This article appeared in the Korea Times Newspaper on 10 June 2021
There is always a price to pay for national success, and Korea, a successful country, appears to be no exception as they follow the path of other successful countries with a growing dependency on both illegal and prescription drugs.
On the upside, the Korean police have an effective drugs unit with commendable arrest records; but on the downside, the only two people in the country that can prevent young people from engaging in these high-risk activities, parents, feel it has nothing to do with them; "it's a matter for the police," "we are educated people, our kids wouldn't do drugs …"
Methamphetamine is the drug of choice for most Koreans. It has been widely exploited within the nightclub scene because it provides an increase in physical activity; ideal for dancers. Because of this, it has been labelled a nightclub drug and only used by those who dance; but this is in fact the minority.
During 2020 nightclubs largely remained closed, so why in 2019, 10,411 drug arrests were made (all drugs), but by July 2020 the police had made 9,672 arrests. In 2019 the police seized 9.5kg of methamphetamine, but in 2020 seized 18.5kg.
Compare this with the Korea Customs Service which in 2019 seized 116kg of methamphetamine, yet in 2020 just 60kg. This suggests a reduction in the "higher risk of capture" importation, and an increase in domestic production.
So, if the dancers are not dancing, where is the rise in demand?
Another short-term effect of methamphetamine is its ability to keep the user awake for extended periods; for this reason, it has long been a late-night staple of students studying into the night. Thus, many students are often addicted to the drug by the time they graduate and enter the workforce.
Last year saw explosive growth in the home delivery services sector. There has been much criticism surrounding the harsh work conditions of drivers, who drive long hours each day as they are paid by the number of packages they deliver.
A four-hour drive isn't easy, but eight or 10 hours in city traffic, with stopping and delivering would be challenging for most people. I make no suggestion that delivery drivers, or indeed taxi drivers, are taking drugs, or are any more likely to than are doctors, bankers or engineers, who also have long hours, but we have to be open to the possibility.
Coupang has announced plans to provide better healthcare services for its drivers and that is a good standard for others to follow; but there is still much to do.
In discussions with multiple security leaders in the country they tell me there are no illegal drugs issues within their companies. When I inquire how they know this I hear answers ranging from drug users having track marks on their forearms, to them being high and appearing drunk, and being unconscious with a syringe sticking out of their arms. They too need to be better informed of these corporate threats.
Drug addicts in the workforce do not generally get high. Addicts mostly need another fix when they feel their bodies slipping into withdrawal, a condition in which the body crashes from the false effects of pleasure the drug provides.
Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, fatigue, depression, and cravings for more of the drug. Therefore, most regular users need more of the drug, not to get high, but to just take their bodies to a state of normalcy. In such cases, the effects of the drug are not easily visible to others, usually not visible at all.
According to the Korea Development Institute, of the OECD nations, Korea has just been voted 35th out of 37 countries in a Happiness Index, with a large emphasis on the long hours Koreans have to work, just to make a living.
So, things are not going to improve on their own.
Corporate Korea might not be ready to implement random drug testing, as is the case in other countries, or indeed for Korean athletes; but at the very least they should engage in educating their staff on the dangers of this growing threat, because what effects the workforce affects the organization.
Anthony Hegarty is a criminologist with a master's degree in criminology and criminal psychology. For more information, visit his website (www.dsrmrisk.com).