Drug Crimes in Korea: A Guide to Criminal Law for Foreigners


1. An Overview of Drug Offenses in South Korea

Korea is widely known for its strict drug policy where even small offenses can result in severe legal penalties. Since the Korean government maintains a policy of zero tolerance for drug offenses, it is necessary for both Koreans and foreigners to understand the complexities of drug crimes under Korea law.
Recently, Korean prosecutors and police have worked in close cooperation with customs, immigration, and foreign offices to carry out increased crackdowns on the trafficking of drugs sent through mail or carried on/within the body, as well as on the illegal use of drugs for medical treatments.

Additionally, the Prosecutor’s Offices of the Districts of Central Seoul, Incheon, and Busan set up designated investigative teams that focus their investigation on the dark web, SNS, and virtual calls to uncover instances of drug distribution. They are also actively cracking down on cases of drug trafficking over the internet by enforcing punishment regulations for any advertising activities related to the sale of drugs.
Reading the following article about various aspects of the Korean drug law will help you gain an extensive understanding of the legal framework, possible penalties, and the importance of legal counsel when charged with a drug crime in Korea.


Understanding Drug Crimes in Korea

Korea’s Zero-Tolerance Policy:

Korea’s approach regarding drug crimes is very clear-cut. To put it simply, there is zero tolerance for drug crimes and the government enforces strict regulations to curb drug abuse and drug trafficking. The purpose of this policy is to prevent and combat such offenses while maintaining a drug-free society.


Different Drug Types and Drug Classification:

In Korea, drugs are categorized into several groups depending on their abuse potential and their medical usage. This classification plays a significant role in determining the severity of the various penalties for possessing, using, or distributing illegal substances.


Law Enforcement on Drug Crimes:

The Korean Customs Office thoroughly monitors and tracks all substances brought into Korea through its ports and airports. This is a result of their meticulous inspection of international mail and express cargo which has led them to uncover new types of substances that are being smuggled via overseas internet sites. There are also Korean Police headquarters and prosecution services investigating drug offense in Korea. Special teams are in customs, and ICN airport, Incheon prosecutions as well.


2. Drug Classification & Banned Drugs in Korea

The Different Types of Illicit (Illegal) Drugs

Korea has established strict laws and regulations regarding drug use with the goal of maintaining a drug-free society and eradicating drug-related offenses. To effectively examine these legislations, it is important to first be aware of the different types of illegal substances which are prohibited in Korea.


In South Korea, Cannabis, including Marijuana (also known as “weed”), is strictly prohibited. Regardless of the amount, the possession, sale, and use of cannabis can have legal consequences ranging from fines to imprisonment. Even if it’s CBD, a THC-containing edible product that is legalized in other countries, you can still be subject to a criminal investigation and punishment.


Narcotics and Psychotropics:
Substances such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, MDMA, YABA, RUSH, GHB receive the most severe penalties in Korea. Since Korea’s policy of zero-tolerance applies to these substances, their possession, distribution, and manufacture are met with significant legal punishments. Under Korean law, offenses involving these substances receive a harsher level of punishment than those involving cannabis.


Prescription Drugs:
Strict regulations also apply to a number of prescription drugs that contain prohibited substances. It is possible that a medication, despite being legal in your own country, is actually prohibited in Korea. Tourists in possession of such medications must carry a copy of their doctor’s prescription and they must be aware of the legal requirements for bringing such medications into Korea.


Illicit (Illegal) Drugs in South Korea

There are 478 substances which are prohibited in South Korea. Some of the most well-known of these are philopon, opium, cocaine, heroin, cannabis, ecstasy (MDMA), and ketamine.
Psychotropic substances (257 substances): Methamphetamines (philopon), LSD etc.
Narcotics (126 substances): Cocaine, heroin (extractions from opium poppy/coca leaf)
Cannabis (1): hemp plant, its resin, and anything that is manufactured using these as raw materials
Temporary narcotics (94 substances): narcotics that are not listed in the Narcotics Control Act but are still deemed to have a high potential for abuse or harmful effects and are therefore subject to strict regulations

See the following charts for detailed information on these substances:

