Illegal drug use in not a big thing in South Korea. Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “South Koreans as a whole are little affected and uninformed when it comes to drugs: Many clump ‘drugs’ into one large box, without distinguishing soft and hard drugs. Celebrities are often wiped off completely from the scene following a drug scandal. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016]

Methamphetamines — known as Philopon or yaba in Korea and crystal meth in the West — is probably the most popular illegal drug in South Korea and practically legal in North Korea. In the south it is often sold by dealers working at karaokes and singing rooms. The son of the late president Park Chung-hee was arrested three times for taking phiopon.

Glue, butane and solvent sniffing was common among middle school students. In the 1990s, some of my university-aged students told me they used to sniff glue. Authorities have considered placing a substance with an awful odor in butane to deter young people from sniffing it.

In 2016, the number of drug offenses in South Korea increased by 20 percent compared to 2015, to 14,214. The same year the country lost its status as a United Nations-designated “drug-free nation,” according to countries with fewer than three drug criminals for every 10,000 inhabitants. In a nationwide narcotics crackdown by the National Korean Police Agency, from February to April 2017, year, officials made 2,064 arrests, 12.8 percent of which were marijuana-related. The number of arrests were also higher than 2015's figure of 1,956. “Authorities are taking a stern approach recently towards drug abuse, threatened by an increasing number of narcotics crimes,” Chang Hoon , a lawyer at the Taeshin Law Firm, said in an interview with the Korea News System. “Drug crimes often result in prison sentences due to their addictive nature and repeated offenses.” [Source: Joseph Shin, Korea Bizwire, June 9, 2017]

Opiates use: percentage of the population aged 15–64: 0.2 percent (compared to 3.31 percent in Iran, 1.04 percent in the United States and.004 percent in Singapore. [Source: World Drug reports of 2011 and 2006 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Cocaine use: 0.03 percentage of the population aged 15–64: percent (compared to 2.2 percent in Spain, 2.1 percent in the United States and .0002 percent in Singapore. [Source: World Drug reports of 2011 and 2006 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Drug use deaths (per 100,000 people): 0.24, one of the lowest in the world (compared to 15.93 in Ukraine and 0.30 in Japan. [Source: World Health Organization, World Life Expectancy ]

History of Drug Use in Korea

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) has been growing on the Korean peninsula for as long as Korea’s written history. Hemp fiber was traditionally woven into sambe, an ivory-tinted fabric. The cloth is widely associated with traditional funeral clothing, even though in reality it is a fairly recent custom originating from the colonization period. The plant is still grown and spun in the countryside, despite a strict ban on consuming or smoking its leaves. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, October 21, 2016]

“By the end of the 19th century, opium had entered the Korean peninsula and its usage increased during the next half century, impacted by the use of medical morphine, endorsement of opium plantations by Japanese imperialists, as well as the return of Korean-Chinese citizens with an opiate habit, following the country’s independence in 1945

“The American push for opium control brought the Narcotics Act into effect in 1957, which was then complemented by the 1970 Act on Habit-Forming Medicine to deal with the surge in methadone and barbiturates use in the 1960s; the Cannabis Control Act in 1976; the 1980 Toxic Chemicals Control Act and Psychotropic Substance Control Act in order to cope with the superglue and butane gas consumption as well as the introduction of methamphetamines, respectively.

“In 2000, a comprehensive Narcotics Act encompassing narcotics, cannabis and psychotropics came into force. Meanwhile, all South Koreans were finally given, in 1989, the right to freely travel internationally, a freedom which also entailed the smuggling of various narcotics, such as cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), and yaba (an amphetamine).”

Drug Penalties in South Korea

According to Like many Asian countries, Korean law treats the use, possession, sale, cultivation and trafficking of drugs very seriously. Large scale trafficking of drugs including marijuana can result in the life in prison or even the death penalty. The penalty for dealing is 5 years to life, while even simple possession can run a sentence of up to 5 years. Unlike many other countries, failing a urine or hair follice test, which can be given randomly by the police, or even admitting to drug use in other countries is treated the same as if you actually were in possession of the drug itself. Foreign citizens convicted of use or possession usually serve 3-6 months in a Korean prison, are fined US$1000-5000 and then deported. Courts will sometimes reduce these sentences if you can provide information resulting in the arrest of one dealer or five other users. [Source:]

“Korean police will arrest you, and unlike some countries bribery is not an option. Korea has an amazingly large police force and an almost non-existant crime rate, meaning police will not look the other way for minor drug offenses. Police patrol neighborhoods, parks, and open areas heavily by car, motorcycle, and on foot. Private citizens will also call the police if they see or smell you smoking. There is virtually no tolerance for any drug use by the local polulation. If you are arrested you will go to prison, and there are no exceptions for foreigners. However, smoking weed is almost non-existant in Korea, and most Koreans would not know what Marijuana smells or looks like. However, if you are caught, you are pretty much SOL.

