Since a drink mixed with drugs, including methamphetamine, was recently introduced to students as an energy drink developed by a pharmaceutical company in the country's most notorious district for cram private schools, public awareness to widespread drug use has skyrocketed.
Korea, once considered a relatively drug-free country, has seen an upsurge in drug-related crime.
"Today, drugs have become so cheap that you can buy them for the price of a pizza," Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said at a government meeting in December.
Warning that Korea has not been drug-free since 2015, the minister called for a war on drugs.
“People in their 20s and 30s stopped accounting for more than 50% of drug cases some time ago,” Han said. "The number of students involved in drug-related offenses has increased fivefold over the past decade."
Drug-related crime is becoming increasingly sophisticated, including the use of technologies such as cryptocurrency payments to evade authorities and the use of drugs as phishing scams.
Criminals are getting younger, with high school kids even playing the role of kingpins while employing adults to do whatever they want.
Last May, police arrested five people for selling cannabis they grew themselves.
Previously, most of the drugs distributed in Korea came from overseas.
The Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency seized 13.1 kilograms (29 pounds) of cannabis, enough to supply up to 43 million people.
The crew was accused of selling 281.7 million won ($225,000) worth of cannabis.
The cannabis farm, located in Yangpyeong-dong in Yeongdeungpo District, west of Seoul, had been in operation since August 2021.
To avoid being tracked, they created an illegal cryptocurrency website to receive payments from their buyers.
Police explained that the case was "an integration of drugs, the dark web and cryptocurrency", adding that money laundering also occurs when cryptocurrency is converted into cash.
Experts point out that drug-related crime in Korea is diversifying and becoming more frequent.
"The crimes reflect today's easy access to drugs," said Lim Jun-tae, professor of policing and criminal justice at Dongguk University.
The recent drug drink scheme targeting cram school students in Daechi-dong, Gangnam district, south of Seoul, turned out to be an elaborate phishing scam.
The scammers attempted to blackmail the parents of the students consuming the drinks, threatening to report their children to the police if they did not pay.
Three suspects in China, believed to be involved in a Chinese phishing and drug trafficking gang, ordered the drug drinks to be made and distributed.
The drug lab was in a house in Wonju, Gangwon, just 100 meters from an elementary school.
A relative was asked to pay 100 million won.
So far, police have apprehended six suspects and issued arrest warrants for three suspects currently in China.
The drug was also implicated in the grooming of young girls.
In February, the Suwon High Court sentenced a man in his twenties to nine years and six months in prison for giving methamphetamine to a high school girl and sexually assaulting her from 2019 to 2021.
He tricked the girl into leaving her house and living with him. The student suffered from cerebrovascular problems as a result of drug use.
Prosecutors on Thursday indicted two people accused of growing cannabis in apartments in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, and selling it online from May 2022 to February this year.
One of the suspects even lived with a pregnant woman at the house where the drugs were grown.
Easier access to these drugs is behind the rapid increase in drugs involved in crime in Korea.
A person can buy cannabis or methamphetamine in Korea for only 10,000 won to 30,000 won. Transactions only take a few minutes.
According to a drug dealer whom JoongAng Ilbo contacted via Telegram, one gram of cannabis would cost between 200,000 and 300,000 won, while the same amount of meth would cost between 600,000 and 700,000 won. Unit prices decreased as you bought.
"In 2010, a gram of methamphetamine cost up to 1 million won, but now you can buy it for 100,000 won to 300,000 won if you buy low-quality drugs," said Lim Sang-hyeon, director from the Gyeonggi Drug Rehabilitation Addiction Center. .
One gram of cannabis is enough to roll around 10 joints.
The great accessibility of medicines in the country is backed up by numbers.
According to the National Police Agency, the number of people arrested for drug trafficking and use from online sources has increased every year, from 1,516 in 2018 to 3,092 in 2022.
Arrested drug offenders in the country hit a record high of 18,395 last year, the supreme prosecutor's office said.
Some 2,600 people have been arrested in the first two months of this year alone.
The figure topped 10,000 for the first time in 2015. Just seven years later, that number is on the verge of doubling.
Some 176.9 kilograms of drugs were seized in the first two months of the year, up 57.4% from the same period last year.
Police and prosecutors suspect there are around 550,000 drug addicts in Korea.
Drug distributors are getting younger thanks to high payouts.
The Suwon District Prosecutor's Office charged 29 people with drug trafficking on April 7.
Four were teenagers between the ages of 17 and 19. Between May and June last year, three high school students were arrested for selling methamphetamine, ecstasy and ketamine.
The high school students employed six adults to drop off the drugs to buyers.
Some of the so-called "droppers" have been lured by promises of high salaries of up to 10 million won per month. Authorities say many of them were in debt.
However, drug users are also getting younger as drugs are increasingly delivered to buyers via social media, especially Telegram, reducing the possibility of interaction with drug dealers.
A parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was shocked after finding out his daughter, who is still in middle school, had taken drugs.
He said his 14-year-old daughter rushed home one day, frantically looking for water.
After calming her down, she said she had mixed methamphetamine with water the night before.
On April 10, the government set up a special investigation team to crack down on drug-related crimes.
The team is made up of some 800 people, including prosecutors and police. Suspected drug criminals targeting minors will be detained for investigation by the team and given harsher sentences under the Narcotics Act.
"Crimes are now reaching even minors because the problem of drug trafficking is not being dealt with appropriately," said Yoon Hae-sung, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Criminology and Justice.
"Systemic support is needed, for example by allowing digital investigations, which have been blocked for privacy breaches."
Others call for appropriate responses to changing forms of drug-related crime.
"Seeking cooperation to develop responsive measures to new forms of drug crimes is necessary," said Kim Gi-bum, professor of forensic science at Sungkyunkwan University.
"Even government departments need to work with investigative authorities to develop policies."
BY KIM JUNG-MIN, KIM HONG-BUM, CHO JUNG-WOO [[email protected]]