As fierce criticism of celebrities who have been charged with committing sex crimes including famous singers, Lee Seung-hyun (Seungri) and Jung Joon-young, dominated the headlines, the ‘Burning Sun Scandal’ brought several different issues to the surface of the Korean society. These crimes include bribery, embezzlement, illegal drug abuse, and sexual abuse on a scale never seen before. This resulted in the scandal being turned into the ‘Burning Sun Gate’.
The biggest entertainment and sex scandal first ignited on January 28, 2019, after the assault of Kim Sang-kyo gained public attention. As he tried to help an allegedly drugged woman from being sexually assaulted, he was brutally beaten reputedly by club security guards and several police officers. This incident led to a whirlwind of controversy surrounding the suspicious relationships between the police, government and business officials, sexual misconduct, and drug trafficking happening within the walls of Burning Sun.
The illegal trade and usage of drugs especially outraged the public as drug usage was methodized to discreetly abuse women and violate their right of sexual consent. GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid), also known as ‘Mulbbong’ in Korean, is a widely used date rape drug. Colorless and odorless, it quickly leaves victims sleepy and groggy with impaired ability to recall memories. This drug was used on undoubting women at Burning Sun nightclub.
Illegal drug abuse has never been portrayed as a nationwide problem that posed threats on safety to this extent. Along with steadily rising rates of drug abuse by the general public, it is clear that Korea is no longer a drug-free nation. To secure the safety and wellbeing of Korea’s present and future, it is dire that the issue is pondered by everyone.
Current Laws and Situation
The ‘Burning Sun Scandal’ is most definitely not the first drug related scandal in Korea. Currently, actor and singer Park Yoo-chun, and Hwang Hana, the granddaughter of Namyang Dairy Products’ CEO, are in hot water for testing positive for methamphetamine. Other famous celebrities such as Robert Halley and G-Dragon along with many others have created considerable controversy.
Over the years, drug consumption has increased significantly from about 9,764 controlled cases of crime in 2013 to 12,613 in 2018 according to the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office. Even though Korea has relatively strict regulations over domestic drug abuse, the number of drug usage has climbed. Korea’s ‘Drug Law’, the only standing law about drug trafficking and use, defines the types of drugs and limits their use unless they are used for medical or scientific purposes. With a lack of distinction between soft drugs and hard drugs, all illegal means of possession, trafficking, usage, or supply of drugs can lead to less than five years of imprisonment. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety are currently in the process of creating a ‘Drug Safety Planning Department’ dedicated to dropping illegal drug abuse rates.
The most commonly used illegal drugs in Korea are marijuana and methamphetamine, along with other psychotropic drugs that take the form of a pill. Pills are the most extensively consumed form of drug and according to Soung Jea-hyen, a Researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, “What once was a bothersome process of smoking, snorting, or injecting a substance is now simplified to swallowing a pill which makes drug usage more approachable.”
Secondly, globalization has a prominent role in changing how people view drugs. “The opening of Korean boundaries to foreign students, workers, soldiers, and those who have studied abroad along with economic growth and socio-cultural changes has contributed to the lack of recognition toward the dangers of drugs,” said Yoon Heunghee, a Professor of Drugs and Alcohol at the Graduate School of Public Administration at Hansung University. Although easily abused, drugs are most commonly consumed between acquaintances and for recreation, often creating a ‘group identity’. This can explain why drugs were somewhat openly used at Burning Sun. Soung said, “Taking drugs was a type of culture for the group of people at the club who victimized women. Freely giving out drugs and taking them together in groups made it possible for the incidents to occur in such a public area. Crimes committed in groups can strengthen group identity while lessening guilt.” This culture that develops an identity and solidarity can make some members of society, like the aforementioned celebrities, extremely vulnerable to prohibited drug consumption.
Illegal Trafficking and Solutions
“Drug trafficking utilizes a cutting edge technology fit for the 21st century, while investigation methods dwell in the 19th century,” says Soung. He also claims that significant advances in the illegal drug trade allow criminals to utilize greater accessibility of drugs with new undetectable and diversified methods of drug trafficking. “In the past, drugs were bought and sold through mail in forms of letters and packages, or through direct meet-ups between the seller and the buyer.”
Yoon explains that these methods had been previously investigated largely based on interrogation to find the source market and supplier. However, technological advancement has brought much change. “With the introduction of messenger apps that make it impossible to track who’s behind the texts, dealers use a ‘throw and leave trick’ where they tell the client to pick up goods at a certain area and time,” says Yoon. He says that this makes it very difficult to find the source as the buyers themselves do not know who they purchased drugs from. The addition of the Dark Web and cryptocurrency make trafficking extremely tech-savvy and harder to detect, with avenues to buy drugs easily found on Facebook and other Internet websites.
