Drug Arrests, English Teachers, and the Role of the U.S. Embassy in South Korea

by Hale VanKoughnett, Chief, American Citizen Services, 27/02/2008


The U.S. Embassy in Seoul has over the past several months seen an increase in the number of drug arrest cases of Americans in South Korea.  While I cannot attribute this rise to any one factor, I would like to use this forum to remind Americans of a few things they should keep in mind when they are visiting or working in South Korea.  While in a foreign country, foreigners are of course subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law.  This may seem obvious to you as you read it, but you’d be surprised at some of the comments we hear from incarcerated Americans.  There are clearly a lot of misconceptions out there among Americans and the general foreign community.  In short, doing drugs in Korea is illegal, the penalties may be harsher than you expect, and foreigners are not given a break just because they are not Korean.  The U.S. Embassy has no reason to believe that Americans, English teachers, or foreigners in general are being singled out and pursued for drug use, but we want to make people aware of some of the facts surrounding drug use.

Korean government policy is aimed at discouraging the use of dangerous and habit-forming drugs and takes an aggressive stand against drug smuggling, trafficking, and use--including marijuana use.  You should be aware that Korean statutes classify marijuana as a dangerous narcotic.  Korean anti-drug authorities use a variety of means to identify drug use, including undercover agents and informants, scanning packages sent through the mail or courier systems, and obtaining information provided by other persons charged with drug possession or use.   When people are caught using drugs or receiving packages containing drugs, their friends, roommates, and coworkers are often called in to be interrogated and drug tested by means of urine or hair samples. 

Currently there are about two dozen Americans in prison in South Korea.  About half of them are in for drug possession, and the large majority of these drug prisoners are English teachers.  Again, we do not believe that this means that English teachers are being singled out—anyone familiar with South Korea knows that a large number of young people in South Korea are teachers of English, whereas in other countries there might be a greater percentage of tourists, backpackers, or students, and therefore the percentage should not be surprising.  You should also know that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will learn of an American's arrest for drugs in Korea. 

The Role of the Embassy in an Arrest:
Please understand that the U.S. Embassy cannot assist prisoners with legal representation.  When a consular officer visits someone who has been arrested, we provide a list of local attorneys who are known to speak English and to have dealt with foreigners' cases.  Our job is to ensure that the arrested U.S. citizen is being treated fairly under local laws, understands the charges, has access to legal counsel, and has any special or emergency needs met to the extent possible.  The Embassy can also keep a detainee's relatives or friends informed of the situation if that is the person’s wish. 

Anyone who wants more information about the Korean legal system should check out the Embassy’s website at http://korea.usembassy.gov/legal.html.

Registering Your Trip Abroad, Wherever You Are Going
As a final point, I would like to strongly advise all Americans living or traveling overseas to register their presence abroad with the Embassy. 
You can register quickly at http://korea.usembassy.gov/citizen_registration.html.  It allows us to help you in at least three types of situations: 

1) If we need to contact you because a loved one in the U.S. has not been able to get in touch with you.

2) If something happens to you and we need to contact your family in the U.S.
The first situation happens more often than you would think – parents panic when they haven’t received an email from a son or daughter for a few days or they can’t remember how to correctly dial your cell phone.  The second situation is even less pleasant and not one anyone likes to think about, but often when Americans are seriously injured or die overseas, the Embassy spends valuable hours or even days trying to locate family or next of kin.

3) If the Embassy needs to contact American citizens as a group due to a national or regional emergency, such as a natural disaster, civil unrest, or a crisis necessitating evacuation. 

An additional benefit of registration is that you will receive periodic emailed information from the Embassy – our monthly newsletter, occasional messages about voting, taxes, etc., and safety and security bulletins during an  emergency.

For your own safety and security, and for your family’s peace of mind, I truly hope that you will register your presence abroad.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss what are very important subjects for Americans abroad.  If you have questions, please visit our website at www.asktheconsul.org, or email us at Seoul_ACS@State.gov.

Hale VanKoughnett
Chief, American Citizen Services
U.S. Embassy Seoul
February 2008

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