Class, Type Characteristics
Opioids- Opium Poppy 1 to 1.5m tall plant with white, red, or purple flowers
Opioids- Opium Opium◦the milky liquid is scraped from the flower buds and dried, then refined into a hard, wax-like, dark-brown substance
◦sweet, pungent smell
Opioids- Morphine ◦extracted from Opium (10:1)  ◦odorless; bitter taste  ◦white/brown powder, capsules, injection
Opioids- Heroin

◦achieves same effect as morphine with just half the amount  ◦white, off-white, gray, light-brown sugar-like crystals

◦odorless; bitter taste  ◦other substances added during manufacture process, often described to have vinegar-like smell

Opioids- Codeine

◦derived from Morphine  ◦injection, capsule, tablet


◦made from coca leaves  ◦fine white powder  ◦inhalation, injection, oral administration

Cocaine-Crack Cocaine

◦Made by cooking cocaine with baking soda and water  ◦Small crystals  ◦Smoked with a pipe

Pethidine ◦ alternative to morphine, lasts 3-6 hours, injections, tablet, capsule
Methadone ◦ alternative to morphine, lasts 24 hours, injection, tablet, capsule

Hallucinogen- LSD

◦ colorless, tasteless, odorless crystalline powder  ◦ transparent solution, tablet, sugar cubes, capsule   ◦ small amounts (0.1mg) 6-12 hours of hallucination

Hallucinogen- MDMA (Ecstasy)

◦ synthetic drug within the class of amphetamines  ◦ tablets with stamped logos, capsules

Hallucinogen- Mescaline

◦ extracted from the Mexican cactus “Payote”  ◦powder, capsule

Stimulant- Amphetamine

◦ comes in many forms: White, grey, or yellow powder, crystals, or lumps◦ slightly sour; dissolves well in water

◦ injection, intranasal inhalation, or taken with alcohol/liquids

Stimulant- YABA

◦ contains 25% of amphetamines  ◦small tablets (0.2g/tablet)

Inhibitor- Sedatives/ sleeping pills

◦ barbiturates, etc.◦ can be fatal if taken with alcohol

Inhibitor- Tranquilizers

◦can be fatal if taken with alcohol


    Class     Type Characteristics Effects
Cannabis Marijuana ◦ light green, yellow, or brown leaves
◦ THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) components cause intoxication and hallucinations

◦2 possible effects: either stimulating or sedating,

◦ restlessness, relaxation, dream-like state, increased appetite, craving for sweets

◦ floating feeling, rapid emotional change, constipation, hallucinations, increased heart rate, fear, anxiety, interrupted thoughts, memory gaps, loss of concentration/ self-control, distorted visuals, flashbacks

Hashish ◦ 300kg of cannabis can produce 1kg of hashish
◦ brown and black resin
Hemp Oil
(Hempseed Oil)

◦ 3–6kg of hash can produce 1kg of hash oil
◦ dark green or black oil
◦ contains 10% to 30% THC

Source: Korea Customs Service


3. Penalties for Drug Crimes in Korea

Korea’s Treatment of Drug Crimes

South Korea is well known for its strict approach when it comes to drug crimes. The Korean government’s commitment to eradicate substance abuse results in a comprehensive legal framework that leaves no room for tolerance. Let’s take a closer look at the legal framework for drug offenses in Korea, as well as the possible punishments and consequences that drug offenders may face.


Drug Offenses: Penalties and Sentencing

The direction of the investigation and the level of punishment determined at trial can vary depending on various factors. It is also important to note that not only the possession of a large quantity of drugs but the possession of even a small amount can already result in harsh legal penalties. Drug offenders can be punished with penalties ranging from fines to probation, compulsory drug treatments, and even prison sentences, depending on the type and quantity of drug/drugs and the offense that was committed. The punishable offenses range from drug use and possession to distribution and supply, import and export, or the manufacture of drugs.
In other words, any involvement in drug offenses is subject to punishment under Korean law, although the actual punishment level for drug crimes can be lighter or differ from what the Korean Narcotic Act stipulates.


Penalties for Possession/Use of Cannabis in Korea

In accordance with the Narcotics Control Act, a person who uses or possesses cannabis may be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison or up to 50 million won.


Penalties for Possession/Use of Narcotic or Psychotropic Drugs in Korea

The possession of illegal drugs such as psychotropics and narcotics can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison or up to 100 million won in accordance with the Narcotics Control Act.