“The number of dealers is tiny and the cost is prohibitively expensive. There have been a number of recent articles in the local media accusing foreigners of bringing their “drug problems” to Korea, and many Koreans assume that all foreigners do and deal drugs. As a result there is a great deal of racial profiling against all non Koreans here, and you can serve hard prison time just for failing a drug test. If dealers are caught they will most certainly turn in their clients in exchange for a reduced sentence, and if accused you will be required to submit to a drug test.”

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “The continuous increase in drug usage is alarming to authorities which fear the country will lose its status as a drug-free nation. The label implies that the population has little risk of exposure and that international drug trafficking faces a challenging environment. Regulations are thus tough on both South Korean nationals and on foreigners, with repeat offenders sentenced between ten years to life and in some cases, capital punishment. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016]

“South Korea’s hardline policy is not surprising considering the region’s general attitude — Japan has even refused visas to Mick Jagger and Paris Hilton for drug offences committed elsewhere in the past. However, South Korea is not as tough as some of its neighbors — Singapore and Indonesia enforce executions more widely on hard drug traffickers, and China extends this to cannabis.

“ The Busan Metropolitan Police was widely praised for their work when they released footage from a methamphetamine user’s arrest on YouTube in 2013. The South Korean government’s drug regulations still remain strict, and notably follow the ‘Nationality Principle,’ meaning that South Korean nationals who have consumed illegal substances in a country where they are legal can be punished retroactively once they re-enter the country. Although this sounds harsh, it actually means that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is effectively in place.

“Despite various legislation on drug use and sales dating for nearly 60 years, South Korea lacks a comprehensive ‘drug agency.’ Currently, the National Police Agency and the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office are in charge of arrests, the courts of sentencing, and twenty-one national medical facilities and the Korean Association Against Drug Abuse (KAADA) of rehabilitation.

“A particular deficit can be found in the rehabilitation process, as demonstrated by the high numbers of repeat crimes (accounting for anywhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of all drug-related crimes). Founded in 1992, the KAADA is an NGO responsible for the rehabilitation process and provides a residential program for up to a year, but only focuses on the behavioral aspect of treatment and job training, and does not, as in many other OECD nations, conduct this in parallel with medical treatment. It also limits patient intake to twelve persons at a time, and treatment may cost extra for the patient, depending on the case.

Drug Use on the Rise in South Korea?

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: South Korea’s reputation as a drug-free nation is in danger. The number of students, housewives and ‘ordinary people’ using drugs has been rising steadily. It’s not just celebrities who make headlines by indulging in a joint while on vacation in California (e.g. male K-pop stars who show off freshly shorn scalps when re-entering the country; it can be a strategy for bypassing drug tests on hair) — but also ordinary Kims and Lees who make the news. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, October 21, 2016]

“11,916 arrests were made in relation to drug-related crimes in 2015, a record number in this nation. According to South Korea’s largest daily Chosun Ilbo, the numbers of investment bankers arrested for drug offences has increased from 4 in 2010 to 18 in 2015; ‘salarymen’ from 115 to 514; and students from 92 to 139. Interestingly many of the perpetrators are middle aged; more than half of all drug-related crimes are committed by those in their 30’s and 40’s. There are also increasing reports of fishermen, farmers and married couples becoming addicted to illegal substances.

“Until a decade ago, drugs were portrayed as existing in the realm of celebrities, gang members and crime films. Drug use is still frowned upon in South Korea, whether it be narcotics, psychotropics, or cannabis derivatives (the three categories used by the government). Due to the limited supply, mainstream youth culture doesn’t (or rather, cannot) find drugs ‘cool,’ as the atmosphere may be in some other nations, and there is no widespread pressure to “just try it,” simply because most teenagers do not have access to illegal substances. (Peer pressure is usually applied with cigarettes and alcohol.)

“However, with continuous exposure to Western cultures that are more lenient on drug use, combined with the freedom of international travel, a growing number of youth are visiting countries where drugs may be easier to find, and sometimes, bringing back various amounts. As a university student in Seoul, I was surprised to witness this shift. I was offered a chance to buy marijuana, was invited to a pot party, smelled the dank scent of hash in an underground concert venue, and have seen young people close to me recount their experience with LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms, and cannabis – all of it in South Korea, all of it in company of people I would consider middle or upper-middle class.

“Jack was a Korean-American student from California. Mixing bravado with what appeared to be a great deal of exaggeration, he told me he had brought back cannabis a couple of times from Australia, concealed inside a bottle of hair gel. He confidently added: “If I brought it to your house and we smoked it together and the cops passed by, they wouldn’t be able to tell what’s going on because they just don’t know what it smells like.” I believed that last part. How are the police supposed to bust something which is recognized by its smell but so rarely smoked that most people don’t even know what it smells like? But the rest sounded too good to be true – bringing drugs into South Korea was only possible with gangs moving in stealth on a pier in Busan, I thought. That was, until one night, a South Korean friend of mine called me and yelled “Emily! We’re on campus smoking pot Jack got us from Sydney! This is amaaazing!”

