The Korea Herald


Drug scandals intoxicating the entertainment scene

Concern grows over celebrity influence on spread of illegal substance use

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Nov. 13, 2023 - 10:46

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From left: Rapper G-Dragon and actors Lee Sun-kyun and Yoo Ah-in (Yonhap) From left: Rapper G-Dragon and actors Lee Sun-kyun and Yoo Ah-in (Yonhap)

Last week, former YG Entertainment chief Yang Hyun-suk was hit with a suspended jail term for his alleged attempt to cover up a 2016 drug scandal involving one of his artists. It came as the latest in a series of drug-related issues that have recently plagued South Korea's entertainment scene.

Police are currently conducting drug crime investigations into two top stars, “Parasite” actor Lee Sun-kyun and K-pop superstar G-Dragon, the latter of which previously had a brush with authorities concerning drug use 12 years earlier.

Last year, movie star Yoo Ah-in was investigated for drug use, with blood tests showing traces of various substances, including cocaine. His public trial was due to commence Tuesday, but was recently postponed to December.

Suspicions involving neither of the three have been confirmed, but recent drug-related scandals have sent ripples through a country that has had relatively few run-ins with substance use in the past.

Drugs and celebrities

The crackdown against drug crimes is part of President Yoon Seok Yeol’s “war on drugs,” which he declared last year. He has stressed on multiple occasions that drug crimes are a “cancer on the society that must be rooted out.”

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon on Wednesday stressed that illegal drug scandals involving well-known individuals can have negative repercussions on the increasing drug issue in South Korea.

“Supposing that the allegations turn out to be true, drug use of publicly known figures must be severely punished,” Han said during a meeting of the National Assembly’s budget committee.

“Generally speaking, drug issues tend to be influenced by the overall vibe (of the society). General perception of drugs as something ‘cool,’ and something that one could recover from whenever they want would have a negative impact on society and would affect the spread of drug use, as we can see in the case of other countries.”

South Korea's Narcotics Control Act specifies banned substances into three types: narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances such as methamphetamine, ketamine and propofol, and marijuana. Distribution, possession, transaction or use of these substances is punishable by law, with the use of “soft drugs” like marijuana punishable by up to five years in prison.

“If there are 10 celebrities caught for drugs, then there are like 10,000 more whose (drug use) is kept private. Celebrities, they’re like a cover of a magazine,” said Kim Tae-won, guitarist and leader of a popular band Buhwal, via his YouTube channel while commenting on recent scandals. Kim himself was convicted and incarcerated for drug use in 1987 and 1991, and has since become a vocal opponent of drugs.

The Yoon administration’s ongoing war against drugs is drawing comparisons to similar campaigns during the 1970s, when then-President Park Chung-hee conducted a crackdown that resulted in a number of well-known figures in the entertainment sector being arrested. Guitarist Shin Joong-hyun and singer Cho Yong-pil were among the 137 celebrities taken in for smoking marijuana between 1975 and 1977.

“Back then I saw such great musicians being caught for drugs and, this is a bit odd, but I thought it was a ‘course’ that I needed to take to become one,” Kim said.

That’s the type of effects that Justice Minister Han worries the ongoing drug scandals by celebrities could have on impressionable youngsters.

With celebrity drug scandals occupying the headlines, some medical experts have raised concerns that publicity surrounding illegal substances will spill over and affect the general public as well.

Chung Jee-eun, a professor of pharmacy at Hanyang University, conducted research based on a survey of a group of medical experts related to drug addiction, including doctors, nurses, researchers and addiction counselors. As to why drug use of those in their teens and 20s was on the rise, they identified “the increasing use of friends, family members or celebrities numbs them from dangers of drug use” as one of the biggest contributors.

Lee Hae-kook, a professor of psychiatry at the Catholic University of Korea Uijeongbu St. Mary’s Hospital, stressed that the government should focus on raising awareness of drug-related health issues.

“Teenagers today are far less repulsed by drugs (than before). Sensational media coverage on drug crimes involving celebrities risks provoking teens to mimic them,” Lee said.

“Rather than to focus all its efforts on cracking down on drug crimes, the government must work to make the public realize that drug addiction is a serious illness.”

According to National Police Agency data revealed by Rep. Jang Dong-hyeok of the ruling People Power Party, the number of people charged with drug-related crimes rose almost every year, from 8,107 in 2018 to 12,387 in 2022.

This year’s number is expected to surpass the 2022 figure, as 12,700 people had already been accused of related crimes as of August. The number of teen drug crimes also marked an all-time high of 659, more than double the 294 of 2022.

Drug crimes by senior citizens -- 60 and over -- and women were also at all-time highs, with 3,046 and 4,747, respectively.