A film star, a suicide and a nation’s warfare on medication


South Korean actor Lee Solar-kyun realized he was being investigated for unlawful drug use after studying about it within the information.

The story that leaked to the South Korean information media was that detectives from the town of Incheon had been performing on a tip that Lee had taken ketamine and marijuana.

Finest recognized for his position as a haughty tech govt within the Oscar-winning 2019 darkish comedy “Parasite,” Lee was one of many nation’s greatest film stars. He had lead roles in two of the seven Korean movies screened in Could on the Cannes Movie Competition.

South Korea has a few of the harshest drug legal guidelines on this planet, and leisure use has lengthy been handled as a felony matter relatively than a public well being situation. The police investigation was opened in October amid a renewed crackdown, and authorities appeared decided to make an instance out of Lee.

He was paraded in entrance of reporters, drug-tested 4 occasions and as soon as interrogated for 19 hours straight. Salacious private particulars, leaked to the media, fashioned a pulpy narrative of a beloved star whose deviant personal life was lastly being unmasked.

Lee, 48, maintained his innocence. However on Dec. 27, after Lee went lacking, police discovered him useless in his automobile at a park in Seoul in an obvious suicide.

A man in glasses and dark clothing holds a hand to his face as another man in dark clothes speaks at a microphone

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, left, reacts throughout a Jan. 12, 2024, information convention in Seoul demanding an investigation into the demise of actor Lee Solar-kyun.

(Ahn Younger-joon / Related Press)

His demise unleashed a swell of criticism that overzealous investigators and the media had turned Lee right into a sufferer of what Jang Gained-seok, a movie producer and longtime pal of the actor, described as “a personality assassination that pushed him to absolutely the backside.”

Fewer are questioning the way in which drug customers are demonized in South Korea, a mind-set stoked by many years of presidency rhetoric and hard-line coverage.

“The general public sees drug use as a ‘social evil,’” Jang mentioned. “Of the numerous scandals {that a} movie star can undergo, medication are among the many worst.”

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Authorities grew to become keen on Lee after a 28-year-old small-time former actress — whom they’ve recognized solely by her surname, Park — confirmed up at a police station claiming {that a} former pal and the film star had been drug customers.

The previous pal, a 29-year-old girl with the final identify Kim, managed a members-only bar in Seoul. Information accounts mentioned the 2 had met years earlier in jail, the place Kim was reportedly serving time for medication and Park for fraud. However their relationship had not too long ago soured.

It was Kim, going through prosecution, who offered the main points about Lee and the medication she mentioned he used at her condo a number of occasions.

A man in a dark cap, gray hoodie and dark jacket smiles while waving

Actor Lee Solar-Kyun is seen arriving at Incheon Worldwide Airport in South Korea on Feb. 12, 2020.

(The Truth / ImaZins through Getty Photographs)

In line with police studies obtained by broadcaster MBC, her recollection of which dates this occurred shifted repeatedly earlier than detectives lastly zeroed in on 4 particular days between October 2022 and June 2023.

Lee made a shocking counter-allegation, claiming that Kim had extorted $225,000 from him, whereas one other blackmailer — later revealed to be Park — had resorted to extortion as properly, to the tune of $37,000.

In South Korea, regulation enforcement authorities are barred from disclosing the identities of suspects beneath felony investigation or permitting suspects to be recorded on video or photographed by the media. However by the point Lee was summoned by the police in late October, a regional newspaper, quoting an nameless Incheon police supply, had already damaged the information concerning the investigation, setting off a maelstrom of protection. “Lee Solar-kyun drug allegations create shock waves,” learn a typical headline. “Harm anticipated to succeed in fellow actors and manufacturing employees.”

On the entrance of the station, a wall of reporters greeted Lee, who appeared tense and solemn — a pointy departure from his public picture of clean-cut, jaunty wholesomeness.

“These kinds of A-lister movie star drug scandals are virtually remarkable in South Korea,” mentioned Kim Hern-sik, a popular culture critic who has spoken about Lee’s case on nationwide tv. “And in the event you seem within the press like that, you’re robotically branded as responsible.”

As an area telecommunications firm and vitamin producer started pulling their promoting campaigns that includes Lee, questions circulated about who had tipped off the media about his journey to the station.

In a written assertion, a spokesperson for police denied that they disclosed the date of Lee’s summons, including that “we’re within the means of ascertaining whether or not the supply of the preliminary information report was from an inside leak.”

A line of people dressed in black standing onstage speaking to an audience

South Korean leisure insiders maintain a Jan. 12, 2024, information convention in Seoul after the demise of actor Lee Solar-kyun in an obvious suicide. He was beneath police investigation for suspected drug use.

(Ahn Younger-joon / Related Press)

Legislation enforcement consultants have additionally criticized the police’s dealing with of the early phases of their investigation.

