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Military to mandate drug test of all enlistees, officials

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : May 23, 2023 - 17:43

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The South Korean military will implement mandatory drug testing for all prospective and current enlistees and military officials, as part of efforts to combat the increasing drug-related crimes within and outside of the barracks.

The Defense Ministry on Tuesday announced the new set of measures aimed at fostering a "drug-free, healthy barracks culture."

The ministry recognizes the pressing need to formulate and implement measures in light of a continuing rise in drug-related crimes, predominantly committed by young conscripted soldiers, South Korean officials directing the new initiative said during a closed-door briefing.

The number of cases has shown a consistent increase, going from nine cases in 2020 to 20 cases in 2021, and further climbing to 30 cases in 2022. Particularly concerning is the upward trend in drug offenses committed by enlisted soldiers in their 20s and 30s.

The "younger generation now have easier access to a wide range of drugs, including the prevalent utilization of low-cost medical narcotics, through online platforms such as social network services," one official said during the briefing.

Another issue of concern is that the younger generation who is eligible for conscription has a "low awareness and perception of drugs while being embraced drug abuses as part of hipster culture and approached out of curiosity," the official added.

A dedicated task force on combating drug-related crimes within military environments -- which was established on May 2 and led by a vice defense minister -- has devised the initiative. The campaign mainly consists of four steps: prevention of drug inflow; crackdown and investigation; penalties and aftercare programs; and education and on-site survey.

As the first step, the Defense Ministry has decided to make it mandatory for all prospective and conscripted soldiers to undergo drug testing as the first step of the anti-drug campaign.

However, before implementing the comprehensive drug testing program for the entire enlisted soldiers, the ministry must amend the current military service act to establish a legal framework that ensures the drug testing initiative is conducted without infringing upon the basic rights of enlistees.

The ministry was unable to provide an exact timeline for the completion of the amendment process when asked by The Korea Herald. But it seeks to expedite the process and gain approval within the shortest possible time frame.

But from August, the Defense Ministry will initiate drug testing for both commissioned officer candidates and all currently serving commissioned and noncommissioned officers based on the existing state public officials act.

Additionally, the drug testing program will be extended to individuals applying for long-term service in the military after overhauling related regulations.

The military will also enhance the inspection of incoming items such as parcels and packages within the barracks, and will strengthen the management of medical narcotics accordingly. The military will intensify its efforts to detect narcotics disguised as food items, such as jellies, candy and gum.

For instance, soldiers were caught in late April under suspicion of receiving marijuana through parcel delivery and using the drug within the barrack in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province.

The military will step up "cyber patrols" to consistently monitor, track, and manage the instances of narcotics being brought into the barracks in response to the increasing trend of drug distribution through online platforms.

The Defense Ministry said it will establish a dedicated "drug investigation team" within the military prosecution and police starting from this month. In principle, the military will arrest and conduct investigations into individuals who commit drug crimes within the barracks. Furthermore, severe penalties will be imposed on those who engage in activities such as encouraging or transferring narcotics to other enlisted soldiers.

The military will also exclude personnel who have been drugged from high-risk tasks such as using firearms and make it mandatory for them to undergo education for drug addiction prevention.

Education on drug abuse prevention will be incorporated into the mandatory training curriculum for enlistees, with the goal to raise awareness about the detrimental impact of narcotics on the human body and providing detailed information about the legal consequences associated with drug-related offenses.

South Korea's Defense Minister, Lee Jong-sup, urged the ministry and the military to put concerted efforts to fully implement measures to combat drug crimes, considering now is the final chance to eliminate narcotics within military environments during a meeting with the military leadership on May 19.

"The inflow of drugs into barracks and drug abuse should never be allowed as the military is entrusted with performing high-risk missions such as handling firearms to protect the lives and safety of citizens."