A South Korean actor who rose to global fame for his role in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite was found dead in an apparent suicide Wednesday, following a police investigation into his alleged illegal drug use.
The death of Lee Sun-kyun – who denied taking illicit drugs and said he was the target of a blackmail effort – follows several drug-related celebrity scandals that have roiled the country’s entertainment industry and comes amid a sweeping nationwide crackdown on narcotics.
In South Korea’s ‘idol culture’, drug allegations can spell downfall
South Korean celebrities face “extreme pressure” to present themselves as immaculate and scandal-free, the Washington Post reported, with drug abuse often spelling the end for careers. Actors and K-pop stars in the conservative nation “must juggle being flashy with being exemplary — swearing, drugs, tattoos and nudity are all frowned upon.” The career of Hellbound actor Yoo Ah-in suffered a rapid downfall earlier this year after authorities confirmed he used marijuana, cocaine, and ketamine. Singer G-Dragon was arrested over allegations of illegal drug use and banned from leaving the country, but the idol now plans to sue those who spread defamatory rumors after his drug tests came back negative.
Government declares a ‘war on drugs’ with narcotics abuse at all-time high
Once trumpeting itself as a “drug-free” nation, South Korea declared a major clampdown on drugs earlier this year after a dramatic spike in illegal narcotics use led to a sharp increase in arrests. The country was left reeling in April after a group of dealers targeted teenagers in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam neighborhood with drinks laced with ecstasy and methamphetamine. Some believe the reaction to rising drug abuse is overblown, however, worrying that for people in other countries, it will “reinforce their images of Korea and other Asian countries as a techno-orientalist dystopia inhabited by unhappy people,” a lecturer at Seoul Women’s University told Deutsche Welle.
Activists say social stigma around drugs needs to change
South Koreans struggling with drug addiction face intense social stigma, with only six drug rehabilitation centers for the country’s 52 million people. Drug-related crimes in South Korea are punishable by hefty prison sentences and offenders can be prosecuted even if their usage was abroad. Advocates are pressing the government to move from punishment to a more rehabilitative approach — as is being trialed in one pilot project in Seoul. “The system needs proper treatment and rehabilitation to help addicts start a new life when they go back to society,” former addict and counselor Choi Jin-mook told Reuters.