“Establishing the essential info, like the precise dates of the alleged drug use, or vetting the credibility of the accuser’s allegations — these are issues that ought to have been performed very early on, earlier than Lee was summoned,” mentioned Kim Hee-jun, a former narcotics investigator with South Korea’s prosecutors’ workplace.

“I’ve investigated loads of celebrities prior to now, however not as soon as did I summon them publicly,” he mentioned. “As soon as the suspect is revealed to be somebody well-known and there may be an expectant ambiance being created, it’s tough to say ‘oh, we appeared into it and there’s nothing there.’ It might sway the investigation towards prosecution.”

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Most of Asia has taken a tough stance in opposition to leisure drug use, and South Korea is not any exception. Residents may even be prosecuted for consuming medication exterior the nation.

However issues weren’t all the time this fashion.

Hashish seeds had been utilized in conventional Korean medication, and as not too long ago because the Nineteen Sixties, marijuana may very well be discovered rising wild within the countryside, the place farmers would generally smoke the leaves like tobacco.

Leisure marijuana use took root among the many countercultural youth of the Seventies, related to rock ‘n’ roll and American GIs, who known as it “glad smoke.”

Responding to strain from the U.S. navy — which blamed regionally grown marijuana for American troops getting excessive — in addition to the dissident undertones of pot tradition, the Park Chung-hee navy dictatorship declared that the drug was corrupting the nation’s youth and made hashish offenses punishable by demise.

The regime’s anti-drug marketing campaign featured a string of high-profile trials of celebrities, together with Shin Joong-hyun, a guitarist referred to as South Korea’s “godfather of rock” who was tortured and institutionalized.

Marijuana use is now not a capital offense, however the legacy of that period has endured. There are deep stigmas round drug use and widespread fears across the newfound availability of methamphetamine, MDMA and different medication, that are bought on the darkish net or nameless messaging apps, paid for with cryptocurrency and delivered in contactless drop-offs.

A single dose of meth, which might have price round $75 a couple of years in the past, is now estimated to promote for as little as $15.

In April, the conservative administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, a former prosecutor, launched a multi-agency narcotics investigation unit led by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Workplace, probably the most highly effective regulation enforcement physique within the nation.

Two men in dark suits shake hands near a lectern with a presidential seal

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol with President Biden on the White Home in April 2023. Yoon’s conservative administration launched a multi-agency narcotics investigation unit in South Korea that month.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Occasions)

“The explanation medication was costly in South Korea was the chance price — in the event you had been caught, your life could be ruined,” Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon mentioned. “This administration goes to root out many offenders and can come down on them so laborious that they may shriek.”

Police made 17,817 drug arrests final yr, up from 8,107 in 2018, with youngsters and folks of their 20s accounting for the largest, sharpest spikes.

A survey by polling firm Hankook Analysis in December 2022 discovered that nearly 80% of South Koreans supported the drug warfare. The same proportion related drug use with “an absence of morals” and believed that, on prime of the authorized penalties, celebrities caught utilizing medication deserved to undergo further social or financial fallout.

For regulation enforcement, the federal government has provided up clear incentives to attain massive wins.

In April, the nation’s police chief introduced “vital rewards” for the company’s prime performers — together with particular promotions for complete groups — calling for each main drug ring busts in addition to awareness-raising efforts.

“That creates competitors amongst narcotics departments and provides strain to provide outcomes,” mentioned Kim Hee-jun, the previous prosecutor. “And high-profile instances, like investigations into celebrities or well-known company figures, are a chief instance of those sorts of extremely regarded efficiency outcomes.”

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Lee would have understood that drug scandals can torpedo careers lengthy earlier than a responsible verdict is even reached.

Fellow actor Yoo Ah-in, at present on trial on expenses of utilizing ketamine, marijuana and cocaine, is now extensively thought to be persona non grata within the South Korean leisure business. Two motion pictures and a Netflix collection have indefinitely been placed on maintain, and he may additionally be on the hook for damages to advertisers for inflicting “social controversy.”

Lee was by no means arrested or charged, however between late October and late November, police gave him 4 drug exams, together with hair exams mentioned to detect drug use for as much as a yr.

One check was inconclusive and the remainder had been damaging.

“If it had been a daily individual, I feel the case would have seemingly been closed proper there,” mentioned Kim Hee-jun, the previous prosecutor. “It’s very tough to prosecute a suspect with out a optimistic drug check when the dates of alleged use fall inside that detection window.”

Four men in jackets stand with hands on a counter, with people seated behind them

Director Tae-gon Kim, from left, and actors Lee Solar-kyun, Kim Hee-won and Ju Ji-hoon pose through the picture name for the movie “Challenge Silence” on the 76th Cannes Movie Competition in Could 2023.