Penalties for Drug Smuggling,Trafficking, and Distribution in Korea

In Korea, drug smuggling, trafficking, and distribution carry the harshest legal punishments. Individuals that are involved in the import, export, sale, or manufacture of illegal substances can receive lengthy prison sentences, heavy fines, and a permanent criminal record. Generally, according to the Korean Narcotics Control Act, a person who imports/exports, manufactures, sells, or facilitates the sale of drugs, or who possesses them for such purposes, may be sentenced to a minimum of 5 years and up to life in prison.
See the charts below for details on the penalty regulations.


Drug Law Penalty Regulations

Relevant Act



Penalties under Article 58

①-1 A person who imports/exports narcotics or temporary narcotics, or who possesses/carries them for the purpose of import/export (representative substances: heroin, cocaine, etc.)

Prison term of 5 years to life

①-2 A person who imports/exports raw materials for the purpose of manufacturing narcotics or psychotropics, or who possesses/carries them for the purpose of import/export

①-3 A person who imports/exports psychotropic drugs or those containing such substances, or who possesses/carries them for the purpose of import/export (representative substances: JWH-18, methcathinone, etc.)

①-4 A person who extracts components from plants that are raw materials for psychotropic drugs, or who imports/exports or possesses/carries such plants for the purpose of import/export

①-5 A person who imports/exports hemp, or who possesses/carries hemp for the purpose of import/export (representational substance: hemp)

①-6 A person who imports/exports psychotropic drugs or those containing such substances, or who possesses/carries them for the purpose of import/export
(representational substances: methamphetamine, etc.)

①-7 A person who has sold, received, produced, administered, or supplied narcotics or temporary narcotics to minors
Or a person who has sold, received, produced, administered, or supplied psychotropic drugs or temporary psychotropic drugs

A person who has committed an act described in paragraph (1) for the purpose of profit or who has committed it repeatedly

Death penalty; prison term of 10 years to life

A person who has attempted an act under paragraph (1) or (2)


A person who prepared or conspired to commit an act in paragraph (1) (excluding item 7) or paragraph (2)

Prison term of up to 10 years

Penalties under Article 59

①-1 A person who grows plants that are the raw materials of drugs for the purpose of import/export, or who possesses/carries raw materials, seeds, seedlings that contain such substances

Prison term of 1 year or more

①-10 A person who imports/exports psychotropic drugs or those containing such substances, or who possesses/carries these for the purpose of import/export (representative substances: LSZ, flunitrazepam, etc.)

①-11 A person who grows cannabis for the purpose of export

①-13 A person who imports/exports psychotropic drugs

A repeat offender of an act described in paragraph (1)

Prison term of 3 years or more

A person who attempted an act described in paragraph (1) (excluding item 5) or paragraph (2)


Penalties under Article 60 ①-3 A person who imports/exports psychotropic drugs or those containing such substances, or who possesses/carries them for the purpose of import/export (representative substances: Diazepam, Zolpidem, etc.) Prison term of 10 years or more

A repeat offender of an act described in paragraph (1) 

punishment shall be aggravated by up to 1/2 of the punishment for the relevant crime

A person who attempted an act described in paragraph (1) or paragraph (2)



4. Korean Drug Laws: Knowing Your Rights

For foreigners currently residing or traveling in Korea, it is crucial to understand your legal rights as well as the protection you are entitled to under Korean law. In the following, we will look at the main aspects of Korean drug laws and the rights and protections foreigners have within the context of these laws.


Legal Rights as a Foreigner

Equal Treatment under the Law:
The Korean legal system does not discriminate against foreigners in drug-related cases. Regardless of nationality, foreigners are subject to the same laws and legal penalties as Korean citizens.


Right to Remain Silent

Any statements you make to Korean authorities may later be used as evidence against you in court. Therefore, during the police interrogation, you should not be forced to give a statement and you have the right to remain silent.


Right to Request the Defense Attorney’s Presence for Police Interviews

Both Koreans and foreigners have the right to a legal defense for drug charges. Due to the possibility of being detained and receiving serious penalties when charged with a drug offense, hiring a qualified defense attorney as soon as possible is essential. Especially for those who do not know Korean or the Korean legal system well, appointing a Korean attorney experienced with defending drug cases involving foreigners will ensure that you are made aware of the complexities of the Korean legal system and that your rights will be protected.