Kinds of Drugs Used in South Korea

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: Sometimes legal products are used for their hallucinogenic effect: superglue (bondeu in Korean) and butane gas (sold in small canisters, used to fire up small cooking burners at home and restaurants). While it’s an everyday item, superglue contains toluene, a substance favored by teenagers without the means to purchase ‘real’ drugs and looking for a quick high. The issue has persisted for so long that minors are banned from purchasing super glue due to amendments made to the Youth Protection Act in the late 1990s. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, October 21, 2016]

“Then there are the powerful prescription-only drugs such as Zolpidem (more commonly known in South Korea as Stilnox), Rohypnol (“roofie”), GHB (mulppong), and ketamine, which are illegally sold and used as “date rape drugs.” The first two are intended for treating insomnia, and the latter two are used for alcoholism and as an anesthetic, respectively.

Propofol, an anesthetic IV drip, was classified as a psychotropic substance in 2011 after a public scandal and news coverage in 2009 escalated – some doctors were found to have unethically marketed the product as a “sleeping aid which helps your skin recover faster and cures fatigue” to thousands of women. Many customers were in the performing arts or the sex industry and thus highly concerned with their looks.

Propofol is also an expensive drug, costing anywhere from 100,000 KRW to five times that per unit when purchased and injected at clinics, and its casual users also included medical doctors, nurses and a Korean-American television personality Amy, who was eventually deported to the U.S. (Before deportation, she was also charged with illegally obtaining dozens of Zolpidem tablets from an acquaintance.) For a time Propofol became so popular that it was dubbed the “milk shot,” after the color of the drug. One media outlet reported middle-aged women were walking around the wealthy Gangnam district of Seoul, offering women IV drips at a much lower market price than hospitals or clinics did.

Psychotropics, a category that encompasses LSD, ketamine and methamphetamine, are by far the most popular substances of choice – it’s the reason why South Koreans associate the word ‘drugs’ with needles rather than puffs of smoke. And among all the psychotropics, one that is most imprinted on South Koreans’ minds is methamphetamine – more commonly called pilopon (after the Japanese word hiropon).

According to Yonhap News, 11,916 people were arrested in 2015 for drug-related crimes; 9,624 of them were psychotropic substance users or dealers. (Only about 1,100 arrests were for cannabis derivatives.) Nearly 80 percent of the narcotics confiscated by the Korea Customs Service were methamphetamines. Even recently there have been several cases of middle-aged men causing traffic accidents under the influence of methamphetamine. One of them involved a 50-year-old truck driver who said he believed it would keep him awake during his long hours on the highway.

Drugs, Aphrodisiacs and Date Rape in South Korea

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “In 2004, comedian Noh Hong-chul, perhaps best known around the world as the “elevator man” in Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video, published a confessional essay stating that he once got a girl drunk while in high school in order to have sex with her. He wrote, “[…] in order to get a woman [unconscious], you could use alcohol, sleeping pills, or pig aphrodisiac. The last one was too hard to get, so I gave up. They didn’t sell sleeping pills in large quantities, so I gave up on that too […]” The article ends with Noh confessing that the girl started vomiting, that he had to send her home “without any rewards”, and that the next day the girl called him, yelling, “Don’t ever do that again, you asshole!” The article caused much controversy when it resurfaced in 2007, but Noh’s agency has maintained that the magazine had fabricated the article. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016]

“Yet drugs and sex appear inseparable in South Korea. Hashtags such as “ice,” “methamphetamine” and “cannabis” on Twitter are almost always accompanied by terms such as “aphrodisiac,” “erection aid,” “Viagra,” “lip café” (a type of prostitution service) and “hot girls.” Methamphetamine has been used by men as a date rape drug, as a means to force teenage girls into prostitution, in involuntary manslaughter, as well as in facilitating moral transgressions such as orgies, partner swapping and ‘various perversions,’ and meth ‘parties’ involving pregnant women, some of them underage.

“Substance users often claim they had used the drug to “get away from the shame” of the sexual deviations they had committed. A more disturbing aspect is the use of aphrodisiacs – particularly “pig and horse Viagra” products normally used by veterinarians to sexually arouse animals for reproduction and which may have fatal consequences if administered improperly, both on animals and humans. Such medication is sold for hefty sums on various online shopping malls as aphrodisiacs, but upon closer examination their marketing approach is to promote rape.”

Earlier, “I said that prescription drugs such as GHB and Rohypnol were being sold illegally. As opposed to the prescription drugs which are used to turn women unconscious, several natural and chemical products are sold and marketed as ‘aphrodisiacs’ – they’ll want to make women have sex with you, so you don’t have to ‘force’ them — is the underlying assumption of many of the ads for such products.

“As opposed to the prescription drugs which are used to turn women unconscious, several natural and chemical products are sold and marketed as ‘aphrodisiacs’ – they’ll want to make women have sex with you, so you don’t have to ‘force’ them — is the underlying assumption of many of the ads for such products.”

Marijuana in South Korea

Marijuana grows wild in the mountains of Kangwon-do and Kyongsang-namdo but it a serious criminal offense to use it. Few Koreans smoke it and K-Pop stars suspected of using it have had their careers go down the tubes.

