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[Out of the Shadows] A defense attorney's perspective on Korea's real drug challenges

Lawyer specializing in drug crimes talks about offenders, their families and how prison isn't the answer

March 12, 2024 - 14:39 By No Kyung-min
Criminal defense attorney An Jun-hung poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul's Gangnam-gu on Feb. 28. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

Many Koreans perceive drug offenders as fundamentally different from ordinary people.

An Jun-hung, a defense attorney who specializes in drug crimes, knows from his decade-long experience of representing them in court that this is not the case.

He likens the experience of trying illegal drugs to getting into an unexpected car accident.

"Most people who get caught doing illegal drugs first encounter them unknowingly or out of curiosity," the attorney from law firm Son & Partners said at his office in Seoul. "Regardless of gender, age, occupation and wealth, nobody is immune to drug misuse."

His very first drug case involved a typical Korean college student with no criminal record. The individual had first tried ecstasy while living abroad as an exchange student, and upon returning to South Korea, got caught at the airport with the drug in their luggage.

The cover of the book "Why I Work As a Drug Crime Lawyer?" (direct translation) authored by An Jun-hung (SAY Korea)

Scarlet letter 'D'

The attorney, who last year penned the autobiographical essay, “Why I Work as a Drug Crime Lawyer?" (direct translation), identifies three factors as contributing to the seemingly sudden spike in drug crimes in Korea in the last few years. They are: new types of drugs being available, increased accessibility to them via online messengers and intensified police crackdowns.

While the recent increase in drug-related arrests is alarming, An identifies a more profound issue brewing underneath the surface: Korean society's lack of deeper understanding of individuals struggling with addiction and its failure to offer adequate support for their recovery.

"People remain both inquisitive and yet uninformed about illegal drugs," An said.

"Under the banner of a 'drug-free country,' drug abuse has been a strict social taboo, depicted in a negative light through the media, such as in movies and the news."

The phrase "drug-free country" came out of a 1998 UN event calling for a "drug-free world." Though there is no universally recognized benchmark, a country with 20 or fewer drug offenders per 100,000 people per year was labeled "drug-free." According to this metric, Korea hasn't been a "drug-free country" since 2015.

An further stressed that drug offenders, regarded and treated as outcasts, often have to live with a kind of indelible scarlet letter “D” (for drugs) branded on their identities.

The stigmatization and ostracization of drug offenders are so pronounced here that they even significantly affect how families react when one of their own relatives becomes involved in a drug crime.

"Family members of drug addicts usually harbor a cocktail of emotions ranging from sympathy to hatred," the attorney said, emphasizing the emotional pendulum that swings between two polar opposites -- love and hate.

Many family members also grapple with feelings of guilt for not having been able to help their loved ones in the first place and for their current inability to offer support.

He recalled a case involving a well-regarded office worker, perceived as intelligent, kind and righteous by his parents. No one was aware of his methamphetamine abuse until he was caught.

His parents were “in total disbelief” of what had transpired, An recounted.

"They were at a loss about what to do with their son, bombarding me with a barrage of questions about what would happen to him and whether all drug addicts are 'crazy' and 'bad.'"

South Korea's drug policy is notably harsh, extending punitive measures even to its citizens who engage in drug use in regions overseas where drugs such as cannabis are legal.

A first-time offender, if they are not implicated in drug distribution and sales and have no prior criminal record, is often viewed by the court with leniency, resulting mostly in suspended sentences, the attorney said.

But the outcome could vary depending on factors such as the type and quantity of drugs, the presence of any accomplices and other considerations. Equally significant is whether the offender demonstrates a sincere commitment to quitting drugs completely and expresses remorse during the legal proceedings, he explained.

An further noted that the most effective time for drug detoxification is during the early phase, as an intervention at this stage can significantly increase the likelihood of preventing the escalation of the addiction and, consequently, lead to successful recovery.

Criminal defense attorney An Jun-hung poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul's Gangnam-gu on Feb. 28. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

Inmates celebrate release from jail 'by doing drugs'

Under local law, drug offenses are subject to prison terms ranging from a minimum of 6 months to 14 years, although prison sentences of 3 years or less can be suspended. In January, the Sentencing Commission of the Supreme Court of Korea introduced new sentencing guidelines that increase the severity of penalties for drug crimes targeting minors, with potential sentences now extending up to life imprisonment.

While enforcing the law is important, An questions whether incarcerating drug offenders is the solution in all cases, noting that prison conditions are not particularly conducive to facilitating rehabilitation.

He pointed out that correction authorities do not distinguish drug users from drug dealers, with their focus primarily on punishing them, rather than treating addicts as people in need of help.

"Unlike profit-driven drug dealers, individuals involved in drug administration should only be viewed as requiring rehabilitation rather than solely deserving punishment.”

He said that both detention centers and prisons here confine drug offenders in the same cells, colloquially referred to as "bbong-bang," or "meth cells" in Korean. "Bbong," is a slang term for methamphetamine.

"In the absence of rehabilitative measures for drug addiction, they are locked up in the same spaces where they exchange information about illegal drugs, potentially leading them to engage in similar criminal activities once they complete their prison terms," he explained.

"Inmates of bbong-bang celebrate their freedom by doing drugs," he cited a popular saying among those incarcerated for drug crimes.

Regarding the need for people to be rehabilitated, he underscored the challenges of overcoming drug addiction solely based on one's own willpower, in particular for those in their teens and 20s who may lack a sense of social responsibility or life experience.

"It is exceedingly challenging for one to unfetter oneself from certain drugs, such as methamphetamine, without the assistance of addiction specialists," he said.

However, the availability of rehab options is limited, as only a handful of rehabilitation centers or doctors at large university hospitals nationwide specialize in addressing drug addiction. According to An, patients struggling with drug addiction are also unlikely to receive any financial support from the government for rehabilitation treatment.

He recounted the story of a woman in her 20s who successfully quit methamphetamine with the support of her family. Despite seemingly becoming healthy again after overcoming the addiction, she suddenly took her own life.

"Perhaps no one could truly understand the pain she endured during the process of recovering from addiction," the attorney said.

His proposal to revise the approach to corrective methods for drug criminals is not solely for the benefit of the individuals affected; rather, it is aimed at the improvement of society as a whole.

Providing expert care for drug addicts, enabling their reintegration into society, is not only a way to prevent future drug-related crimes, but also has the goal of nurturing them as valuable contributors to society and the economy, he explained.

“Given the impracticality of completely prohibiting the influx of illegal drugs into Korea, society must contemplate addressing the fundamental aspects of the drug problem," he said, referring to helping them quit drugs for good.

Working as a defense attorney for drug offenders is hard for him at times, especially when dealing with clients who also have mental health issues.

Nevertheless, he said he finds his work rewarding when witnessing clients successfully overcome addiction and return to full health, thus making a positive contribution to society.

Criminal defense attorney An Jun-hung poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul's Gangnam-gu on Feb. 28. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

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