(Daniel Cole / Related Press)

However the investigation of Lee remained open.

“We investigated the case based on customary protocols and the regulation,” the police division mentioned in a written assertion. “In figuring out whether or not a cost exists, drug investigations consider not solely testing outcomes, but additionally testimonies of concerned events and forensic information.”

In late November, as newspapers started to query why the police had been pushing forward with the investigation with seemingly little proof, the nationwide broadcaster KBS launched components of a recording of a telephone dialog between Lee and his accuser.

The 2 seemed to be flirting with one another. At one level, Kim steered the dialog towards medication, in what some have interpreted as an try to get Lee to incriminate himself. Lee’s response was distracted and noncommittal.

The supply of the recording stays a thriller. Incheon police have acknowledged that it was filed as proof however have denied leaking it.

Jang, Lee’s pal, believes that this recording was the compromising materials utilized by Kim to extort Lee, who had a spouse and two sons.

“No one actually is aware of what the character of their relationship was,” Jang mentioned. “However he was a well-known movie star with a household, and I feel the supervisor exploited that and the optics of the scenario to extort him.”

Though KBS has defended its publication of the recording, others say the choice was the bottom level in what they regard as frantic, usually prurient protection of Lee. In two months, South Korean media revealed almost 3,000 on-line information studies about Lee.

At a information convention held by Lee’s business colleagues in early January, singer and music govt Yoon Jong-shin requested, “Can KBS say, on its honor as a public broadcaster, that the personal dialog of the deceased, which had nothing to do with the allegations at hand, was actually journalism within the service of the general public curiosity?”

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Lee wasn’t the one goal of his accuser. She additionally instructed investigators that Kwon Ji-yong, a well-known musician referred to as G-dragon, had performed cocaine on the bar she managed.

Police closed that investigation in mid-December after the musician handed his drug exams and his accuser admitted that she hadn’t truly seen him take the medication.

A man with dark hair, wearing glasses and a dark jacket and blue shirt, stands near other people holding recording devices
South Korean police closed their investigation into Kwon Ji-yong, also called G-Dragon, after the musician handed his drug exams. Above, he arrives on the Incheon police station for questioning in November 2023.

(Han Myung-Gu / WireImage)

However the police weren’t performed with Lee. On the morning of Dec. 23, he confirmed up on the Incheon police station for his third interrogation. Police denied a request from his attorneys that he be allowed to enter the constructing by an underground parking storage, so he needed to stroll by a throng of reporters.

Police mentioned that the in a single day interrogation was organized with Lee’s consent so as to make sufficient time for questions associated to the drug case in addition to his extortion case.

Three days later, Lee requested for a polygraph check. However earlier than it may very well be administered he was useless.

The Incheon police company is being investigated for its potential position within the leaks about Lee’s case. Park and Kim, Lee’s accusers, are being tried on extortion expenses. Kim can also be on trial for allegedly taking meth and marijuana.

A coalition of leisure business figures, together with “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho, are actually campaigning for strengthened privateness protections for topics of regulation enforcement investigations.

“Finally, the perspective of the general public must mature, to not count on celebrities to be like pure, clean sheets of paper,” Jang mentioned. “However there’s a want for some fundamental safeguard to stop one thing like this from taking place once more.”

Jang remembered his pal as heat and type, recounting how Lee favored to hype up his colleagues, rearranging seats at eating places so a youthful actor had an opportunity to shine.

Amid the tide of eulogies, some drug consultants hoped that Lee’s demise would start to vary the nationwide dialog across the nation’s punitive strategy to medication.

However that has not occurred.

“Different international locations have adopted a rehabilitation-focused mannequin, however South Korea has not,” mentioned Lim Sang-hyeon, the director of a drug therapy facility in Gyeonggi province. “The general public nonetheless sees drug customers as criminals or menaces to society relatively than sufferers. And that’s as a result of the enforcement of drug legal guidelines paints them that approach.”

A man with dark hair, wearing glasses and dark clothes, holds a sheet of paper while standing before a microphone

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is among the many leisure business figures campaigning for strengthened privateness protections for topics of regulation enforcement investigations.

(Ahn Younger-joon / Related Press)

Kim Hee-jun mentioned that the incident has at the very least raised questions that may ultimately assist inch public consciousness ahead.

“Once I was a prosecutor, I personally solely ever thought you wanted to come back down laborious on drug customers,” he mentioned. “However over time, I noticed the excessive recidivism charges, I sought out extra info and got here to see the difficulty by way of not simply crime, but additionally of illness and habit.”

In January, he revealed a e-book that goals to demystify teenage drug use. An exonerated G-Dragon agreed to put in writing the foreword.

“Prejudice stands in the way in which of therapeutic and alter,” he wrote. “To repair the center of the issue, we should start with prevention and optimistic schooling relatively than regulation and punishment.”

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