By Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Every Saturday a group of young South Koreans gathers in Incheon just west of Seoul to talk about their battles with drug abuse, seeking sympathy and support in often emotional exchanges.
The free midday therapy sessions are organised by Choi Jin-mook, who fought addiction for more than 20 years before becoming a counsellor and advocating for a shift in South Korea's drugs policy towards treatment and away from punishment.
Choi, 48, began taking nonprescription cough medicines at age 17 and was jailed for marijuana in his 20s. In and out of prison for 15 years, he turned to meth and stronger drugs before another addict-turned-counsellor led him to an "awakening".
"I thought I would be a normal person when I got out of prison, but there I learned more about drugs instead of getting treatment," Choi said.
"I just couldn't break away from the fetters."
South Korea has only six drug rehabilitation centres, according to Choi, including just two run by the food and drug safety ministry. In comparison, Japan - with 126 million people to South Korea's 52 million - has about 90 rehab centres.
The centre Choi heads is one of three set up 10 years ago with funding from Japan. The centres run on a Japanese model and hire only former addicts to provide care and counselling.
Choi and other counsellors have been trying to build more rehab centres and make them more accessible, but Choi said he has failed to get government funding because of a general lack of awareness of the need for more facilities.
PRISON NOT REHAB
One of the biggest problems is that South Korea's corrections system focuses mostly on punitive detention and lacks rehabilitation support, Choi said.
In recent months, the arrests of chaebol heirs and celebrities such as award-winning actor Yoo Ah-in on illegal drugs charges have prompted authorities to crack down on narcotics and bolster customs enforcement.
Drug crimes are typically punishable by at least six months in prison or up to 14 years for repeat offenders and dealers. Some drug crimes are also punishable by death although South Korea has not carried out any executions since 1997.
While most first- and second-time offenders usually get suspended sentences and 30 to 40 hours of mandatory drug education, Choi said this does little to get them off drugs.
"The golden time for addiction treatment is when you get caught for the first time, but thinking that addicts would quit after attending those classes for several hours is hoping for a miracle," he said.
"The system needs proper treatment and rehabilitation to help addicts start a new life when they go back to society."
The government created special intra-agency squads last week to clamp down on drugmakers and distributors, and Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon unveiled plans last year to expand state rehab facilities, vowing to fight drugs "as if we are at war".
The justice ministry did not respond to requests for information on any plans for more state rehab centres. And the food and drug safety ministry said it would add only one this year due to budget constraints, without elaborating.
DRUG-FREE NO MORE
Drugs have become cheaper and more accessible because of social media and an increase in overseas travel, Choi said.
"In Seoul, you can get exactly what you want within 30 minutes via social media."
The number of people convicted of drug crimes shot up to more than 16,000 in 2021, from around 12,000 in 2015, according to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office. Almost 60% of those convicted of drug crimes in 2021 were 39 or younger, while the number of teen offenders jumped 44% in 2021 from 2020.
The volume of confiscated illicit drugs more than tripled to a record 1.3 tonnes (2,870 lb) in 2021, due partly to multinational investigations into smuggling rings, data from the prosecutors' office also showed.
Meth, cocaine and marijuana made up around 85% of the seizures. Authorities are as well seeing more synthetic cannabinoids and opioids like fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
"A higher volume and a greater variety of drugs are being smuggled in many different forms," said Lee Kyoung-ran, a customs officer at South Korea's largest airport in Incheon.
President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has lamented that the country is no longer "drug-free", last week ordered tougher measures to root out traffickers and confiscate drug profits.
Meanwhile, addicts trying to quit are left looking for help.
Desperate to get off meth, Lee Dong-jae, 23, managed to find Choi last year. Choi offered free counselling and housing at his rehab centre and also gave Lee a job at his wife's restaurant.
"I've never had a job or daily life like this since taking drugs, but now feel I'm slowly recovering the lively and positive side of me," Lee said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park; Additional reporting by Daewoung Kim and Dogyun Kim; Editing by Tom Hogue)