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Military out to stern rise in drug use

Military sees relative increase in drug-related cases, but lacks disciplinary action, strict punishment

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Sept. 25, 2023 - 14:56

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Drug-related crimes have increased in South Korea’s military according to data that shows a consistent rise in the number of cases inside the barracks in recent years.

According to a local news report on Friday, a sergeant first class in the Army was caught purchasing birth control pills containing methamphetamine in March 2019 but was handed a suspended prosecution disposition from the military prosecutor’s office.

In April, six soldiers stationed in a division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, were caught smuggling cannabis into the garrison through a parcel and smoking it inside the military base. The soldiers reportedly smoked cannabis in the army’s enclosed shower booths during the early morning to avoid being caught.

While the overall number of cases is small, the military has seen a consistent rise in the number of drug-related cases, going from nine in 2020 to 20 in 2021 -- nearly a twofold increase in a year. In 2022, the figure climbed to 30, with the upward trend showing that most of the drug offenses were committed by young enlisted soldiers in their 20s.

While approved medical use of cannabis in Korea was legalized in 2019, possessing or using cannabis recreationally have been strictly prohibited and taboo since 1976. The maximum sentence for such use or possession is five years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won ($36,814). However, a recent government report showed that the military personnel didn’t face such serious punishment.

According to a report the Ministry of Defense submitted to Rep. Ki Dong-min of the Democratic Party of Korea and a member of the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee on how the Army has handled drug offenses over the past five years, the military found 13 drug-related crimes. Of the total, only five cases were subject to disciplinary action.

The ministry report showed that a disciplinary committee was not initiated for a case involving a noncommissioned officer who had purchased psychotropic medication that is only prescribed by doctors for his sleep order through a website, citing his excellent work performance and sincere attitude.

In another case, another noncommissioned officer was caught purchasing an aphrodisiac containing methamphetamine but was not indicted, as the military concluded that he had bought the product to “improve his marital relationship” and “strengthen his marriage.”

Amid an upsurge in drug-related crime in the military, the Defense Ministry announced in May that it would implement mandatory drug testing for all prospective and current enlistees and military officials as part of its efforts to create a healthy and drug-free military culture.

The military also said that it would enhance the inspection of incoming items, such as parcels and packages, to block the entry of drugs and related substances into the Army and strengthen the management of medical narcotics to prevent the misuse of prescription drugs. It also beefed up efforts to detect products disguised as narcotics, including jellies, candy and gum.

Rep. Ki stressed the importance of raising awareness and strictly punishing those caught for drug crimes, noting that drug crimes can result in loss of combat capabilities and cause fatal accidents within the military base.