The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Strengthen drug investigations

Teenage drug offenses increase after Moon government weakened prosecution‘s powers

By Korea Herald

Published : April 11, 2023 - 05:30

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Police recently arrested four people who handed out drugged drinks to high school students on a street in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. The suspects allegedly told students the drinks were good for memory and concentration. The police are currently on the hunt for another suspect who is thought to have ordered the manufacture and distribution of the drinks.

Spiked drinks have been a problem for years among adults in nightclubs and other places, and the same approach is now used to blackmail young students in Daechi-dong.

Drug crimes are not easily uncovered, with trafficking organizations, routes and methods constantly evolving. Catching drug couriers does not necessarily lead to the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations, nor to the arrest of drug lords. Illicit drug trades are made usually without physical contacts between buyers and sellers.

Drug offenses are on the rise in the country. Last year the police arrested 18,395 drug offenders, up 13.9 percent from a year earlier. Drug seizures increased more than eight times over five years, from 154.6 kilograms seized in 2017 to 1,295.7 kg in 2021.

Drug offenders are getting younger. Over 34 percent of drug offenders were under 30 last year. The figure was less than half that, at 15.8 percent in 2017. The number of teenage drug offenders nearly tripled from 104 in 2008 to 294 last year.

On March 7, police booked a 14-year-old girl on suspicion of using meth. The middle school student had bought the drug through the Telegram messaging app. Teenagers are even selling drugs, as can be seen in the case of three high school students in Incheon who were caught selling meth in January.

The increase in the incidence of drug crimes among adolescents is proof of the inadequacy of current drug crackdowns and investigations. The selling and buying of drugs is becoming more creative, and drug investigations are failing to keep up.

The previous administration under President Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party of Korea sought to hold back the prosecution‘s investigation of drug and other offenses, almost since the very moment the Moon administration took office.

In April last year, they revised prosecution-related laws to strip prosecutors of most of their investigative rights, including much of their power to probe drug crimes. They transferred many investigative rights from the prosecution to the police.

Before the laws were revised, the prosecution could directly investigate crimes in six categories -- corruption, the economy, public officials, elections, the defense industry and large-scale calamities. The laws now limit these categories to only two -- corruption and the economy.

However, in September last year, the Justice Ministry under Minister Han Dong-hoon, appointed by President Yoon Suk Yeol, revised related enforcement decrees to expand the scope of corruption and economic crimes investigations as much as possible. In revising the decrees, the ministry re-classified major drug trafficking crimes as an economic crime.

The ministry was able to revise the decrees thanks to loopholes in the revised laws. If the Democratic Party eliminates these loopholes, the prosecution would not be able to investigate drug offenses.

Based on the decree revision, the prosecution is now able to investigate large-scale drug trafficking, while the police probe crimes such as drug possession and injection, as well as small-scale drug deals. The Korea Customs Service is in charge of investigations into drug smuggling into the country, while the Korea Coast Guard investigates maritime drug offenses.

In this system, there is no central command when it comes to drug investigations. It is difficult to share information and respond in a united and coordinated way. The role of a command center was originally played by the prosecution, but Moon-appointed justice ministers dismantled this organizational structure.

When the Moon administration and the Democratic Party sought to strip the prosecution of its investigation rights, there were concerns that the prosecution’s ability to command investigations would be weakened and that crime would increase. Such concerns seem to be becoming a reality in connection to drug trafficking.

When it comes to fighting crimes that threaten the life and safety of the people, investigative powers must be strengthened to the maximum.

The revised laws that have weakened the prosecution must be reviewed. Rival parties should discuss ways to enable the prosecution to be the central command when it comes to the enforcement of drug laws. Also, it is worth considering the creation of a drug enforcement agency.