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Shocked South Korea declares war on illegal narcotics

April 20, 2023

Authorities in South Korea are preparing a clampdown on drugs after a gang allegedly gave spiked energy drinks to children, telling them it would help with their schoolwork.

Meth crystals on a black background
Children were apparently given methamphetamine in energy drinksImage: dpa/picture alliance

South Korea has reacted with both shock and fury after it was reported that a group of drug dealers was deliberately targeting children with drinks that contained methamphetamine. The suspects apparently told children "energy drinks" would help them study better.

The case took an even more alarming turn when it was reported that the crime group was also blackmailing the children's parents with the threat that they would report the families to police. The gang, made up seven Koreans and Chinese, demanded 100 million South Korean won (around €69,000, $75,500) from one parent before the police were called in.  

Drug crime at an all-time high

"This is a deeply shocking incident," said Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor of politics and ethics at Chungnam National University (CNU). "Although I recognize that Korea is no longer a drug-free country, it is truly surprising that drug crime is now even affecting minors."

And while the most recent incident appears to be a case of children in Seoul's wealthy Gangnam district being hoodwinked by dealers, Lee believes young Koreans are being influenced by the behavior of the rich and famous in society

"The number of drug offenses has exceeded 10,000 cases per year since 2015," she told DW. "I think the increase in drug-related crimes by celebrities and drug abuse by Koreans who live abroad has now spread to the general public." 

Last year, the number of arrests for selling or possession of illegal was at all-time high with 18,395 cases. With more than 2,600 arrests in the first two months of 2023, that record is likely to be broken.  

High-profile actor Yoo Ah-in was arrested in March after testing positive for a cocktail of drugs, including cannabis, ketamine, cocaine and propofol, with K-pop composer and television celebrity Don Spike charged in September with using methamphetamine. Police in May raided a cannabis farm in western Seoul and seized more than 13 kilos (29 pounds) of the drug with a street value of 281.7 million won. 

Actor Yoo Ah-in attending a reward ceremony in 2022
Yoo Ah-in was arrested last month after testing positive for drugsImage: picture alliance / YONHAPNEWS AGENCY

Launching of new narcotic unit

The South Korean government has now declared an all-out war against drug crimes. 

President Yoon Suk Yeol addressed a cabinet meeting on Tuesday and ordered his ministers to stamp out drug abuse, with a particular focus on teenagers. Yoon said he found it personally "alarming" that young people are able to obtain illegal narcotics easily. 

"A decade ago, Korea had a status as a drug-free country thanks to coordination between law-enforcement agencies, such as prosecutors, the police, the coast guard, health authorities and customs officials," Yonhap News quoted Yoon as telling his ministers.  

"But at some point, the government became complacent in a way that illegal drugs began to destroy not only ordinary people's minds, but also the hopes and dreams of our younger generations."

The government this week announced the establishment of a new narcotics investigation unit, made up of 840 officials drawn from across government agencies, to enforce measures against drug crime that were introduced late last year. The new measures included a crackdown on online adverts for illegal narcotics and restrictions for doctors prescribing large doses of legal drugs.  

Authorities are stepping up anti-drug education and increasing penalties for drug crimes. Yoo Gyeong-joon, a politician with the ruling People Power Party on April 14 proposed a bill that will permit courts to pass the death penalty on drug dealers who sell narcotics to children.

"The question is not whether the bill is too extreme or not, but whether it is viable," said Lee. "I do not think it can be enacted because first-time drug offenders usually end up with fines or probation."

"I think we should do more to educate minors," she added. "Currently, schools educate students on the dangers of smoking and drinking, but not about drugs. Education on the dangers of narcotics should be rushed out to students and the general public."  

South Korea is not a 'dystopia'

David Tizzard, an assistant professor of education at Seoul Women's University and a newspaper columnist, notes that drug abuse is still a relatively minor problem and that Korea remains a safe country. "The recent incident involving children and drugs in Gangnam was horrific," he agreed. "Naturally, there was widespread condemnation and the authorities have moved quickly to investigate the incident."

"The worry is, however, that people in other countries will see this and it will immediately reinforce their images of Korea and other Asian countries as a techno-orientalist dystopia inhabited by unhappy people and filled with tragic cases such as these."

Tizzard points out that, in reality, there is little in the way of anti-social behavior on the streets. Parks and public areas are not full of graffiti and drug paraphernalia, university students do not come into class stoned or walk around in a daze, and parents do not worry about their teenage children getting into drugs or violence, he said.

"This story is news because it's so rare and stands out in a society which is otherwise relatively free of widespread drug problems when compared relatively to Europe or North America," he added, warning that such reports can "create a false image in the minds of those who don't live and work here."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea