Addiction rise in once drug-free South Korea

Experts say authorities are too focused on crackdowns in tackling Korea's drug problem and failing to adopt a comprehensive approach.

Shin Ji-hye

Shin Ji-hye

The Korea Herald



October 10, 2022

SEOUL – Korea, once touted by the government as “drug-free,” is seeing a fast rise in drug offences. The government’s belated crackdown alone is not enough, but prevention and rehabilitation should now go all together, experts say.

A country with 20 or fewer offenders out of every 100,000 people is generally called a drug-free nation although there is no international index to measure it. Based on the figure, Korea hasn’t been drug-free since 2015 and the number is on the rise every year.

The number of drugs seized last year was 1,296 kilograms, more than an eightfold increase from 155 kg in 2017, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office statistics. In the first half of this year, the total number of drug offenders increased by 13.4 percent to 8,575 compared to the same period last year, and the number of those convicted for smuggling and distribution also increased 32.7 percent to 2,437. Teenage offenders have increased 11 times in the past 10 years as it has become easier to buy drugs online.

How they become addicts

Kim Young-ho, a professor at Eulji University’s addiction rehabilitation and social welfare department, said many people start with the misuse of prescription drugs before going on to illegal drugs. They include sleep inducer zolpidem, appetite suppressant phentermine and benzodiazepines, which are used as nerve stabilizers.

“These drugs are prescribed in hospitals legally for ill people, but they are being used illegally in many cases,” the professor said. “But, we don’t have an addiction treatment system or preventive education on such drugs.”

According to data received from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety released last week by Rep. Kang Ki-yoon of the People Power Party, the prescriptions for fentanyl patches in their 20s increased 38.5 percent from 44,105 in 2019 to 61,087 in 2021. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid used as pain medication. It is around 100 times stronger than morphine and about 50 times stronger than heroin.

Another reason for the proliferation of drugs is easy access via social media, experts said. As transactions move online, it has become easier for teenagers and those in their 20s who are familiar with navigating cyberspaces such as the dark web and deep web, pages that are hidden from most search engines, to access narcotics. It is also much more difficult for young people, who start to get curious after seeing celebrities involved in drug cases, to overcome addiction, they said.

According to the Prosecutors’ Office statistics, the number of teen drug offenders last year was 450, a record high. In addition, there were 5,077 drug offenders in their 20s, accounting for 31.4 percent of the total, the most significant proportion among all age groups.

An April to August analysis by nonprofit group Korean Association Against Drug Abuse showed drug sales through Telegram accounted for 72.8 percent of 1,419 online drug sales cases. It was followed by KakaoTalk at 10.7 percent (210 cases), Line 4.1 percent (80 cases), and individual websites 2.1 percent (42 cases).

Choi Jin-mook, head of the drug addiction counseling office at Incheon Chamsarang Hospital, said in a radio interview last month that most drug transactions take place through social media.

“People in their 10s, 20s and 30s are easy to get access to (drug) markets in SNS (social networking services). And there are a lot of young Koreans who think that cannabis is OK because they are legal in developed countries,” said Choi, who was addicted to drugs for 23 years before becoming a counselor. “But the thing is that once you buy cannabis inside (the online market) and do it, all the other drugs are there and it becomes easy to experience others.”

He said such sales are “very, very, very” prevalent in Korea and it is difficult to crack down on them because they are individual transactions.

Ramping up regulations

Authorities are seeking to strengthen crackdowns to bring drug abuse under control.

Prosecutor General Lee Won-seok said Friday that it is the prosecution’s responsibility to protect the safety of the public and that his office will conduct a joint regional investigation into the narcotics cases.

“Recently, drug crime has spread rapidly through online transactions across borders, regardless of age, gender, region or class, and has crossed the threshold,” he said. “We plan to conduct a joint investigation at the regional level in cooperation with relevant agencies.”

Early this month, Kim Young-ran, chairperson of the Supreme Court’s sentencing committee, said at the National Assembly’s Legislative and Judiciary Committee that it was necessary to review drug crime sentencing standards.

When Rep. Jang Dong-hyeok of the People Power Party asked about the sentencing standards for a drug crime, Kim replied, “Some sentencing standards have been slightly raised in 2020, but overall it is necessary to review them.”

It was the first time Kim directly mentioned the review of sentencing standards for drug crimes amid growing criticism that the punishments have been far too weak.

Lack of rehabilitation

Experts say authorities are too focused on crackdowns in tackling Korea’s drug problem and failing to adopt a comprehensive approach.

“To truly solve the drug problem, punishment and rehabilitation treatment must go together because drugs have a high recidivism rate,” said Eulji University’s Kim Young-ho.

“However, there is currently little budget, infrastructure and legislation for rehabilitation treatment,” he said, adding, “This is because drug users are seen as only criminals.”

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in order for drug addicts to receive government-funded treatment, they must visit a ministry-designated hospital for treatment and protection of drug addicts.

In the past five years, 21 institutions have treated a total of 1,130 drug addicts. Of these, Incheon Chamsarang Hospital treated 496 patients (43.9 percent), followed by Bugok National Hospital with 398 patients (35.2 percent).

National support for rehabilitation, however, remains insufficient.

The treatment cost required for one drug addiction patient to be hospitalized for one month is at least 5 million won (about $3,500), local media reported. However, the budget allocated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the treatment of drug addiction patients this year is only 410 million won. That means the budget would be exhausted if 164 drug addicts are hospitalized for one month.

“Drug addicts are 10 times more difficult to care for than alcoholics,” professor Kim said. “It is not easy for a private hospital to handle such cases without state support.”

A senior presidential official admitted that Korea has not built enough infrastructure for drug addicts so far.

“In the past, drugs were managed quite well compared to other countries and it was not common to see drug addicts around,” he said, requesting anonymity to speak frankly about the issue. “So there was little need for infrastructure.”

“However, with the recent development of the internet and the development of private transactions, (we found) it is not well controlled, and the number of people who use drugs is increasing and the number of addicts is also increasing,” the official said. “Now it seems we have come to a stage where we need to further expand the infrastructure and increase the input (to control drug addicts).”

scroll to top