Drug Debate: South Korea's Strict Sobriety vs. America's Dramatic Decriminalization

Sydney Scott, Mar 27, 2024

The passing of Lee Sun-kyun, who starred in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, abruptly thrust South Korea under the international spotlight for its hard-line stance on drug regulation and the issue of suicide that often trails it. The country’s emphasis on total abstinence from drugs, although strict and seemingly authoritarian, has ensured relatively low drug consumption in comparison to the United States. In the U.S., drug use and overdose deaths run rampant – the country saw its worst overdose rate yet in 2023, topping 112,000 deaths in one year [1]. Many of the articles sharply condemning South Korea’s approach to drug regulation were published by American media outlets. Before joining in on the international criticism of South Korea’s approach to substance regulation, the U.S. needs to address its own significant drug problems, potentially taking a page out of South Korea’s book in the process.


During an ongoing police investigation into his suspected illegal drug use, Lee was found dead in a parked car in Seoul. South Korea has enforced a zero-tolerance stance on drug use for decades;  repeat users and dealers can face a minimum of six months and a maximum of 14 years in prison [2]. Police involved in Lee’s investigation ruled the death as a suicide, a devastating but altogether plausible outcome of his public scandal involving the use of marijuana and ketamine. In South Korea, drug use is one of the most grave and publicly humiliating offenses for celebrities, starkly different from the rampant and widely accepted drug use among stars in the United States. Alas, suicide is an unsurprising result of such public investigations, indicating that death is preferable to prison, public shame, and an abrupt end to a widely successful career.


South Korea’s strict and shame-centric approach to drug use sharply contrasts with the United States’ relatively new laissez-faire approach of drug decriminalization. In an effort to curb overdose deaths and allow users broader access to treatment, several states in the U.S., including Oregon and Washington, have begun to implement drug decriminalization policies [3]. The horrors of the Prohibition era in the United States serve as a cautionary tale against reinstating total bans. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, a progressive organization, advocates against drug prohibition, insisting that “there are better ways to control drug use, ways that will ultimately lead to a healthier, freer and less crime-ridden society” [4]. Our country’s rocky relationship with prohibition makes Americans afraid of it, and for good reason – the denial of once-held social freedoms was not compatible with the individualist, laissez-faire ideology of many Americans. However, South Korea is different. 


Following the death of Lee Sun-kyun, American media outlets inaccurately equated South Korea’s strict drug control policies to the U.S. “War on Drugs” of the early 1970s. Since the founding of the United States, our history has grown increasingly rife with illegal drug trafficking, trade, and use. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, drug use skyrocketed in the U.S. around the mid-1880s when drugs like morphine, laudanum, and opium boomed in popularity as they were commonly traded, prescribed, and used throughout the country as “cure-all medications” [5]. The U.S. War on Drugs movement subsequently emerged in the early 1970s, labeling drugs as a nationwide epidemic that struck fear in many Americans. The campaign notoriously failed; not only did the federal government instill unnecessary fear into millions of Americans and institute egregious punishments for minor crimes, but also the United States transitioned from a country that emphasized social freedoms and personal autonomy to an abrupt crackdown. Today, the country is plagued by highly addictive and all too common drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl. South Korea, although a key trafficker of opium poppy under Japanese rule, was allowed the chance to reinvent its identity after declaring their independence from the empire [6]. Only 75 years old today, South Korea was given the novel opportunity to create a contemporary culture, implement a brand new legal and judicial system, and build an image for themselves of a well-respected, developed, organized democracy in more recent times. In the process of its rebirth, South Korea quietly adopted a zero-tolerance stance towards drug use, akin to many other surrounding countries. On the other hand, the U.S. Prohibition was instituted to stop the illegal trade and sale of alcoholic beverages, but a general tone of temperance had captured the nation, and the prohibition of many drugs soon followed. The country’s complicated history with drugs was not compatible with a sudden shift to a zero-tolerance stance, and the War on Drugs was widely deemed a complete failure.


It would be naïve to directly apply South Korea’s hard-line drug policy to the United States to help limit the use of drugs–the foundations, histories, and ideologies of both countries differ too vastly to apply the same approach to both of them and produce the same effects. In particular, the U.S. was founded upon an ideology that emphasized personal freedoms over communal safety, while South Korea chose to limit some personal freedoms at the outset in exchange for communal safety. Yet, it is worth examining how South Korea’s strict stance yields more of a net positive in the preservation of life, especially in comparison to the United States. Through a utilitarian lens, the implementation of total drug prohibition from the beginning of South Korea’s founding has resulted in far fewer overdose deaths than we see in the United States. The World Health Organization provides updated data annually for the top 10 causes of death in each respective country, which differs greatly by region. In 2019, the seventh-most common cause of death in the U.S. was drug use disorders, with approximately 22.62 deaths per 100,000 residents. Drug use disorders did not crack South Korea’s top 10 causes of death [7]. Is complete personal autonomy more important, or is the preservation of life more important? The U.S. enforces the former ideology while South Korea enforces the latter. The data plainly reveals that one comes at the expense of the other.


