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[Out of the Shadows] Surviving drug addiction: Peers from Korea, Japan share their stories

Hoping for new beginning, recovered addicts celebrate 19th Narcotics Anonymous workshop

Dec. 4, 2023 - 15:30 By Park Jun-hee

The 2023 Narocatics Anonymous Korea Japan Workshop was held in Seoul on Saturday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of recovering drug users from South Korea and Japan gathered in Seoul on Saturday to support each others’ path to sobriety.

The 19th edition of the workshop took place as a one-day event with the members of Narcotics Anonymous from the two countries. NA is a community organization made up of peers to support those in recovery from drug addiction using a non-professional approach. It aims to remove the stigma surrounding drug addiction and recovery, and the members go by aliases for reasons of privacy.

Most of the attendees were recovering addicts who began with cannabis as a gateway drug before going on to other illicit substances like methamphetamine, more commonly known as “philopon,” in South Korea.

South Korean singer-songwriter Nam Tae-hyun, who was indicted on charges of allegedly purchasing and administering methamphetamine with an acquaintance last year, also made an appearance.

“I’m glad (the session) could take place after the pandemic. I hope that the NA will become more active in the future so that the two countries can help (other recovering addicts),” said Park Young-deok, who heads the Addiction Rehabilitation Team at the Korean Association Against Drug Abuse, during his opening remarks.

The NA meeting in Korea was introduced by recovering addicts from Japan 19 years ago, according to Lim Sang-hyeon, the head of the Korean NA group and the founder of the Gyeonggi branch of the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center. Currently, Korea has 10 NA groups, including those in Apgujeong, Dangsan and Incheon, while the neighboring country has more than 1,000 NA organizations scattered across the nation.

“Japan boasts the best recovery support services in the Asian region, where they gain help from health institutions and the private sector. … (Japan) helps (Korean) drug addicts by bringing and introducing their system here, and we need more of that,” Lim told The Korea Herald.

Also, beaming with hope for a new beginning, recovering drug users from Korea and Japan took center stage to share their personal stories and struggles.

Brochures on Narcotics Anonymous and drug recovery written in Japanese on display at the 19th NA workshop in Seoul, Saturday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

A 40-something recovered addict from Japan who identified himself as Yu said that the NA unity had played a key role in helping him stay drug-free.

“I first reached out to drugs when I was 14, and when my family knew, they told me to take my own life. I threw away my entire teens and 20s (to drugs), but at my lowest point, I found NA and have been a member for 17 years now,” he confided.

“NA encouraged me to accept my problems, and the people here taught me how to take the edge off without drugs,” he added.

Another 39-year-old Japanese man, who struggled with drug addiction for six years from his late 20s to mid-30s, said that NA meetings and members were successful in stopping him from relapsing.

“Since we are all people who remind ourselves that we are addicts, it was always helpful hearing and muddling through difficult times together with those who have gone through the same pain.”

He added that NA has taught him to avoid situations and people that could expose him to drugs.

“Most importantly, the regular meeting sessions have been successful in helping extreme drug users kick their habit without medical assistance. That’s how (NA members) slowly but surely prepare to go back to society,” he said.

Books on Narcotics Anonymous and drug recovery written in Japanese on display at the 19th NA workshop in Seoul, Saturday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

A female Korean member named Sunny called for more drug treatment for women, stressing that women are stigmatized for their drug use behavior, which marginalizes them from overcoming addiction.

“Women are more likely to get into drugs through their intimate partners, and that was the case for me, as well as other female members here,” she said.

Currently, she’s been living drug-free for seven months, a feat she credits to her time with the NA group and its members. “I’ve begun a journey of being clean, and so far, it’s been great and I’m grateful.”

In addition, she urged that Korea take a cue from Japan, which has gender-specific addiction treatment programs and women-only residential rehabilitation treatment.

“Even today, there are women who desperately want to quit drugs but don’t know how.”

The Korea Herald is running a series of feature stories and interviews on the evolution and rise of drug crimes, insufficient support systems and young addicts’ stories in South Korea. This is the eighth installment. -- Ed.

Out of the Shadows