Republic of Korea

Emerging trends and concerns

  • The Republic of Korea continues to be affected by the transiting of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals destined for illicit markets and manufacturing sites in the Asia and Pacific region.
  • The Government of the Republic of Korea has strengthened controls over the import and export of pharmaceutical preparations containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and has broadened its legislation to address the diversion of these substances from licit trade.
  • The trafficking of new psychoactive substances into the country has been on the rise since 2010.
  • The latest data show that methamphetamine seizures will continue at high levels in 2014.

Overview of the drug situation

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

Transnational criminal networks continue to traffic large quantities of illicit drugs through the Republic of Korea to international markets. The country is also a source of pharmaceutical preparations containing pseudoephedrine that are diverted from licit trade for illicit manufacture of methamphetamine, primarily in other Asian countries.

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

Table 1. Trend in use of selected drugs in the Republic of Korea, 2009-2013

Complete drug treatment data for the Republic of Korea are unavailable. However, a number of drug users each year are admitted to medical treatment and custody by the judicial system for drug-related offences. In addition, some drug users enter medical treatment and custody voluntarily. The large majority of persons admitted to treatment in medical centres in Republic of Korea are treated for ATS use, including 97 persons in 2013.

Table 2. Number of persons admitted to drug treatment in the Republic of Korea, 2009-2013

In recent years, a number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have been detected on the illicit drug market. Several NPS have been subject to control under the Control of Narcotics Act since the mid 2000s. However, the dramatic increase of newly detected NPS since 2008 prompted the Government to take further action towards strengthening controls over NPS. According to a new ‘temporary scheduling system’ that was added to the Control of Narcotics Act and entered into force in September 2011, the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety may temporarily schedule NPS for a year.

In 2013, approximately 1.8 kg of synthetic cannabinoids was seized in the Republic of Korea, of which 1.4 kg was imported from the United States. Kratom seizures in 2013 amounted to 0.3 kg. The Republic of Korea has also reported seizures of small amounts of ketamine, piperazines (BZP, mCPP, TFMPP and pFPP) and synthetic cathinones in recent years.

Seizures of crystalline methamphetamine totaled 37.7 kg in 2013, an 82% increase over the 20.7 kg seized in 2012. As of May 2014, approximately 26.7 kg of crystal methamphetamine had been seized during the year. The number of methamphetamine pills seized in the Republic of Korea remains small relative to most other countries in the region. However, during the past two years considerably larger quantities have been seized, including a record 3,997 methamphetamine pills seized in 2013, surpassing the previous record of 3,994 pills seized in 2000. Ecstasy pill seizures declined to 1,233 pills in 2013, from 2,345 pills in 2012.

Table 3. Seizures of selected drugs in the Republic of Korea, 2009-2013

The illicit manufacture of methamphetamine is rare in Republic of Korea, but there have been five cases of methamphetamine manufacture or attempted manufacture since 2011, including two individual cases in 2013. However, most of the methamphetamine seized in the Republic of Korea continues to be trafficked into the country by transnational organized criminal groups, particularly from China and West Africa.

The Republic of Korea also continues to be used as a transit country for the trafficking of drugs to international markets, in particular Japan. In 2013, significant quantities of methamphetamine were seized from Mexico (15 kg), China (13.6 kg), Macao Special Administrative Region of China (6.2 kg), Mali (4.1 kg), Kenya (3.2 kg) and the United States (1.9 kg).