Does total prohibition align with traditionally progressive values? The U.S. temperance movement of the 1920s exhibited the characteristics of most progressive reforms–the Library of Congress claims that “it was concerned with the moral fabric of society; it was supported primarily by the middle classes, aimed at controlling the ‘interests’ (liquor distillers) and their connections with venal and corrupt politicians in city, state, and national governments” [8]. In contrast to the Prohibition era, the U.S. war on drugs was a movement propelled by Republicans that resulted in the crowding of prisons, a sharp rise in race-based policing, and the disproportionate arrests of black and brown populations for the same drug-related offenses as their white counterparts–a distinctly conservative affair. Advocating for the total prohibition of drugs does not align with my otherwise progressive beliefs according to organizations like the ACLU, who have firmly opposed the approach. Yet stripped down, drug prohibition is inherently progressive–it necessitates government intervention for the betterment of society.


It is difficult to recommend an ultra-specific course of action for both South Korea and the United States in terms of drug regulation, as each country grapples with its differing histories, cultures, and social norms. I can confidently propose, however, that South Korea should uphold its current hard-line stance on substance regulation. It seems effective in terms of keeping drug deaths low, and they were able to institute such a strict and effective prohibition shortly after the country’s founding and attach it to their newfound identity, quickly instituting a sense of control over the matter. As harsh as it sounds, the South Korean government should not be derailed from its stance by Lee Sun-kyun’s death or any others akin to it–they typically succeed in the preservation of life by keeping drugs out of their country. The U.S. cannot realistically implement this exact approach, but decriminalization is important to a certain degree to keep non-violent offenders out of already crowded prisons (e.g. marijuana users), but ultimately creates a public nuisance when downtown cities are filled with open-air drug use. As a resident of my beloved but struggling city of San Francisco, I know the sights all too well. One of the most infallible solutions to the problem of drug use is rehabilitation services. Prohibition from the founding of the country, as seen with South Korea, is the best option to save lives, but rehabilitation is the next best thing. If the U.S. continues with decriminalization efforts, up to $106.7 billion in annual budgetary gains for federal, state, and local governments would be generated, which should be diverted to drug rehabilitation programs, affordable housing for drug offenders, and efforts to revamp city centers [9]. 


South Korea’s strict sobriety, although initially appealing through a progressive lens, will never be compatible with the United States’ glaring drug crises and complex history with substance criminalization. I deeply envy South Korea’s ability to eliminate an entire category of destruction, in the form of drugs, from their society. The U.S. will never be able to replicate that approach – and it is critical that American policymakers invest in rehabilitation services before our drug crisis escalates even further rather than continuing to chastise South Korea’s strict policy stance.


[1] Mann, Brian, Aneri Pattani - Kaiser Health News, and Martha Bebinger. “In 2023 Fentanyl Overdoses Ravaged the U.S. and Fueled a New Culture War Fight.” NPR, December 28, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/12/28/1220881380/overdose-fentanyl-drugs-addiction.

[2] Kim, Dogyun, and Jimin Jung. South Korea police question K-pop star over alleged drug use | reuters. Accessed March 10, 2024. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/k-pop-star-questioned-by-south-korea-police-alleged-drug-use-2023-11-06/.

[3] Chand, Kailash. “Should Drugs Be Decriminalised? Yes.” National Library of Medicine, 2007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2072016/.

[4] “Against Drug Prohibition.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed March 10, 2024. https://www.aclu.org/documents/against-drug-prohibition.

[5] Diaz Pascual, Ignacio. “America’s War on Drugs - 50 Years Later.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Accessed March 10, 2024. https://civilrights.org/blog/americas-war-on-drugs-50-years-later/.

[6] Jennings, John M. “The Forgotten Plague: Opium and Narcotics in Korea under Japanese Rule, 1910-1945.” Modern Asian Studies 29, no. 4 (1995): 795–815. http://www.jstor.org/stable/312805.

[7] “Global Health Estimates: Leading Causes of Death.” World Health Organization. Accessed March 10, 2024. https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/mortality-and-global-health-estimates/ghe-leading-causes-of-death.

[8] “Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform.” The Library of Congress. Accessed March 10, 2024. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/progressive-era-to-new-era-1900-1929/prohibition-case-study-of-progressive-reform/.

[9] Miron, Jeffrey. “The Budgetary Effects of Ending Drug Prohibition.” Cato Institute, 2018. https://www.cato.org/tax-budget-bulletin/budgetary-effects-ending-drug-prohibition.