Right to Refuse a Search of Your Home or Belongings Without a Warrant

When investigating a drug case, investigators may search your home or office, try to collect your urine and hair for drug tests, and sometimes even your fingernails and toenails for detailed examination via the National Forensic Service. Korean police may also ask for your consent to provide your phone and its password for digital forensics. Generally, you may refuse to do so if you don’t see a warrant for this, although there are some exceptions.


Right to Request the Help of Consular Services

Foreigners can ask for help at their respective embassy or consulate in Korea. Consular services can provide meaningful support and important information to those facing legal challenges, including drug-related crimes.


5. Law Enforcement and Criminal Investigation

A case that is filed with the Korean police consequently allows them to exercise jurisdiction. In that case, even if you are a foreigner, the investigation, prosecution, and trial are all conducted by Korean investigators and judicial authorities.
Since Korean law enforcement treats drug crimes as serious offenses, it is critical for those involved in drug offenses to be aware of what happens after being arrested for a drug crime in Korea. In the following, we will take a closer look at the detention process, the possibility of bail, and the chance of being released after being arrested for a drug crime charge in Korea.

Arrest and Detention Process in Korean Drug Cases

If you are caught red-handed, Korean law enforcement can hold you in police custody for 48 hours without a warrant. After 48 hours of investigation, police and prosecutors decide whether to request a court judge to issue a warrant for your arrest. If there is probable cause for an arrest, if the committed act is considered a serious offense, if it’s believed that there is a risk of destruction of evidence, or if there is a flight risk, the judge will likely issue a warrant to allow Korean investigators to detain you for an extended period.


Protecting Your Rights during Korean Legal Procedures

The rights of an individual must be protected during this detention period, including the rights to remain silent, to seek legal advice, and to be informed of the charges against you. A warrant for your arrest does not mean a warrant to confiscate your belongings, your hair, or your urine. So, the police still must ask for your consent to collect your phone, laptop, items, or hair, and if you refuse, they must provide a warrant to enforce these actions.


Korean Bail System

Korea’s bail system differs from that of some Western countries. If an arrest warrant has been issued, you can apply for a review of the adequacy of arrest and may also apply for bail. A Korean judge would detain you if there is clear evidence that you committed a crime, if the crime you committed is considered a felony, and if there is a risk of you destroying evidence or fleeing to avoid prosecution.

In a drug case, you are likely to be arrested and detained for the rest of the criminal procedures, especially if you’re involved with drug trafficking, selling, or possessing them for the purpose of sale, since all these offenses have a high possibility of another accomplice being involved.

You can have a criminal defense attorney present during the hearing for an arrest. Since the issuance rate of arrest warrants in Korea is over 80%, it is highly recommended that you hire criminal lawyer in the early stages of the investigation.


6. The Role of Legal Representation

After being arrested, you might believe that confessing to the charges and simply paying the imposed fine will put a quick end to the investigative and legal procedures, but it is important to also consider the consequences that a criminal record and conviction can have on your stay in Korea or your visa status. Being convicted in Korea could lead to an exit order being issued by the immigration office, or to a rejection of a visa extension or future visa application. Therefore, you should not delay hiring a Korean attorney who is aware of such regulations and the possible impact that legal penalties can have on your stay in Korea and who will try to lower your charges or have the case dismissed altogether.


The Importance of Legal Counsel for Foreigners

Hiring Legal Defense during the Investigation Phase

If you are involved in a drug crime, it is important to have a competent and trustworthy attorney by your side from the beginning of the investigation until trial.
Your lawyer will consult with you and advise you to avoid mistakes during your police interview, monitor procedures to ensure that you are not treated unfairly because you are a foreigner, and ensure that there are no violations of due process during the investigation.

If you hire a lawyer during the investigation stage, your lawyer will actively defend you to ensure that unlawfully or unfairly obtained evidence does not turn against you and lead to your conviction, and to achieve a successful outcome so that the investigation can be closed without indictment or with the lightest punishment possible in your case.


Examples of Defense Lawyers’ Successful Efforts in Drug Cases

If an attorney can prove that unlawful procedures were carried out during the arrest process, you might be released even after being arrested.