Cannabis use: percentage of the population aged 15–64: 0.3 percent (compared to 27 percent in Israel, 16.2 percent in the United States and 0.3 percent in Japan [Source: World Drug reports of 2011 and 2006 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Itaewon in Seoul is perhaps the most likely place to score some weed in South Korea because a lot of U.S. servicemen go there According to It is basically impossible to buy Marijuana in the city of Incheon. The local population really does not smoke, and the tiny expat community is mostly too afraid of the law to attempt it here. Asking any local will likely result in a police call – if of course the local speaks enough English to understand you. Many expats will be sympathetic but will not help out of fear of legal reprecussions. Seoul, however, is a short subway ride away and there is a small amount of weed to be had in the foreign neighborhood of Itaewon. This is the only place in all of Korea where I have seen or smoked weed. [Source:]

“White hippe types and possible some of the West Africans will be able to point you in the right direction if you have the chance to get to know them. However, asking randomly on the street, even here will likely land you in jail. Your best bet is to go to a hookah cafe or a reggae bar in Itaewon, start a conversation with a (non Korean) hippie type or African immigrant, buy that person a drink and eventually talk about the “scene” in Korea. Avoid being too direct at first or you might scare the person away. If you meet the right people you should be able to score something or at least be smoked down. Keep in mind that many expats in Korea smoke back home but are too afraid to smoke in Korea or too poor to afford the high costs. [Source:]

Strict Penalties for Marijuana in South Korea

In South Korea, just the use of marijuana can get you five years in prison or fine of 50 million won (about US$60,000). Joseph Shin wrote in Korea Bizwire: Smoking marijuana is no joke in South Korea. Despite its growing medicinal applications and lenient approach (regardless of its legality) towards possession and consumption in more than a few countries, marijuana is treated by the Act on the Control of Narcotics as an equal alongside other, sometimes heavier, substances like heroin, opium and cocaine. The law even became stricter this month with a revision banning advertisements of narcotics (including weed) and sharing methods of drug-making processes – acts that will be punishable by up to three years of imprisonment or 30 million won (US$26,754) in fines. [Source: Joseph Shin, Korea Bizwire, June 9, 2017]

“Arguments for decriminalizing marijuana were widely publicized in 2004, when actress Kim Bu-seon, who had been arrested multiple times for possession of marijuana, officially challenged the constitution. Kim claimed that the punishment of marijuana users in South Korea is too severe, and violates the right to the public’s pursuit of happiness, citing the substance’s negligible impact on the body. Her crusade was also endorsed by late singer Shin Hae-chul.

“The Constitutional Court, however, ruled against the appeal in the following year in a unanimous decision, stating that the “legalization of marijuana could lead to more dangerous consequences than alcohol and cigarettes, including violent crimes while under the influence.” A decade after the court’s verdict, authorities and civic organizations here, including the Korea Association against Drug Abuse, hold on to their arguments against marijuana’s legalization, and their position is firmly endorsed by society. With South Korea experiencing an increasing number of drug-related crimes in recent years, the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana is not likely to take a new turn for the time being, industry watchers anticipate.

According to Coming from someone who has not only smoked weed in nearly 15 countries, but has also carried reasonable amounts across intl borders, let me say that smoking in Korea is probably not worth the risk. Smoking weed is completely taboo here, and discussing your favorite past time with any locals – even young trendy ones – will likely land you in jail. The majority of expats I know here were crazy stoners back home (like myself) and now refuse to touch the stuff out of fear of repercussions. If you want to continue smoking the fine herb, Korea is not the place for you – go to Europe or other Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, India, Nepal, or even Thailand. If you insist on smoking here and manage to find a source, you should only smoke in your own apartment (with windows open and with cigarettes or incense burning) and not tell anyone what you are up to. The one thing you have going for you is that the locals will not be able to tell you are high, and will just assume you are drunk if you do act impaired. Likewise if you do happen to have an encounter with the police here and you are high, just act like you are drunk (sway a bit and slur your words) and no one will suspect anything. [Source:]

K-Pop Stars Arrested for Drugs in South Korea

Joseph Shin wrote in Korea Bizwire: Cannabis has once again come into the national spotlight after T.O.P, a member of K-pop boyband Big Bang, was indicted earlier this week by the police for allegedly vaping liquid marijuana four times with a 21-year-old prospective female singer in October of last year. The 29-year-old rapper, who was hospitalized on June 6 after an apparent overdose of prescribed tranquilizer, may face up to five years in prison or 50 million won in fines, although he could get away with a suspended sentence if the court finds him guilty of only one instance of smoking, as the singer initially claimed. The public was quick to condemn the singer for his drug use, which would have settled for gossip in a more cannabis-generous country overseas, while at the same time questioning the management competency of Big Bang’s talent agency, YG Entertainment. [Source: Joseph Shi, Korea Bizwire, June 9, 2017]

“In 2011, another Big Bang member, G-Dragon, admitted to having unknowingly smoked marijuana after being offered a joint by a fan at a club in Japan, while in 2010, Park Bom of 2NE1 was caught bringing in 82 pills of amphetamines from the United States through international mail. Both YG singers were ultimately not indicted, despite facing a strong backlash from the public.” Big Bang was one of the biggest K-Pop groups and G-Dragon was its leader. After he tested positive for marijuana use in 2011, the group's management company YG Entertainment reduced the size of its IPO by around 10 percent.

