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South Korea Drug Crackdown Claims Life of Renowned "Parasite" Actor [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1202)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

Noted South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun, best known for his role in the 2018 Oscar-winning thriller/satire "Parasite," has become the most well-known victim of his government's fanatical war on drugs. On December 27, Lee, 48, was found unconscious in a car filled with carbon monoxide weeks after he was named as a suspected drug user. He died shortly later, leaving behind a suicide note.

Lee Sun-Kyun in happier times. (Kinocine/Creative Commons)
Lee came to the attention of authorities after allegations that he used drugs, including marijuana and ketamine, with a night club hostess. Lee claimed that the allegations were part of a blackmail plot aimed at him and publicly apologized for "causing immense disappointment" and said he was "sorry for my family, who are enduring extreme pain at this moment."

He nonetheless underwent at least three separate police interrogations, including one lasting 19 hours just days before his death. He also suffered professional consequences after coming under suspicion, being dropped from a film in October after the allegations against him went public.

Lee found himself wrapped up in conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol's crusade against drug use after Yoon promised last spring that his government would "join all forces to win the war on drugs," following another pair of sensational drug arrests. He launched a new drug investigation department at the Supreme Prosecutors Office and staffed it with 840 people.

"Harsh investigations are necessary to punish drug criminals," Yoon said. "Efforts should also be given to rehabilitation treatment to help them return to society at the earliest possible date," he added.

Those hundreds of new drug cops have made a difference. Police arrested more than 17,000 people on drug charges in the first 11 months of 2023, a whopping 39 percent increase over the same period in 2022 -- and 2022 was a record year for drug arrests. More than a thousand arrested were teenagers, a 300 percent increase over previous years.

The current antidrug campaign is a deepening of the "war on drugs" Yoon declared upon coming to office in 2022 as he warned that drugs were becoming more accessible nationwide. And it extends beyond the state, with celebrities leading "just say no" campaigns on social media and talk shows devoting entire episodes to antidrug programming.

It has engulfed other celebrities beyond Lee. Former K-pop boy band singer G-Dragon was under weeks-long investigation for public drug use until police dropped the case last month after he came up negative on repeated drug tests. Still, his image no longer adorns BMW Korea online ads. And actor Yoo Ah-in, star of the 2018 film "Burning" and the 2021 Netflix series "Hellbound," faces trial after testing positive for propofol, marijuana, ketamine, and cocaine. He has already been cut from the second season of "Hellbound" and has lost advertising work with several South Korean retailers.

This has all been fodder for sensationalist media, and that coverage could have contributed to Lee's death in a country that holds the highest suicide rate among developed nations, said Kang Youn-gon, a media communication professor at Seoul's Chung-Ang University.

"Lee faced some allegations but they haven't been formally verified. But the media has been assertively reporting about Lee's private life… and I think that's something wrong," Kang said.

Lee's lawyer, Seongcheol Park, accused the police of violating rules about the public release of information, adding that Lee had tested negative in multiple drug tests and that police did not take his blackmail claim seriously.

"The process was insulting and humiliating to him, even though there was no evidence that he had taken drugs, Park said. "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."

Drug use or possession can garner a penalty of six months to four years in prison, while dealing or trafficking can lead to a sentence of up to 14 years. South Korean officials say that a tough approach is necessary to keep drug use under control, but they have plenty of critics.

"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."

"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, said Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. "And we know that from the history of the US."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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