Monday, May 11, 2009

How Things Work: Korea's McCarthyistic drug enforcement

This is from a discussion over at Brian's. I'll fix it up after my paper's done. Meanwhile, here's a CNN piece on drug punishments throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. Here's what it says about Korea:
Those convicted of possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs can suffer long jail sentences, large fines and deportation.
Now, on with our story...

If you think you can easily get away with smoking pot in Korea because you're under the impression that all the cops are the siesta-taking guys in the Elantra, you may be in for a very rude awakening. Like cops pounding on your door at 5 a.m. kind of awakening. 

I'm not using snide remarks based on stereotypes and Korea-bashing to make my point; I'm speaking from a wide range of direct personal involvement.

Let me make this clear for any other would-be pot smoker in Korea. Why you get caught would likely be because someone who knows of your in-country drug use (by smoking with you, by selling it to you, by buying it from you, by getting it from you, by giving it to you, by hearing that you've done it, by seeing you do it, etc.) has fingered you and four other people in order to get a reduced sentence. Think of it as the Korean police version of the Verizon Fave 5.

A reduced sentence will be the ability to plead down to reduced jail time or, if you're lucky, a fine and deportation. If you are arrested and they determine you have drugs in your system, they will pressure you to do the same. If your five and your accuser's five are the same, you're in for some trouble if narcing your way out was the plan.

(I'm guessing a lot of people facing jail time choose to finger their friends and get deported because they assume the people they finger will also avoid jail time by doing the same thing.)

If you are accused, the police will go to your home and/or place of work to question you. I'm not a lawyer and I'm a little fuzzy on this, but from what I piece together from cases I'm familiar with, the police have a right to search your property if you have been fingered like this. If they find drugs, I believe they can formally arrest you at that point.

They may also insist you take a drug test, usually blood or peeing into a cup. I don't know if they take hair samples (hair samples may be legally fuzzy since they can indicate drug use from too early a time period). I'm not sure, but I believe you CAN refuse the test, though I don't know the ramifications. If you don't cooperate, they can, I believe, get immigration involved and you might get deported, though I'm not sure about that part.

[above: This picture has nothing to do with the subject matter at hand, but it was right there on page 2 of my Google image search for "marijuana + Itaewon." Don't ask me why; I have no frickin' idea. ]

All the K-blogs remarks about the Korean legal system notwithstanding, the Korean courts are pretty straightforward and systematic on this stuff: If they don't have evidence against you (drugs found on your person or property, drugs in your system) then they can't charge you. The police might make life hard for you with Immigration or your place of work, and your place of work might decide to let you go, but at least you'd avoid jail time (and if you haven't taken drugs, you should avoid jail time).

If you are a "dealer" then your potential punishment is much more severe, and if the prosecutor is in a bad mood, deportation may not be an option. A "dealer" is anyone who supplies drugs to someone else, including situations where someone says to their buddy, "Hey, wanna light this up when we get home?"

It's McCarthyistic. The goal is not to reduce drug usage, but to eradicate it. Arrest and then imprison or deport those who take it so that they can deter or prevent others. Zero tolerance. If someone is toking up in Korea and they haven't gotten arrested, they've been lucky so far. Maybe only 10% of regular drug users get arrested — I don't know — but is the reward of toking up worth a one-in-ten shot of going to jail or being deported? Maybe some can go ten years or more without getting arrested, but some people get nabbed within weeks or months. It's a crapshoot.

[above: Though this woman is an actual prison guard in Korea, she will probably not be your guard.]


  1. They can get you for consumption. They will take your hair or you could stay in jail and there is no writ of habeus corpus. You are fucked and 99% of the people will give the hair sample. They may even beat you and you have very few right here. Don't do drugs in Korea. You will get fingered by a "friend." I knew a guy who tried to get out on a visa amnesty period (where overstayers left without fine or jail time) and the police were waiting for him, he said they took the hair sample and he spent 6 months for E consumtion.
    Kush, you are firing up in Hawaii, huh? Be honest. that's what all these pot posts are really about.^^

  2. nb, this is a topic I take very seriously and I try to be as dispassionate and objective about it as possible. In my work and play in Korea, I became something of an unofficial ombudsman for a lot of people — most of them complete strangers until they needed my help and contacted me through a friend or acquaintance.

    I say that because when I hear something like what you're saying, I need to know whether this is speculation on your part or if you are talking about actual facts from an actual case.

    Besides the visa over-stayer, do you know people who were asked for a hair sample? If so, what were the circumstances where they were asked for the hair sample?

    Of the Westerners (including kyopo) that I know who were arrested for drugs, none were beaten. Do you know of cases where someone was beaten? Again, if so, what were the circumstances?

    The simple solution is don't do ecstasy, marijuana, or other illegal drugs in Korea. And with alcohol, if you don't want legal problems associated with alcohol, don't drink and drive or get in fights while drinking. It's that simple.

    Kush, you are firing up in Hawaii, huh? Be honest. that's what all these pot posts are really about.^^

    Ha ha... still never been a pot smoker, unless we're talking about involuntary passive second-hand pot smoking. And some certainly take issue with that.

    No, it all comes down to this being in the news a lot and me having been called up a few too many times to help someone out of a jam.

    It's all about prevention. The utter stupidity of the people I've encountered who partake of pot smoking in Korea despite the risks makes me feel that this group should not be teaching children.

  3. Shinbone wrote:
    don't talk to cops.

    When you've been arrested, you have little choice.

    stop snitchin'

    When you've been arrested and you're facing serious jail time if you don't snitch, you may feel you have little choice.

    The best thing to do is go back and time and not have smoked pot in Korea in the first place, that way you can avoid becoming caught up in a multi-player version of the Prisoners' Dilemma.

    But since time travel backward is not feasible for most, the next best thing is warning about the future: Don't do it in Korea (or Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, etc.).

  4. "[...] caught up in a multi-player version of the Prisoners' Dilemma."

    Just wanted to say that I love this line.

    Plus, agreed on the issue of being smart enough not to use drugs in the first place. One of these days I need to take a photo of the anti-drug signs at Taoyuan International Airport -- "Drug trafficking is punishable by death in the R.O.C."


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