In a recent case, foreigners arrested on drug charges involving meth were released after the police failed to follow necessary procedures such as informing them of the Miranda rights (the right to be informed of the cause for arrest, the right to appoint a lawyer, and the right to refuse a statement) and after it was discovered that they have arrested the foreigners based on drugs found through an illegal search of the foreigner’s residences. Because of this police misconduct, the foreigners were able to avoid arrest.

In another case, foreigners who were accused of attempting to smuggle drugs were released because the lawyer was able to prove illegal conduct that was carried out during the process of the police investigation. The judge has therefore concluded that the criminal act could not be punished, due to the lack of evidence since the collected evidence was illegally collected and therefore inadmissible in court. This shows how crucial it is for foreigners who lack knowledge of Korea’s judicial system to seek immediate assistance from a criminal defense attorney once an investigation on drug-related charges has been launched by the Korean police.


Possible Immigration Issues after a Criminal Process

If you are a foreigner who has committed a criminal offense or has been the subject of an investigation for a criminal offense, you will be summoned by the Immigration Office after the criminal proceedings are completed. The Immigration Office will interview you and consider whether to deport you or not, and your visa extension may be canceled. A criminal defense attorney who is familiar with immigration cases like us can also defend you against deportation or departure orders.


7. Conclusion

Even if you are a first-time offender, you shouldn’t let your guard down thinking that you will be let off easily. For foreigners who don’t know Korean well, hiring a criminal defense lawyer who has experience with drug cases in Korea will ensure that your right to defend your case can be properly exercised.
If you are wrongly accused of violating the Narcotics Control Act, you should appoint a drug crime attorney who can provide you with expert legal advice regarding drug crimes and take appropriate countermeasures to prevent an arrest, criminal investigations, and unfair treatment during trial procedures. This will help you receive favorable results such as probation or an acquittal of charges.


8. Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What factors are considered in the punishment of a drug offense in Korea?

A1.The type of offense, drug, and the amount of drug involved in the related offense have an impact on the severity of the punishment. However, there are other factors that are considered when determining the sentencing of an offender. For example, being a first-time offender, a minor, or someone with an earnest will to become sober, may result in a suspended sentence to provide you with a chance for treatment or rehabilitation.


Q2. What are the punishments for drug offenses in Korea?

A2. The penalties vary according to the act that was committed. It ranges from fines to years of imprisonment. Korean law treats marijuana differently from other psychotropic drugs. Usually, the level of punishment for psychotropic drugs is twice as high as for marijuana. In the case of imprisonment, it can range from 6 months to life imprisonment. Fines range from 5 million won to 100 million won.


Q3. What can be the best outcome in a drug case? 

A3. If you are a first-time offender and with a defense attorney’s representation, you may not be sent to trial and may be forgiven during the investigation stage. It is commonly called deferred prosecution. For more serious offenses such as drug smuggling, sale, or distribution, however, being charged with a fine or probation is the best possible outcome, even if it was your first offense.


Q4. What happens if I get arrested in Korea?

If arrested by the Korean police on drug charges, the ensuing investigation will be conducted in accordance with Korean law, and foreigners have the same rights as Koreans when it comes to the right to appoint a lawyer. Since the investigation begins as soon as you are arrested, it is best for you to hire a lawyer quickly. A good criminal lawyer will defend you by focusing on whether there were any violations of the law during the arrest investigation, or during the collection of your items for evidence, so that you can be released without being unreasonably detained or violated.


Q5. Is medical marijuana legal in Korea?

A5. No. Medical marijuana has not been legalized in Korea. Not only weed but CBD, THC vape, or any edible products are not allowed.


Q6. Can I bring my prescribed or licensed marijuana to Korea?

A6. No. Unlike many countries, marijuana in any form has not yet been legalized in Korea. If you carry marijuana in your bag when entering Korea, you may be subject to criminal investigations by Korean customs and special investigators.


Q7. Does a drug offense on your criminal record impact your Korean visa?

A7. Yes. Being convicted of a drug crime in Korea can have a considerable impact on your visa status and can result in a departure or deportation order, a rejection of a visa extension, or a future visa application, depending on the punishment that you have received. Therefore, after getting the best criminal defense, it is also important to get the best immigration defense.


Drug Crimes in Korea: A Guide to Criminal Law for Foreigners

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