Korea has forces in the National Police Agency, Public Prosecutors’ Office, Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and Korea Customs Service to hinder drug trafficking and arrest those responsible. However, the investigating teams still lack immensely in terms of labor, financial support, equipment, and up-to-date data or methods to confront the evolving practices involved with serious drug crimes. Professor Yoon, who has had 30 years of experience in drug crime investigation explained the limitation of Korea’s legal system: “The spread of drug trafficking can only be stopped when professional investigation offices are established. Detectives are no longer sent to other departments due to human resource shortages, when training is efficient, and with cyber police gaining a much more critical position.” Soung argues that Korea’s legal system needs to apply foreign investigation methods. “Unlike the U.S., Korea prohibits decoy and undercover investigation due to threats of human rights violations. However, if processes are applied correctly with strict guidelines, it can effectively mitigate crime.”
Another factor that should encourage intensive investigation is Korea’s increasing participation in the global drug trade. Only a small percentage of drugs consumed in Korea are domestically made, with the rest coming in from global ports of Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Russia, and North Korea. According to Sim In-shik, an Analyst from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a large majority of methamphetamine has been sourced from Myanmar driven by transnational organized crime groups in recent years. He adds, “When there are more drugs to push for in organized crime groups, they look for a market which can be lucrative, and Korea fits in that category due to the drug’s high retail price.”
Sim also explains why Korea is greatly targeted by the global market. Drugs are smuggled in through loopholes such as sea transmitted freights not being thoroughly checked by the Korean Customs Service. It is dire that more efficient governmental measures are not taken to sever the initial entrance of drugs. “One of Korea’s serious concerns is a lack of understanding on patterns and trends of drug abuse in the country. This is mainly due to the absence of a systematic approach to monitor Korea’s drug abuse,” states Sim. He concludes that in order to establish effective drug policies, a clear understanding on changes in geographical and temporal trends in illicit drug abuse across the country is needed. Not only does Korea have to work on strengthening its borders, but Yoon also states: “International organizations like UNODC have to establish mutual assistant relations and exchange information between countries to enforce supply cut-off policies.” However, domestic and international organizations inevitably have limitations in enforcing laws in other countries. Therefore, in Soung’s opinion, “The role of private intelligence agencies such as the CIA and DEA must become significant to solve global drug trade issues. Utilization of information is key in diminishing universal-scale trade and the private research of trafficking does not obtrusively impose a threat on a country’s legal boundaries.”
The Korean Society’s Drug Abusers
Drug abuse in Korea carries the level of social stigma that not many other countries have. Lee Jeong-sam, the Chief of the Addiction Rehabilitation Center at Korean Association Against Drug Abuse (KAADA), attributes this to the perceived rarity of drug abuse in Korea. “Because drugs are not as frequently encountered compared to alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, there is a tendency to see drug addicts as monstrous people infatuated with unthinkably rare substances. This belief creates the scale of social stigma that is ungraspable.” Park Young-deok, the Head of the Addiction Recovery Program at KAADA, agrees with Chief Lee: “Lack of social discourse on drug abuse amplifies the view that drug abuse is a distant issue, and that their sons and daughters will never fall prey to it. Drug abusers then become a target of isolation, which puts them back into the cycle of addiction.” Here, according to Lee, is where Korea and other countries differ.
Koreans consider drug addicts more as criminals rather than patients that need medical treatment and rehabilitation. Even first-time or minor offenders are stigmatized, with little chance of successfully setting their foot back into society. The United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs recognized drug addiction to be a ‘complex multifactorial health disorder characterized by chronic and relapsing nature’. This represented a shift in mentality by the United Nations’ Member States, but it is something that South Korea has yet to become part of. Specialists in the field of drug psychology say addiction cannot be overcome on one’s own. Chief Lee mentions: “The very first decision to inject drug is voluntary, of course, but repeated usage causes consistent brain changes that ultimately limit one’s ability to exercise self control. Upon injection, the central nervous system, more specifically the ‘reward pathway’, is flooded with dopamine. If one continues to use drugs, the brain adapts to the drug and reduces the amount of cells in the reward pathway when responding to the substance, producing less and less dopamine. He says dependency on prescribed medication begins in a slightly different way. “Because it is a prescribed medical drug, patients inject it firsthand with no sense of guilt. If the same medication is used repeatedly, however, patients become tolerant and dosage will have to be increased. I have seen a patient who needed to take 100 pills of Zolpidem a day for its initial effect to be felt.”
What Kind of Drug Policies are Korea and Other Countries Pursuing?
All countries prohibit unauthorized possession of drugs, but to varying degrees and methods for rehabilitation programs. In accordance to Article 3 of the Act on the Control of Narcotics, Korea strictly bans the use, import, export, and cultivation of narcotics. But experts say Korea’s punishment-centered criminal law system is not accompanied with an equally robust system for the rehabilitation of drug abusers. Article 40 of the Act on the Control of Narcotics states: “The Minister of Health and Welfare or a mayor may either establish and operate a medical treatment and protection facility, or designate such a facility in order to test a person using drugs due to addiction or to treat and protect those who have been found diagnosed as addicts.” The Ministry of Health and Welfare currently selects 21 national health centers as treatment and protection facilities, of which only two currently agree to serve as such.”
