Korean black market in recent years. Park and Choi have already been detained.

“It appears that (Kim) attempted to disguise himself as non-Korean and avoid getting caught. He had dyed his hair blond and his skin was very tan,” Jeon Jae-hong, a National Police Agency officer who led the raid at Kim‘s hideout in Ho Chi Minh, said during a recent media interview. 

Kim (center) is seen sitting between Vietnamese police officers in Ho Chi Minh on Sunday, prior to being expatriated to South Korea. (National Police Agency)
Kim (center) is seen sitting between Vietnamese police officers in Ho Chi Minh on Sunday, prior to being expatriated to South Korea. (National Police Agency)

The joint action by Korean and Vietnamese authorities, however, could have gone down as a near-miss, Jeon explained. When officials raided Kim’s supposed hideout, the suspect had already moved out, but the Vietnamese police managed to track him down again at his new home -- a luxury apartment in the center of Ho Chi Minh.

Police found a sword in Kim’s apartment that they believed was for his self-protection, but the suspect did not resist arrest, the police officer said.

Local distribution networks in focus

With Kim’s repatriation, which follows that of Choi from Cambodia in April, local police expect to expedite its probe into clandestine networks here that handle the smuggled substances’ sale and delivery to local customers. According to police, Kim continued his drug dealing until recently, two years after Park’s group was dismantled following his arrest in 2020.

Kim is currently suspected of providing at least 7 billion won ($5.4million) from 2019 to 2021, earning at least 7 billion won in illicit proceeds.

But this doesn’t include the stockpile found this year, said Jeon of the NPA.

Following Kim’s arrest, the police are now focused on who handled sales to local buyers and how the sales were made. The local network is believed to be extensive, with 20 accomplices of Kim identified so far. More of Kim’s illegal transactions are expected to be uncovered, police officials noted.

Last week’s repatriation of Kim marked a culmination of the years-long investigation by the National Police Agency since Kim was caught on its radar back in 2018. It kicked into overdrive after he had been subject to an Interpol red notice a year later, which led to extensive collaboration with the Vietnam police.

Vietnamese authorities have been providing the information related to the suspect, and an investigation in South Korea and subsequent crackdown had uncovered links between him and other drug distributors.

This included the aforementioned Park and the other drug dealer, known as “Genghis Khan,” who used the messenger app Telegram to distribute the substances. He was caught last year with 1.6 billion won worth of drugs that was traced back to Kim.

Illegal substance distributed by Park was even supposedly linked to recent high-profile drug use cases, including Namyang Dairy Product founder’s granddaughter Hwang Ha-na who was sentenced to 20 months in prison by the Supreme Court in February.

Park, currently serving a 60-year sentence in the Philippines for murdering three Koreans, is believed to have distributed as much as 30-billion-won worth of drugs in a month in South Korea at one point.

Arrests and investigations of Korean drug dealers indicate a central figure at the peak of the distribution network, who supposedly provided Park, Choi and others the illegal substances through his operation based in Southeast Asia. It was later found that Park and Kim had met while incarcerated at the Philippines prison in the mid-2010s, and Kim allegedly started supplying him the drugs after Park broke out of jail. 

By Lim Jae-seong and Yoon Min-sik
Korea Herald daum