Death of ‘Parasite’ Star Highlights South Korea’s Crackdown on Drugs

Lee Sun-kyun, the “Parasite” actor who was found dead on Wednesday, was far from the only celebrity entangled in South Korea’s latest antidrug crackdown.

Yoo Ah-in, the actor known for his roles in the 2018 film “Burning” and the 2021 Netflix series “Hellbound,” is facing trial after testing positive for propofol, marijuana, ketamine and cocaine, officials say. Several South Korean retailers have cut ties with the actor since the drug accusations became public. He is no longer listed as a cast member for the second season of “Hellbound.”

G-Dragon, the rapper and former member of the K-pop boy group BigBang, had been under investigation for possible drug use until the police dropped the case earlier this month after he tested negative on several drug tests. Nevertheless, BMW Korea removed images of him from its online advertisements.

The recent accusations against high-profile entertainers here have highlighted the continuation of a strict antidrug policy and attitudes in South Korea that have drawn a hard line against anything other than total abstinence from drug use.

Some officials hail that toughness as critical to keeping drug use under control. But the policies have also come under criticism from treatment experts who say that the authorities focus too much on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

“When you look at data and you look at the harsh penalties that have been in place for decades now, they haven’t worked,” said Gloria Lai, a regional director for the International Drug Policy Consortium, an organization that promotes evidence-based drug policies around the world. “And the cost on people’s lives is huge.”

Since Mr. Lee’s death, the police in Incheon, a city west of Seoul, who had questioned him on suspicion of using marijuana and ketamine, have been criticized for their treatment of Mr. Lee during the investigation, saying it was disproportionate to the severity of the allegations against him.

Seongcheol Park, Mr. Lee’s lawyer, denied the drug charges and accused the police of violating rules about the public release of information.He said Mr. Lee had tested negative in multiple drug tests.

Mr. Park added that the police had intensively investigated the allegations that Mr. Lee had used drugs but did not take seriously enough his assertion that he had been the target of blackmail.

“The process was insulting and humiliating to him, even though there was no evidence that he had taken drugs,” Mr. Park said in a telephone interview. “While it’s true that drug investigations are necessary, it’s a problem when they go too far and don’t follow procedures and protocols.”

Kim Hui-jung, the Incheon police chief, defended the investigation at a news conference on Thursday. He said that his agency had performed properly and legally, “based on specific informant statements and evidence.”

Lee Sun-kyun arriving at a police station in Incheon, South Korea, last week for questioning.Credit…Yonhap, via Agence France-Presse

South Korea’s tough stance on drugs is in line with that of some other countries in Asia. A drug conviction can carry the death penalty in China and Singapore. Japan and Taiwan, too, have maintained minimal tolerance for drug use. Governments in Japan and Singapore have publicly spoken out against a strategy called harm reduction that has become more prominent in Western nations, Ms. Lai said.

“A harm reduction approach is controversial,” she said, “because you’re basically saying that, even if someone continues to use drugs, you think that they still deserve to be treated with care and with access to health services.”

South Korea stands apart from countries like the United States, Canada and some in Europe, which approach drug use as a public health matter rather than simply a criminal one.

Still, South Korea’s drug policies, combined with its geographic isolation, have helped keep drug use low, experts say.

But reports of trafficking and use have surged in the past few years, though experts say it is difficult to obtain accurate data on drugs in South Korea because of stigma and the fear of imprisonment. Drug-related arrests, including for its consumption and sale, rose to more than 17,000 this year from about 10,400 in 2019, according to official data. Among them, teens were the age group with the largest growth, jumping sixfold to 1,000 arrests from 160. It is unclear whether that increase in arrests represents an actual spike in drug use, or whether intensified enforcement is playing an outsize role.

President Yoon Suk Yeol and officials in his politically conservative government declared a “war on drugs” after taking office in 2022, warning that drugs were becoming more accessible nationwide. Celebrities have also led “just say no” campaigns on social media. Some talk shows have dedicated entire episodes to antidrug programming.

The country’s latest crackdown, and the rhetoric of Mr. Yoon and officials in his administration, have echoed the “war on drugs” of the 1970s and ’80s in the United States, said Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work.

“Cracking down with these harsh punishments and unreasonably long years of imprisonment is not going to be effective” in reducing drug use and overdose deaths, Professor Hahm said. “And we know that from the history of the U.S.”

South Koreans can even be prosecuted upon returning home for using drugs outside the country. Once convicted of using illicit drugs, a person can be required to complete a mandatory education program run by the Justice Ministry, or be imprisoned, said Yoon Hyunjun, a drug policy expert at Sogang University in Seoul.

A prison sentence can range from six months to four years, depending on the type of drug. For trafficking, the sentence can be up to 14 years.

An event last month in Seoul promoting a drug-free society.Credit…Yonhap, via Shutterstock

Drug treatment experts say that the country’s approach is too narrowly focused on punishment. The mandatory education program that offenders take is not individualized enough to each person’s needs and does not provide a sustainable plan to overcome addiction, Ms. Yoon said. While the government has called for more rehab clinics for drug users, they remain far fewer than those for alcoholics.

“In our country, drug rehabilitation is less often viewed as an effort to overcome addiction than as a penalty,” Ms. Yoon said. “People’s mind-sets are focused strictly on punishment.”

But public policy experts warned that approaching drug use only in a punitive way falls short at curbing drug use, addictions and overdose deaths.

“It needs to be in tandem with education, changing the culture and good infrastructure for addiction treatment,” said Jimi Huh, a professor of public health at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. “Having a punitive policy only — that’s not going to cut it.”

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