It is up to the government to shut down anyone who would flood the streets with [drugs]… But is there enough capacity or resources to both effectively stymie drug traffickers and have time to spare to investigate individual users?
South Korea lost a special actor when Lee Sun-kyun died last week from apparent suicide. The loss of any life is a tragedy, but as a former narcotics prosecutor, I was shocked to learn that a criminal investigation into drug use might have driven him to take his own life. There are many reasons to be confused by this account, but the most perplexing to me is why law enforcement would have been investigating him for personal conduct.
I have no idea whether the investigation was in fact a significant factor in the suicide. But if it was, the tragedy is compounded by its senselessness.
It’s possible that my strong views here might be tainted by my admiration for Mr. Lee. While news reports refer to him as the “Parasite” actor, Korean Americans know him better as the painfully sensitive “My Mister” or the corrupt cop seeking redemption in “Jo Il-Po: The Dawning Rage”. Whatever role he played, Mr. Lee never failed to deliver. His role as the rich dad in “Parasite” was actually one of his least demanding roles in my view. Naturally handsome and cool, it took little for him to play an aloof rich businessman with a picture-perfect family. His roles as broken men in lesser-known Korean dramas revealed the depths of his immense talent. I will miss him.
The news reports trigger lots of questions. Is it really the case that drug use is so deeply condemned in Korea? Here, we are accustomed to hearing about lines of cocaine at the parties of famous actors or other celebrities. From John Lennon to Robert Downey, Jr., there is a long and unending queue of famous people caught with drugs; the public forgives and forgets.
Yet, Koreans apparently abhor drug use so thoroughly that they think it’s plausible Mr. Lee killed himself over the shame of it. What’s confusing about this is that we are not talking about a puritanical society with Victorian habits; Korea is far from that. It embraces its image as a hard-partying nation infamous for the late-night, fall-down drunk parties multiple times during the work week. Many say that that behavior is even expected of business professionals.
What accounts for embrace of this identity but rejecting so severely personal drug use? In effect, both alcohol and drugs can be used for the entertaining buzz at a party or, when used in excess, lead to physical and emotional harm. While it is true that drugs can lead more readily to addiction, I question the harsh stigma of drug use while valorizing extreme alcohol consumption.
Most confusing to me, though, is why Korean law enforcement would expend time and money pursuing investigations of mere drug use. I am not someone who thinks drugs should all be decriminalized. Far from it. As a young man in the 1990s, I led the Narcotics Unit of prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, and I gave drug enforcement policy a lot of thought then and since. I believe drugs like heroin and cocaine have devastating effects on families, communities and society at large. Their use leads to addiction and addiction leads to debilitation. Entire city blocks in New York City became war zones among competing gangs. Right or wrong, I am firmly in the camp of “drugs are bad.”
But it would never have occurred to me to expend the energy of agents and prosecutors to investigate whether someone was a drug user, occasional or addict. It was hard enough to investigate Cartel level suppliers or vast distribution organizations moving multi-hundred kilograms of heroin or cocaine on a daily basis. This is time and finance intensive work that often seemed Sisyphian in its never-ending labor. But it is labor I am convinced every civilized nation needs to commit, lest society collapse completely.
So what is it that the Korean government seeks to achieve by devoting significant resources to individual drug use investigations? It cannot be the case that they have so much capacity and resources that they can effectively stymie drug traffickers and have time to spare to investigate individual users. Culturally, the conduct is apparently so frowned upon, people might be willing to kill themselves to avoid the shame of publicizing their drug use. Is it really necessary for the government to pursue the users with ruinous investigations and prosecutions when social opprobrium is so thorough?
Drug possession (and use) is also illegal in the U.S., but people are prosecuted after they are incidentally found in possession, such as in traffic stop after driving erratically or drugs found in a bag during airport screening. Most people (especially the wealthy) get a slap on the wrist and move on with their lives. There is a recognition that temptation to use drugs is inevitable and resources are wasted trying to stop the inevitable.
Some might say that Korea’s zero-tolerance in law enforcement keeps drug use low, and they might point to the U.S. or other European nations as having failed in their drug policies because of their tolerance for users. I disagree.
The root cause of drug use is degrading social structure and coherence, as well as the power of the narcotic to induce addiction. I learned that as community cohesion breaks down, and one’s sense of disconnection from others increases, drug use spikes in that community. No amount of punishment, imposed or threatened, will avoid this outcome. What is needed is moral suasion, coherent social structures and support systems. It is up to society to offer its people the ingredients of a whole life such that drugs offer no temptation.
On the other hand, it is up to government to shut down anyone who would flood the streets with product that may prove irresistible, especially for the young people in the community.
If the U.S. has a never-ending battle with drug traffickers it is because social support has eroded, not because personal use is more or less tolerated by law enforcement.
One year after I left my job as a federal prosecutor, the movie “Traffic” came out. I was stunned by its accuracy. It offered the most comprehensive picture of the challenges that drug trafficking posed to American society. From Don Cheadle, the dedicated DEA agent fighting the war on the streets, to Michael Douglas, the U.S. Drug Czar whose daughter was an addict, the movie was as true as any fictional, two and a half-hour depiction could offer.
The movie ends with a scene of Benicio Del Toro, a Mexican drug policeman, watching boys play night-time baseball, taking quiet pleasure in the scene. In exchange for risking his life to cooperate with the DEA, he had gotten the U.S. government to provide electricity for field lights. It was a simple ask, but he could now watch players and spectators on a dusty Mexican baseball field, together and safe. This was his gift to his community.
If drug use in Korea is on the rise, its government would do well to remember the lesson “Traffic” suggests about the U.S. experience: Drug use is inevitable as social ties and support increasingly weaken. A determined war on drug traffickers is essential, while we simultaneously tend to the needs of our people.
It is easy to imagine Mr. Lee, playing with his customary skill and empathy, the role of a spiritually broken drug user, the determined drug agent, or the remorseless trafficker, describing on the screen the challenges that Korea faces. A movie “Traffic”, for Korea.
I am sorry we will not see him in that or any other role.