“Numerous South Korean celebrities have suffered similar scandals, and sometimes prison time, including Gangnam Style star PSY, rappers E Sens and Crown J, singer-songwriter Cho Yong-pil, and comedian and TV host Shin Dong-yup. The offenders, accepting society’s unforgiving attitude towards drug use, had to voluntarily, or involuntarily, ban themselves from the show business for months, if not years.

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “In 2014, pop star Park Bom, of the group 2NE1 made headlines with her alleged drug usage back in October 2010. The singer had ordered 82 amphetamine pills labelled ‘gummy bears’ from the U.S. and dispatched them to her grandmother’s address in the port city of Incheon near Seoul. The police verified that she had taken only 4 of the pills, the singer pleaded for leniency based on her prior use of the medication while residing in the U.S., and eventually her case was dropped. But much controversy trailed Park, owing to the public’s lack of knowledge of and demonization of narcotics. The media and the public were quick to denounce Park as a ‘drug addict.’ [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, October 21, 2016]

R. Jun wrote in Cha Joo Hyuk, a former member of the idol group Coed School, is being prosecuted without detention for use of marijuana. According to the prosecution, Cha Joo Hyuk received three marijuana cigarettes from a woman, only referred to as Ms. Kang, in March 2016, after which he smoked them in a basement parking garage in his car. Previously, it was revealed that Cha Joo Hyuk attempted to smuggle the drug Ketamine — a prescription anesthetic that is used as a party drug — into Canada in August 2016. He was caught at the local airport and refused entry into the country. [Source: R. Jun, March 23, 2017]

Cha Joo Hyuk first debuted in 2010 as a part of the K-pop group Coed School. At the time, his stage name was Kangho. Shortly after debut, he was swept up in a sex crime scandal, and photos came out of him visiting an adult entertainment facility despite being a minor. A year later, he left Coed School and became an actor under the name Cha Joo Hyuk. He appeared in JTBC’s “Happy Ending” in 2012, and enlisted in the military in 2013.

S. Korean Actresses Abuse Drug That Killed Michael Jackson

In 2013, three South Korean actresses — Park Si-Yeon, Lee Seung-Yeon, and Jang Mi-In-Ae were charged with abusing propofol — the same drug that caused the death of Michael Jackson AFP reported: “Three South Korean actresses have been handed suspended jail terms for abusing propofol, a short-acting sedative and anaesthetic blamed in the death of US pop icon Michael Jackson, a court official said. Park Si-Yeon, Lee Seung-Yeon and Jang Mi-In-Ae were charged in March with taking the prescription drug for "non-medical purposes." All three were found guilty by the Seoul Central District Court on Monday and received eight-month prison terms –suspended for two years, the court spokesman told Agence France-Presse. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 27, 2013]

“Propofol is a powerful sedative used as a general anaesthetic. It reduces anxiety and promotes relaxation but may cause a person to experience hallucinations. South Korea classified the drug as a psychotropic medicine two years ago, making it illegal to prescribe or consume other than for stipulated treatments that may need anesthesia, such as a gastro-intestinal endoscopy. Park, a top actress who has appeared in many TV shows and movies, received the so-called "milk shot" containing the creamy-colored propofol 185 times from February 2011 to last December. As well as the suspended prison term, she was fined 3.7 million won (US$3,490). Lee, a prominent actress and a TV talk show host, received 111 injections during the same period, and fellow actress Jang took 95 shots in 2011 and 2012. The two also received fines of 4 million won and 5.5 million, respectively.

“All three had pleaded not guilty, arguing they had received the injections for dermatological and plastic surgery treatments or to relieve pain caused by illness and gruelling work schedules. Another top entertainer, Hyun Young, who had been charged with the trio in March, was given a five million won fine at the time and avoided a trial. Two doctors who had been accused of prescribing the drug to the actresses were also handed suspended jail terms, community service and fines. In 2011, Michael Jackson's doctor Conrad Murray was jailed for four years after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter for giving Jackson propofol nightly for some two months before his death, and on the day he died, June 25, 2009.”

Drug Arrests and Online Drugs Sales in South Korea

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: “According to a 2016 Korean Institute of Criminology report (via Yonhap), of the 9,742 arrests made in 2014, 52.2 percent were users; 26.1 percent dealers; only 5 percent of all arrests were made on farming (opium poppy and cannabis) and 4 percent on drug trafficking. No case of drug manufacturing (i.e. meth labs) was reported (though there recently have been raids on drug labs).

