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[Out of the Shadows] Once ‘drug-free’ South Korea is reaching tipping point

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Dec. 21, 2022 - 16:24

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The Korea Herald is running a series of feature stories and interviews on the evolution and rise of drug crimes, insufficient support systems and young addicts’ stories in South Korea. This is the first installment. -- Ed.

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Kim lived a pleasure-seeking life when he got into the nightlife scene in Seoul's Hongdae area in 2017. At the age of 20, he took methamphetamine, ecstasy, ketamine and GHB, to name a few -- all of which are illegal in Korea.

Kim, who wished to be known only by his family name, received a flash of drug-induced dopamine at least twice a month to “live in a state of genuine happiness.” Substance use disorder took over his life at a young age, and he was never in a moment of sanity for four years, he confides.

“It all started with curiosity because I was confident I could stop taking illegal drugs with my own will at one point,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

Google searches introduced Kim to a long list of dealers. He went on to use drugs on campus and even went to Taiwan to buy methamphetamine because it was cheaper there, with the intention of bringing it back to Korea for personal use. He was caught there and served a 40-day jail term. His parents were unaware of it.

He was never incarcerated in Korea, but it wasn’t long before his drug cravings exacerbated to the point where they were uncontrollable.

Kim tried to shake off his addiction at three hospitals, but he relapsed.

He thinks it’s because the country lacks addiction treatment and drug professionals. Kim has been on a recovery program at a drug addiction rehabilitation center for a year, along with 10 other drug addicts who are mostly in their 20s.

Drug offences are rising, particularly among the young. People in their 20s accounted for the most drug arrests in 2021, with 3,597 among 10,626. That is more than double the 1,478 arrests in 2017, while overall arrests increased by 20 percent over the same period.

Experts point to inadequate prevention and rehabilitation efforts as the reason behind this increase.

“The government should treat drug offenders like how they treat COVID-19 patients. There are no special measures and education right now because drug-related institutions are dispersed,” said Jeon Kyoung-soo, head of the Drug Criminology Institute of Korea.

Currently, drug treatment under correctional supervision is handled by the Ministry of Justice, voluntary drug treatment by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and drug education by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

This means that the prosecution can send drug offenders for treatment at one of its protection centers before they serve jail time, or can request treatment at local hospitals.

Drug users and their families can request medical support from local municipalities, but this requires approval from a committee that assesses whether the person is suitable for the public support.

They can be treated at hospitals designated by the Health Ministry for drug addiction treatment for a year, but a lack of funding restricts provision. The Health Ministry together with municipalities have allocated around 820 million won this year, which is only enough for monthly treatment of 164 people. It takes a least 5 million won a month to treat someone for addiction in a hospital, according to local reports, quoting data from the Health Ministry and hospitals with drug addiciton treatment programs here.

Otherwise, people with drug addictions are left to fund their own treatment. Korea has only two public rehabilitation centers in the country. The state-run centers do not offer medical treatment, but provide rehabilitation guidelines to help addicts start a new life.

The rise in demand for illegal drugs is also a critical factor, according to Yoon Heung-hee, a professor at Hansung University’s drug and alcohol addiction department and a former police officer who worked in narcotics for over 30 years.

Distribution channels are diversifying, giving access to a wider group of potential buyers. Before, drug dealers mainly targeted wealthy youths who could afford costly drugs. This led to some high-profile cases, such as those of K-pop boy band members G-Dragon and T.O.P, who were embroiled in drug scandals in 2011 and 2016, respectively. Last year, rapper B.I, a former member of boy band iKON, was indicted on charges of purchasing drugs including LSD. This year, music producer Don Spike was charged for purchasing and using methamphetamine.

But drug dealers are increasingly distributing to a winder clientele via the internet. Yoon added that distribution of Yama, a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine common in Southeast and East Asia, and ecstasy and methamphetamine from Vietnam, was growing in Korea.

“Now, trades are made on illicit marketplaces like (on) the dark net, which are the darkest recesses of the internet, and parcels are transferred via express freight and face-to-face,” Yoon said.

Yoo Seung-chul, an associate professor of media convergence at Ewha Womans University, agreed on the role digital technology has played in the drug trade.

“(Social) media has a commercial function now, where transactions, payments and distributions are made. Since the younger generation, in particular, is comfortable using media, they find it easy to purchase drugs.”

Yoo also highlighted insufficient media literacy as another problem: “It’s crucial to educate people about illegal trade and help them determine whether something is credible.”

This means a growing number of people are trying drugs. First-time offenders accounted for more than 80 percent of drug convictions for the first time in 2021.

Park Jin-sil, a drug attorney, welcomed Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon’s “war on drug crimes" declaration in October.

“It would be beneficial if drug investigations were tightened and conducted in various ways, but the country would eventually have to establish a system in terms of how it would rehabilitate the offenders after arresting them and how it plans to return them to society after releasing from prison,” she said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol on Thursday pledged to make Korea a drug-free nation, urging the prosecution to step up expanding investigations into drug crimes, saying that such cases had only been handled by the police.

On the president's remark made during a live broadcast of a pangovernmental meeting on key policy agenda items, Minister Han said drug crimes could be stopped if "war-like" efforts were made.

In June, human rights experts with the United Nations urged the international community to bring an end to the "war on drugs" and promote drug policies anchored in human rights, with support replacing punishment.

However, measures on rehabilitation of drug addicts or expanding campaigns on drugs' irreversible impacts on society and youth were not discussed at the pangovernmental meeting.