US$168 million cocaine haul sparks fears South Korea becoming drug smugglers’ gateway to China, rest of Asia
- Customs officials in the southern port city of Busan seized 64 kilograms of cocaine on Monday that they say was bound for mainland China
South Korean customs officials have warned that they will not tolerate the country being used by drug smugglers as a gateway to mainland China and the rest of Asia.
The announcement follows Monday’s seizure of 64 kilograms of cocaine, worth an estimated US$168 million, in the southern port city of Busan.
Smugglers hoping to thwart X-ray scanners had hidden the drugs, tucked neatly into plastic parcels, inside a container full of copper metal scraps.
“The shipment was caught en route to China after our officials received a tip from Mexican authorities,” the Korea Customs Service said in a statement, adding that the cocaine was not intended for distribution in South Korea and had been bound for Tianjin.
South Korea’s international image as a “drug-free country” has led to it being targeted by smugglers, according to one official who did not want to be named.
“We believe they use Busan’s harbour as a way to avoid more rigorous drug searches in China, the final destination of the drugs,” said the person, adding that ships routed through South Korea are less likely to be subject to thorough searches than those coming directly from Mexico.
“We mean to send a message to the international community that South Korea will never tolerate becoming a drug distribution route,” said Yang Seung-kwon, director of Busan Customs Service. “We will do our utmost to prevent drug smuggling through international cooperation with not only domestic investigators, but also foreign customs agencies.”
This week’s cocaine seizure comes on the back of the country’s biggest-ever methamphetamine bust in October, which involved members of powerful crime syndicates from Japan and Taiwan. The suspects smuggled 112kg of meth past Busan’s customs officials by hiding it inside a large piece of screw making machinery.
South Korea still holds a dim view of recreational drug use. When Canada announced its legalisation of marijuana in October, the South Korean government was quick to remind its citizens living in or visiting Canada that they could still be charged with drug use upon their return, even if they only used it when they were abroad.
Inshik Sim, an analyst from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that South Korea is known as a transit point for drugs such as cocaine and meth.
“The cocaine market there is still limited but we need to see how this develops because we are seeing more cocaine coming from Latin America,” he said.
Sim noted that seizures of cocaine in Asia have increased in recent years, especially in South Korea, China and the Philippines.
In April, authorities in Guangdong province seized 1.3 tonnes of the drug that had been shipped from South America to the port of Shanwei in mainland China’s biggest haul yet. Ten suspects, mostly from Hong Kong, were detained.
Additional reporting by Raquel Carvalho