(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Feb. 23)
Fighting drug crimes
New investigation unit expected to play a key role in battling growing drug problems
South Korean prosecutors launched a special investigation unit Tuesday to fight growing drug crimes including large-scale drug trafficking and the spread of drug sales through internet channels.
The Supreme Prosecutors' Office said the special unit is made up of four investigation teams at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office and district prosecutors' offices in Incheon, Busan and Gwangju, respectively.
The special teams represent the country's latest attempt to combat drug crimes by pooling investigative resources and intelligence personnel from several state agencies including officials from the prosecution, customs and food safety departments.
The special unit will focus on tackling drug smuggling, distribution of drugs over the internet and illegal circulation of medical-purpose drugs. A total of 84 staff -- prosecutors, customs and food safety officials, and internet experts -- will conduct joint investigations.
The police are not included in the special team, as there are two tracks to combat drug crimes in the nation. While the newly formed special unit traces smuggling channels first, the police are separately carrying out field investigations to arrest drug offenders and those who possess and abuse illegal drugs.
According to the SPO, information on drug crimes identified by the special investigation unit will be shared with the police in local districts to crack down on offenders.
The launch of the joint investigation team comes as the nation faces worsening drug problems and related crimes, which are now affecting a growing number of people in various fields.
Two weeks ago, a top actor was under a police investigation for the illegal use of propofol, a powerful anesthetic commonly used for routine surgeries, and has been banned from leaving the country. He was questioned on suspicion of getting habitually prescribed propofol in violation of the Narcotics Control Act.
Drug use is no longer limited to a small circle of people. Last month, prosecutors indicted 17 people on charges of distributing cannabis here, which is strictly prohibited. Among those indicted were six scions of Korean chaebol families, a son of a high-ranking official, entrepreneurs and a musician.
Worse, prosecution data shows that nearly 40 percent of those caught for cannabis-related crimes were repeat offenders.
On Feb. 2, the police arrested eight Vietnamese people in their 30s and 40s in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, on suspicion of taking drugs in a noraebang.
The SPO said a total of 18,395 drug offenders were apprehended last year, up 13.9 percent from a year earlier, and the number of people arrested for smuggling illegal drugs into the country jumped from 807 in 2021 to 1,392 in 2022.
Authorities have expressed particular concern about the rise of teenagers involved in drug crimes. The proportion of drug offenders who were aged 10-19 climbed from 15.8 percent in 2017 to 34.2 percent in 2022, according to data from the prosecutors' office.
Younger drug users typically buy and sell drugs over the internet and social media.
This is why the special investigation team intends to crack down on drug circulation on the so-called "dark web" -- a part of the internet favored by international drug dealers that can only be accessed using special software -- and via international mail or express courier parcel services.
In recent years, drug dealers are increasingly using more sophisticated online distribution channels such as encrypted mobile messengers and the payment is done anonymously using cryptocurrencies that defy immediate tracking.
According to a survey on 1,000 people by Korea Research, 76 percent of respondents said the country's drug problem was "serious" and around 30 percent of respondents said it would be "easy to get illegal drugs" if they want to.
Given the gravity of the situation, it is hoped that the special investigation unit would play a key role in battling drug crimes and preventing people from getting trapped in illegal drugs.
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