“The drug arrest figure correlates to the rising number of purchases made through the Internet and international courier services. Drug dealers are unlikely to choose South Korean portal sites such as Naver and Daum as their outlets, as they are known to comply to government requests for user data including user ID, logon data, and IP address. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016]

“However, overseas-based services such as WordPress, Tumblr, Gmail, messenger apps Wickr and Telegram, as well as Deep Web forums are easily accessible and frequented by users. By taking photos or videos of the products on sale next to their phones, clearly showing the date and time, dealers try to prove to potential customers that they have genuine goods. Bizarrely, some dealers advertise even on university websites, in an indication of their target clientele. The "free discussion" page of one South Korean university's website is flooded with advertising for "ice," "herb," "crystal" and Marijuana. “

Drug (Mostly Methamphetamines) Smuggling and Seizures in South Korea

South Korea seized 116.7 kilograms of methamphetamines in 2019 according to the Korea Customs Service. This was the second-largest amount after the record of 222.9 kilograms of Philopon was confiscated in 2018. Yonhap reported: The number of cases in which at least a kilogram of methamphetamine was found came to 22 in 2019, up from 16 cases a year earlier, indicating that drug dealers here are operating on a bigger scale. A kilogram of methamphetamine could contain as many as 30,000 doses. [Source: Yonhap, January 31, 2020]

“While smugglers mostly hid the drug in their bodies or luggage while traveling into the country, they also attempted to ship the narcotics via international mail by disguising them as coffee products. By origin, Malaysia accounted for the largest amount — 68.2 kilograms — followed by the United States with 13.7 kilograms, Thailand with 11.5 kilograms, Laos with 7.6 kilograms and Cambodia with 6.4 kilograms. The Golden Triangle, which straddles Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, is considered a major drug producing area.”

Emily Singh wrote in Korea Expose: In November 2016, a group of 6 drug dealers and 84 users ranging from celebrities, flight attendants, college students, North Korean defectors, housewives, “salarymen,” as well as gang members were arrested. Six days later, an 81-year woman and a 50-year old man were arrested growing and distributing marijuana, respectively.” A few days later, “arrested a man in his thirties for manufacturing 350 grams of methamphetamine from cold medicine at a factory in Gyeonggi Province. [Source: Emily Singh, Korea Expose, November 27, 2016] In 2008, South Korean police arrested 111 Thai migrant workers for the trafficking and consumption of methamphetamine in one of the country's biggest drug busts. Reuters reported: “Three of the workers in Gyeonggi province south of Seoul have been charged for smuggling and distributing the drugs, and the rest have been indicted for consuming them, a police officer said on Wednesday. Four have been deported for overstaying their work permits. Police suspect widespread trafficking and use of methamphetamine in the migrant worker community and are expanding their investigation, the officer said. [Source: Reuters, October 2008]

U.S. Soldiers Charged with Smuggling Methamphetamines Into South Korea

In 2017, two 2nd Infantry Division soldiers were indicted in connection with a US$10 million methamphetamine smuggling case involving the U.S. military postal service. A shipment of more than three interesting of meth — in three packages with labels saying they contained candy — was discovered in late October 2016 by the customs service at the Incheon airport near Seoul. Authorities then monitored the shipment and detained the soldiers, both 19, for questioning days later when they moved to collect it. The men were indicted on charges of violating the narcotics control act. [Source: Kim Gamel and Yoo Kyong Chang, Stars and Stripes, January 11, 2017]

Kim Gamel and Yoo Kyong Chang wrote in Stars and Stripes: “The 2nd Infantry Division said it was cooperating fully with local authorities in the matter and “is committed to helping ensure a fair and just outcome for all involved.” “Currently, one of the soldiers involved is in pre-trial confinement with the Korean authorities, and the second is with his unit,” spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hyde said in an emailed statement.

“The soldiers were allegedly acting on behalf of a third party who has not been identified but is believed to be a Korean-American, said an official in the prosecutors’ office in Uijeongbu, which is home to the 2nd ID headquarters at Camp Red Cloud. The man reportedly promised to pay one US$3,000 and the other US$1,000 for the delivery, which originated in California. Both soldiers have denied the drug allegations, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing the details.

“They were both indicted, but only one was jailed after a local court declined to issue an arrest warrant for the other, the official said. The soldier who was taken into custody allegedly told prosecutors he met with the other suspect at a restaurant off post and agreed to arrange for the parcel to be delivered. But he said he didn’t know what was inside. The packages were delivered to a military post office address belonging to one of the soldiers who planned to hand them over to his friend for delivery to the third suspect, the source said. The drugs have been confiscated. The U.S. has some 28,500 service members stationed in South Korea.

