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[Out of the Shadows] Body heat scanners help hunt for drugs at airport

Meth seizures at South Korean borders rise 67 percent in 2023, customs agency says

Jan. 17, 2024 - 17:55 By Park Jun-hee
An official from the Korea Customs Service demonstrates how the body heat scanner changes color within seconds when drug possession is recognized in the body during a press briefing on drugs seized in 2023 held at Incheon Airport’s Terminal 1, Wednesday. (Joint Press Corp.)

INCHEON -- Blue lights flashed on a walk-through screening machine after a man with drugs strapped to his left abdomen and his right thigh stepped into the checkpoint at Incheon International Airport Terminal 1.

A group of airport security personnel immediately rushed in to check the substances hidden on the man’s body. The scripted demonstration arranged by the Korea Customs Service officials painted how the latest scanning technology has become a quintessential part of the airport's drug detection operation.

“Arriving air travelers are caught smuggling drugs like this by the millimeter wave scanner if they are suspected of possessing any type of drugs,” a senior official at the Korea Customs Service, who requested anonymity, told a group of reporters.

The official explained that the detector is a whole-body imaging security device that shows hidden objects or substances and is used to check air travelers specifically suspected of drug possession.

As South Korea faces an increase in drug crime, the customs agency said Wednesday that it would expand the number of millimeter wave scanners from the current three to 16.

The agency also plans to test-run two body heat scanners that can detect substances concealed on a human body. When substances are detected, a sensor changes color within seconds. The agency hopes the scanners will increase efficiency in looking for drugs. More heat scanners will be installed if the test run is successful.


Growing meth threats


The customs agency said that a total of 769 kilograms of drugs were seized at the Korean borders in 2023. That was a 23 percent on-year increase, despite the number of smuggling attempts having waned by 9 percent to 704 cases in the cited period.

The figure included 438 kg of methamphetamine, up 67 percent from 262 kilograms in 2022, and 143 kilograms of marijuana, up from 93 kilograms from the previous year. Other major drug seizures included 38 kilograms of ketamine and 30 kilograms of ecstasy.

This picture shows the different ways people smuggled drugs through the country, such as by concealing ketamine in a sunscreen cosmetic product and methamphetamine in a computer mouse. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

The data also found that contact-free methods were the most sought-after routes for drug dealing. Some 328 cases, or 46 percent of the total drugs seized, were smuggled via international mail, 194 cases were carried out through express cargo and air travelers accounted for 177 cases.

“Drug smuggling surged last year in line with the international travel rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic. The number hasn’t reached the pre-pandemic level, but it’s rapidly increasing,” said Kim Hyeon-seok, director of the International Investigation Division under the KCS, during a press briefing held at the airport.

Kim said 187 kg, or 24 percent of the total weight, came from Thailand, followed by the US with 20 percent, Germany with 12 percent and Laos with 9 percent. Increases in smuggling from Germany and Malaysia had risen particularly sharply, Kim added.


Additional efforts

In a bid to combat drug smuggling, the Ministry of Interior and Safety said Tuesday that it would inject 2.84 billion won ($2.12 million) to introduce advanced analytics equipment that can respond to and detect new types of drugs.

An official from the Korea Customs Service demonstrates how the millimeter wave scanner -- a security equipment that shows hidden objects or substances within two or three seconds -- can detect drugs hidden in the body. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

They include two high-resolution mass spectrometers and two ultra-high sensitivity mass spectrometers -- analytical machines that identify the chemical composition of substances.

It added that the ultra-high sensitive setup has a sensitivity level 10 times higher than the current equipment used by the National Forensic Service, which could improve the performance of systems detecting novel drugs. Also, the NFC plans to develop a platform for detecting and preventing new drugs from entering the country using the latest devices.

Meanwhile, South Korea apprehended a record-high 22,393 people suspected of drug offenses from January to October 2023, according to the latest data released in December by the special investigation unit on drug crimes.


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 tenth installment. -- Ed.

Out of the Shadows