Republic of Korea

Emerging trends and concerns

  • Recent data for seizures, use, arrests, treatment admissions and prices indicate the expansion of the crystalline methamphetamine market in the country. In 2015, seizures of crystalline methamphetamine were the largest ever reported. 
  • The sources of crystalline methamphetamine trafficked into the Republic of Korea have diversified in recent years. At the same time, Korean national authorities continue to dismantle small scale illicit methamphetamine manufacture facilities within the country.
  • The Republic of Korea continues to be affected by the transiting of illicit drugs destined for other countries in the Asia and Pacific region.

Overview of the drug situation

Crystalline methamphetamine, commonly known in the Republic of Korea as ‘philopon’ or ‘hiroppon,’ remains the most common illicitly used drug in the country, as perceived by government experts, and it accounts for most drug-related arrests, as well as nearly all drug treatment admissions. The use of methamphetamine pills and “ecstasy”  is limited.

Table 1. Trend in use of selected drugs in the Republic of Korea, 2011-2015*

The large majority of persons admitted for treatment in medical centres in the Republic of Korea are treated for ATS use, and their number more than doubled in 2015 compared to 2014.  

Table 2. Number of persons admitted to drug treatment in the Republic of Korea, 2011-2015

The Republic of Korea provides drug-related arrest data disaggregated by three drug types, narcotics, cannabis and psychotropic substances. Between 2010 and 2015, the annual number of drug related arrests remained stable, on average between 9,000 and 10,000 arrests yearly. However, in 2016, 14,214 persons were arrested for drug-related offences with psychotropic substances accounting for approximately 80 % (11,396) of total arrests.  Considering that crystalline methamphetamine dominates the illicit drug market in the country, as government experts and seizure figures suggest, the majority of psychotropic substances related arrests are highly likely to be associated with crystalline methamphetamine.    

Since 2012, comparatively large quantities of crystalline methamphetamine have been seized in the Republic of Korea. In 2015, seizures of crystalline methamphetamine totaled 56.6 kg, marking four consecutive years of increases and the highest amounts on record in the country.  . According to the preliminary figures from national authorities, 28.7 kg of crystalline methamphetamine were seized.

Figure 1. Seizures of crystalline methamphetamine in the Republic of Korea, 2011- 2015
 

Korean national authorities continue to dismantle small scale illicit methamphetamine manufacture facilities in the country. Between 2010 and 2015, a total of 15 cases of methamphetamine manufacture or attempted manufacture were reported.  However, the large majority of methamphetamine seized in the Republic of Korea in recent years has been trafficked from neighboring countries, in particular China and Hong Kong (China).  In 2015, Korean national authorities seized 46.1 kg of crystalline methamphetamine originating from abroad, and about 72 % (33.1 kg) of them were trafficked from either China or Hong Kong (China).   However, source countries of crystalline methamphetamine trafficked to the Republic of Korea have diversified in recent years. In particular, Cambodia and Mexico have emerged as embarkation points of methamphetamine in recent years  . A total of 15.2 kg of the drug originating from Mexico was seized in 2014 and 2015.    

The number of methamphetamine pills seized in the Republic of Korea remains small compared to most other countries in the region. However, in recent years, considerably larger numbers have been seized. The increases in methamphetamine seizures in recent years in the country has been associated with the increased presence of foreign manual workers from countries in Southeast Asia where methamphetamine pill use is common.  

Table 3. Seizures of selected drugs in Korea, 2011-2015

The retail price of methamphetamine has been stable in recent years. In 2015, the average retail price of a gram of crystalline methamphetamine in the country was estimated at approximately USD 270.  

The Republic of Korea continues to be affected by the transiting of illicit drugs destined for illicit markets in the Asia and Pacific region. In August 2015, Korean national authorities seized 18.2 kg of crystalline methamphetamine originating from China and destined to Japan.  This was the largest shipment of crystalline methamphetamine ever seized in the country.  In addition, between October and November 2016, Korean national authorities seized a total of 10.8 kg of cocaine originating from Colombia via Brazil and Dubai and destined to Australia.   

In recent years, a large number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have been detected in the Republic of Korea. NPS identified in 2015include NBOMe compounds such as 2C-C-NBOMe and 2C-I-NBOMe, as well as synthetic cannabinoids such as 5F-AKB-48, AM-2201, 5F-UR-144, 5F-PB-22, AKB-48, and AB-FUBINACA.  

In response to the emergence of NPS in the country, the Government added a “temporary scheduling system”  to the Act on Control of Narcotics to control NPS which entered into force in September 2011. A total of 91 substances were listed as temporarily controlled substances as of November 2016.  

Cannabis is the second most common illicitly used drug in the Republic of Korea. Heroin and cocaine are not commonly used.