Smoking in South Korea

Cigarette Consumption per Capita: 1668, compared to 6330 in Luxembourg and 89.3 in India [Source: Wikipedia ]

Adults who smoke: 26.7 percent, ranking in the world: 35th; [Source: World Health Organization 2015 ranking Wikipedia ]

South Korea has one of the highest smoking rates among men. Adult men who smoke: 53.3 percent [Source: WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic (2008) Wikipedia ]

Adult women who smoke: 5.7 percent [Source: WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic (2008) Wikipedia ]

Lung cancer rate (age-standardized rate per 100,000 people): 22.9. [Source: World Cancer Research Fund World Life Expectancy ]

Percentage of men who smoke (2002): 65 percent. [Source: World Health Organization]

Top smoking nations in the world (cigarettes smoked per person in 1993): 1) Greece (2,800); 2) Hungary (2,775); 3) Japan (2,650); 4) Poland (2,600); 5) South Korea (2,450); 6) Switzerland (2,400); 7) Bulgaria (2,150); 8) Yugoslavia (2,100); 9) Spain (2,000); 10) Czechoslovakia (1,900); 12) Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (1,850); 18) Russia (1,700); 20) Ukraine and Moldova (1,650); 24) Romania (1,550).

The leading smoking nation in the work (annual cigarettes consumption per capita for people 15 and older): 1) Poland (3,620); 2) Greece (3,590); 3) Hungary (3,280); 4) Japan (3,240); 5) South Korea (3,010); 6) Switzerland (2,910); 7) Iceland (2,860); 8) Netherlands (2,820); 9) Yugoslavia (2,800); 10) Australia (2,710); 11) United States (2,670); 12) Spain (2,670). [Source: World Health Organization (data for 1990-92).

The number of cigarettes smoked a year increased from 2,370 in 1972 to 2,750 in 1982 to 3,010 in 1992, when South Korea ranked 5th in the world in cigarette consumption.

Who Smokes in South Korea

According to the latest available Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data in 2014, 37 percent of South Korean men said they smoked every day. Rachel Premack wrote in the Washington Post: “For many Korean men, the habit starts during their required military service, when smoking provides a way to unwind, socialize and pass the time. Packs were included in rations until the mid-1990s. It also could begin in adolescence; in 2013, 14.4 percent of males in middle and high school smoked. South Korea’s education system has been denounced as a rampant stress-causer. One in four high-schoolers have considered killing themselves, Al Jazeera reported in 2013. At more than twice the median rate, the suicide rate overall in South Korea is the highest among OECD countries. The smoking habit continues in the workplace, which has its own stresses. South Koreans work, on average, 2,113 hours per year. That’s 54 percent more than Germans and 18 percent more than Americans, according to OECD data. . [Source: Rachel Premack, Washington Post, July 29, 2016]

According to 1996 survey 60 percent of adult males but only 5.1 percent of adult females smoked. These figures were down from 73.2 percent for men and 6.1 percent for women in 1992. Men sometimes are seen smoking with the cigarette in their teeth, with the burning end tilted upwards. According to a 1995 survey: 1) 60 percent of all Koreans, high school age or older had smoked at least at once; 2) 51 percent of high school students had smoked; 3) 52 percent of university students; and 4) 84 percent of other men smoked. About half of the smokers said they smoked one pack of cigarettes a day and 10 percent referred to themselves as heavy smokers.

It is considered inappropriate for Korean women to smoke. Women generally try to hide their smoking from men, although these days more and more women are smoking openly, especially in Seoul, where you often see coffee shops filled with women in their 20s lighting up. Many Korean men look upon women smokers with disgust and consider smoking a very unladylike thing to do. Men will scold them and other women will sneer. Over the past decade of so smoking and drinking has increased dramatically among women. It is still largely done privately or discretely.

According to 1996 survey, one in ten university women smoke. Another showed that 4.5 percent of women living in urban areas smoked, compared to 7 percent of women in rural areas. The largest group of women smokers at that time was women over 60 (18 percent).

Tobacco Industry in South Korea

Rachel Premack wrote in the Washington Post: Currently, the cigarette market in South Korea is mostly dominated by domestic companies. However in the 1980s, transnational cigarette corporations targeted the country as it began to liberalize its market. During this time, cigarette smoking increased 25 percent, according to a British study. Author Lee Sung-kyu wrote that it made "Korea the 8th largest tobacco market in the world by 1992, whilst smoking prevalence increased among young adults and females." [Source: Rachel Premack, Washington Post, July 29, 2016]

The Korea Tobacco and Ginseng Corporation (KT&G) is South Korea’s a state-run tobacco monopoly. It was created in 1899 for ginseng and was expanded to tobacco in 1921. It endured as monopoly until the late 1990s when the ginseng branch was spun off and private investors purchased as 60 percent stake. The monopoly was officially ended in 2001 when the remaining 60 percent was privatized but to compensate tariffs were raised on imported cigarettes step by step to 40 percent in 2004.

The Korean tobacco market is worth about US$10 billion a year, up from around US$2 billion in the late 1980s. About 100 billion cigarettes are consumed every year. On the strength of its home market Korea Tobacco is the world’s 8th largest tobacco company. The profits it earns provides a lot of money for the government.

Foreign Cigarette Companies Enter South Korea

As of 2001, only 14 percent of the cigarettes sold in South Korea were foreign, about the same share as sold in Japan. The foreign companies with the largest shares were Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco and British American Tobacco.