The United States complies with Title II of its Controlled Substance Act in strictly regulating illicit manufacturing and distribution of narcotics. At the same time, it outlines its commitment to rehabilitation on a firmer basis. According to Section 2 of Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 1966, “… certain people addicted to narcotic drugs who are not charged with the commission of any offense should be afforded the opportunity, through civil commitment, for treatment, in order that they may be rehabilitated and returned to society as usual members and in order that society may be protected more effectively from crime and delinquency which result from narcotic addiction.” Lee Jeongsam pointed to the U.S. operation of what is known as ‘drug courts’ as one instance where criminal sanctions and addiction treatment are treated with equal significance. “Drug courts employ programs designated to prevent drug abuse relapse in addition to judiciap \csupervision. Nonviolent offenders are thus given two options: prosecution and sentencing, or opportunities for rehabilitation through drug courts. This is a balanced, healthcare-based approach to drug abuse,” Lee said. In Germany, Section 29 to 30(b) of the Narcotic Drugs Act known as Betäubungsmittelgesetz (BtMG) specifically outlaws the possession of illicit substances. Sections 35 to 37 of BtMG also establish that postponement or remission of punishment is allowed under certain circumstances if the addict has been confirmed to have entered treatment. Part I of National Strategy on Drug and Addiction Policy identified four pillars of drug and addiction policy of Germany: Prevention, Counselling and Treatment, Harm Reduction Measures, and Repression. Under Harm Reduction Measures, it notes: “Providing drug consumption rooms and opportunities to exchange hypodermic syringes helps to stabilize the addict’s health and social situation.” It believes that if drug consumption is to happen anyway, it must happen hygienically in protected places. Drug consumption centers are known to provide needles, plasters and places to wash hands. Psychiatric facilities for dependency provide detoxification treatment, crisis interventions, and planning for reintegration.
There were no considerable differences among the laws of many different countries, but how far they were willing to go in terms of providing robust medical facilities for drugdependent offenders was distinguishable. Park Chul-hyung, a Principal Research Fellow at Yonsei University Center for Counseling & Coaching Services, emphasized, “Korea is suffering from an immense lack of addiction counseling services, experts, and qualified therapists when it comes to addiction rehabilitation. Drug abusers who become addicts often do not reveal their addiction status because they fear the social stigma; but even after they finally do, they have nowhere to go to receive treatment. This is the dead end of the Korean approach to drug addiction and rehabilitation.”
The Most Optimal Approach to This Multifaceted Issue
Despite growing calls to strengthen the punishment for drug abusers, experts criticize the Korean law enforcement’s rigid prosecutorial focus on drug abusers. They say there must be equal attention given to the suppliers of drug materials as well as to the perpetrators of secondary crimes. Researcher Park stressed: “Endlessly prosecuting drug abusers is meaningless because that way, the supply route will never be blocked. Law enforcement must prioritize prosecution of suppliers over demanders. But the public’s intensive focus on demanders as they make headlines, in addition to supplying tactics that are becoming increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect are hindering change in that direction.” As for persistent nonviolent drug abusers, he says that we must blend punishment with effective addiction treatment, which is an area where Korea falls short. Lee Jeong-sam agreed with this point and suggested a new idea: “Maintaining strict regulations on suppliers while activating a treatment and rehabilitation program for narcotics addicts is the key. We must consider processing drug-dependent offenders in rehabilitation facilities rather than regular correctional facilities.”
Experts claim that people in the age group of 15 to 24 are rarely provided education on the potentially deadly impact of drug consumption. Lee Jeongsam mentioned that there is a lack of recognition among the younger groups that drugs are damaging to the extent that nobody can foretell. He emphasized, “In Korean social discourse, the word ‘drug (mayak)’ is frequently misused. The word is attached in the front of anything to exaggerate on the taste or the addictiveness of the product at hand, with the terms of ‘Mayak Gimbap’ and ‘Mayak Tteokbokki’ being common examples. Creating a social climate that is more sensitive to the dangers drugs represent is needed, especially among the youth, as they are most likely to potentially come into contact with drugs.” Park Young-deok of KAADA, who himself has been a drug addict for 25 years and has been abstinent successfully for almost 17 years, stressed the importance of effective drug education: “Introducing drug education as a preventive measure can shape the culture of informed decision making. We need to prioritize education over rehabilitation as it is more beneficial in the long term. We must prevent people from going down the path of addiction in the first place.”
Public opinion stands firmly against drug abusers and for legitimate reasons. However, while people always criticize the problem, they rarely engage in reasonable discussions about the topic. Researcher Park said shallow public reaction to temporary drug scandals and absent social discourse on drugs perpetuate addiction and can bring a new generation of young people into uninformed contact with illicit substances. “A mature society never just criticizes; it also holds conversations about the limitations it faces and potential directions for improvement,” Park said. Legal sanctions on illicit possession of drugs, with more focus on the suppliers rather than the users, along with a health-centered system for addiction recovery, and improved drug education are all needed. Meanwhile, when a person harms not only oneself but also others, as we have seen in the recent Burning Sun Scandal, society must institute and enforce regulations to the fullest extent.