The Korea Herald


[Out of the Shadows] Gangnam student drugging incident rattles Korea

Recent drug scam targeting students in private academy mecca highlights worrying trend

By Park Jun-hee

Published : April 10, 2023 - 14:58

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A notice warning students not to accept drinks or food from strangers is put up at a private academy in Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Sunday. (Yonhap) A notice warning students not to accept drinks or food from strangers is put up at a private academy in Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Sunday. (Yonhap)

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 sixth installment. -- Ed.

Free drinks were offered last week on the streets of Daechi-dong, a district in Seoul's Gangnam lined with thousands of after-school cram schools and known as South Korea's private education mecca. The drinks, introduced as a brain-boosting drink for concentration and memory, were given out by four "salesman-like" people. Later, the drinks were found to be infused with meth and ecstasy.

Seven students who consumed the drinks showed abnormal symptoms and tested positive on an illicit substance test. A parent was later reported to have also consumed the beverage. According to sources, there were others who tried a few sips, but threw the drinks away as they tasted "really strange."

In exchange for the free drinks, the people handing them out allegedly asked high schoolers for their parents’ contact information, according to the police. These people later demanded some 100 million won ($75,700) from the parents, threatening that they would report the children to the police for drug charges.

The four suspects reportedly claimed they were unaware that the drinks were infused with drugs, and distributed them as part-time workers from an employer who hired them through the internet.

The investigation also found that the ingredients were brought from China and that the drug rings had initially prepared 100 drug-laced drinks, of which 10 bottles were distributed to students. The police confiscated 30, and the suspects reportedly disposed of the other 60.

Allegedly orchestrating the scheme are two suspects surnamed Gil and Kim, who were detained Friday. A court hearing for the two was held on Monday afternoon. Two other individuals based in China -- a South Korean national in his 20s surnamed Lee and a 30-something Chinese national surnamed Park -- are being tracked down by police for their alleged involvement in the scheme.

The Seoul Metropolitan Agency said it had sought arrest warrants for the two and requested cooperation from Chinese authorities.

Growing number of drug pushers

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time drugs had wreaked havoc in the posh neighborhood. According to reports, rumors first surfaced among parents last year that people were handing out leaflets and drug-laced candies to students near school gates and big private academies to the point where students were told not to accept food or gifts from strangers. According to online posts, similar attempts were allegedly orchestrated in the past, targeting students in Gangnam as "future drug clients."

Following the appalling incident targeting students, President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered a stern crackdown mobilizing “all investigative capabilities to stamp out drug distribution and sales organizations, as well as to track down and retrieve the proceeds from such crimes to the very end.”

“This is a shocking drug incident that has permeated into the world of high school students,” the president was quoted saying via his spokesperson Lee Do-woon.

On Friday, the presidential office said the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency would investigate the case. Police are looking into possible high-ranking masterminds behind the scheme and additional offenses the suspects might have previously committed.

Starting Monday, police have been dispatched to 710 middle and high schools across Seoul from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to prevent any possible drug crimes targeting teenagers.

The case indicates that young students are being increasingly exposed to drug-related crimes. Experts say appropriate guidelines and preventative measures are required to cope with the staggering surge and protect students from drugs.

Currently, Korea is facing an uphill battle to control drug-related crimes among the younger generation as narcotics have become increasingly available. According to data obtained by the Justice Party’s Policy Committee from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office website, the number of teenage drug offenders last year was 481, a nearly eightfold increase from 58 in 2013.

“Now is not the time to just shed light on who has done drugs, but to lay out a long-term blueprint on how to prevent the influx of drugs coming into the country, since the government is struggling to stem drug trafficking,” Jeon Kyoung-soo, head of the Drug Criminology Institute of Korea, told The Korea Herald.

Learning from a case that “should not have happened,” Jeon said preventing possible drug abuse among students through appropriate educational content is pivotal to raising awareness.

“Preventative measures must be taken through drug interdiction and educating young students about the dangers and risks associated with using illegal substances,” Jeon said, stressing that more efforts need to be made at the governmental level to address drug crimes.

“Since some of the students consumed the drinks, we have to prevent them from becoming future drug users through proper educational programs. This is how we have to fight against the soaring drug crisis,” Jeon added.

Preventing drug smuggling

As drug offenses show no sign of easing, Yoon Heung-hee, a professor at Hansung University’s drug and alcohol addiction department, echoed the need for rigorous policies to control drugs from entering the country.

Yoon warned that drugs have festered in society, and called for the government to seek policies that can prevent drug smuggling in the first place.

“Airport security detectors, for example, are not able to detect a small number of drugs weighing less than a gram. This is becoming a growing concern since many people are smuggling drugs in this way and spreading them into society,” Yoon said.

“The government needs to seek policies that can prevent drug smuggling in the first place because once it’s in the country, it rapidly spreads to the point where it’s uncontrollable.” Yoon said, warning that Korea is no longer a “drug-free” nation.

“If this can’t be prevented, this will potentially lead to younger drug users in the future because they can be more easily exposed to drugs.”

The Education Ministry said Friday that in light of the case, it had distributed guidelines made by the police to each provincial office of education. The guidelines go over how students should respond to a stranger approaching them, and how to report to 112 if they experience a similar case as the Daechi-dong incident.