Until the mid-1980s it was illegal to smoke foreign cigarettes in South Korea. That policy ended when United States tobacco companies used the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT) to move into Asia. Backed up by the U.S. politicians and trade representatives, foreign tobacco companies insisted not only that they should be given the right to sell cigarettes but also be allowed to heavily promote their brands with free giveaways, sponsorships of concerts and sporting events, and advertising directed at women and children.

In May 1988, Seoul allowed the sale of U.S. cigarettes. American companies spent US$25 million on advertising in 1988 and boosted their market share from zero to 6 percent in one year. The move was greeted by student demonstrators who accused U.S. tobacco companies of "tobacco imperialism" and called for a boycott of American cigarettes.

In the early 2000, British American Tobacco (BAT) launched a US$1 billion, 10-year campaign, to penetrate more deeply into the South Korea market. The plan called for th construction of cigarette factory that could produce 400 million cigarettes a year

South Korea’s Plan to Reduce Smoking Caused the Opposite to Happen

Rachel Premack wrote in the Washington Post: “Concerned with the high numbers of people who smoke, the South Korean government launched an initiative to up the price of cigarettes. Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo called smoking the “biggest threat to national health” when he announced the measure in late 2014.” The law increased the average price of a pack of cigarettes from 2,500 won to 4,500 won (US$2.22 to US$4). New no-smoking zones and health warnings on labels on cigarette packs followed. [Source: Rachel Premack, Washington Post, July 29, 2016]

“Moon predicted that South Koreans would buy 34 percent fewer cigarettes. They didn’t. In the first six months of 2016, a Nielsen report showed that South Koreans bought 16 percent more cigarettes than they did in the same period of 2015, the Korea Herald reported on July 20. The smoking rate has generally decreased since the late '90s, but this tax didn’t provide the hit Moon had hoped for.

“That’s significant as it's common sense to attribute South Korea’s high tobacco use to its ultra-low cost. At US$2.22, the cost of a pack is significantly cheaper than it is in the United States, where it costs US$7.26, on average, and can cost as much as US$12.85 in New York. It’s also less expensive than in other highly developed East Asian countries, where a pack costs US$5.30 in Japan, US$6.40 in Hong Kong and US$2.90 in Taiwan. Prices are similar to those found in Myanmar or Iran — countries much poorer than South Korea, which is home to high-tech companies, such as Samsung, LG and Kia.

Some studies have shown that increasing the price of cigarettes is a good way to reduce smoking. Research in 2002 showed that the number of smokers drops by 2.5 percent to 5 percent for every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes. Explaining how tobacco wreaks havoc on the human body has also been shown to be effective. A 2011 study from Australia, for instance, concluded that television ads were an excellent way to educate poorer adult smokers. And programs that parents who smoke could use at home to educate their children against smoking were helpful, demonstrated research in 2003 in North Carolina. Many studies urge Korean anti-smoking campaigns to consider issues causing stress and the long working hours. In South Korea, young people studying and adults working for 12 to 14 hours a day is run-of-the-mill.”


The anti-smoking movement is not that big in South Korea. Smoking is not allowed on trains or subways but many people smoke in restaurants and offices.

The anti-smoking effort was given a big push by Lee Joo Il, a popular comedian who came down with terminal cancer after smoking most of his adult life. He made a point of appearing on television with tube sticking out his nose that he needed to breath. The effort had a big impact. Cigarette sales started going down for the first time.

Some anti-smoking efforts have been led by Korean companies. The KT Corporation, South Korea’s largest telecommunications company, set up a multimillion dollar fund to help it employees quit. Smokers who participated put in US$75 or their money and KT contributed US$150. Ever smoker who quit got US$225 plus a share of the money from those who didn’t quit. Other companies such as Samsung have offered to cut the life and health insurance premiums of smokers who quit.

Executives of Samsung’s Device Solutions (DS) department, which employed 35,000 people out of a total of 101,970 Samsung Electronics staff in Korea in 2010, called on staffers to join a "well-received" voluntary non-smoking program that required almost all DS employees to make non-smoking pledges. The Woongjin Group, which has wide ranging businesses, conducts random hair and urine tests on a large number of employees at irregular intervals and requires all new employees must sign an anti-smoking pledge. [Source: AFP, June 2012]

Seoul city government bans smoking in plazas and parks and near bus stops and schools. Offenders face a 100,000 won (US$86) fine. By 2014, the city planned to make 21 percent of its total area a non-smoking zone. It has also considered a blanket ban on smoking in all public areas except for some designated spots. The South Korean health ministry increased the size of warning messages on cigarette packs from 30 percent of the surface area to 50 percent .

To get around on ban on smoking in Internet cafes called PC bangs, owners created "smoking rooms" that offer a place to smoke while giving you "free" access to a PC. The sign in the top image reads, "Smoking Room, 1000 won per hour. PC use is free." This makes the spaces technically not Internet cafes. [Source: Brian Ashcroft, Kotaku, July 24, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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