YANGPYEONG, South Korea, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- Like any young art student, Kim Woo-jin sought inspiration wherever he could find it. He studied ceramics at university during the mid-1970s, a time of economic and cultural upheaval in South Korea. Kim says he was a freshman when upperclassmen showed him how to expand his creative horizons.
"A lot of art students were smoking marijuana at the time. It made me more focused and I felt that I could do anything," says Kim, who asked that his real name not be used. "We didn't feel any shame or guilt about smoking marijuana, back then it wasn't considered a social problem."
Smoking marijuana was not uncommon for Koreans like Kim who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. But for the youth of today, it is an almost unthinkable taboo. For the few who have tried it, experimentation occurs overseas and is not a story they share with friends upon returning home. Celebrities who admit to smoking are publically shamed and face vicious attacks by jaded fans on Internet message boards.
Korea, in fact, has a long history with cannabis, one that seems to be all but forgotten. Marijuana, known in Korean as "daema," was once found growing wild throughout the countryside. It lined the sides of dirt roads as a dust guard for homes. It was one of Korea's largest cash crops, cultivated to make hemp for numerous products including the"hanbok," Korea's traditional costume, as well as funeral shrouds. The plant's seeds were and still are considered a remedy for constipation by practitioners of Korean traditional medicine, and steamed seeds could be found in some herbal markets.
Screen shot from an anti-marijuana public service announcement circa mid-1970s
However, the origins of recreational marijuana use are hazy at best. According to Lee Chang-ki's book "The Story of Drugs" (2004), Koreans first started smoking cannabis only after it was introduced to them by American soldiers: a claim that is difficult to prove or dispute. Lee's 1968 research showed that Korean marijuana contained a higher level of the psychoactive ingredient Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than marijuana from several other countries including India, Mexico and Canada.
Kim Woo-jin says he didn't think it was a big deal, there were no laws against marijuana and he had never received any education about its effects. He and his friends would get high on "happy smoke," as it was called, together while listening to the music of Korean rock legend Shin Joong-hyun, Korean band Love and Peace, and Simon and Garfunkel. Kim says that neighborhood of Itaewon, located nearby the U.S. military's Yongsan Garrison, was the "mecca"" for Western music as well as marijuana. But with the passage of the 1976 Cannabis Control Act, smoking or possessing daema became a punishable crime.
"We thought the crackdown was for political purposes," Kim says. "We didn't stop smoking marijuana, we just took it underground and only used it with trusted friends. I did have several close calls with the law."
Kim Chang-nam, a communications professor at Sungkonghoe University and author of several books on Korean youth and popular culture, agrees that the marijuana crackdown was for the most part politically motivated.
"Park Chung-hee's military regime wanted to force the nation to follow his ideas," says the professor, referring to the late president who ruled the country for 18 years after seizing power in a coup. "This was especially aimed at the young generation, who were being influenced by Western hippies and rock music. Park considered that as a challenge to his authority."
Amidst the black and white nature of the Cold War and ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Park justified the crackdown on the so-called "marijuana crisis" as a threat to national security.
"At this grave juncture that will settle the matter of life and death in our one-on-one confrontation with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to our country," Park was quoted as saying as he toured the Justice Ministry on Feb. 2, 1976. "You must pull up by the roots the problem of marijuana smoking and similar activities by applying the maximum penalties currently available under the law."
Rock singer/composer Shin Joong-hyun (right) stands in court on March 10, 1976 on charges of having smoked marijuana. He was one of a number of musicians and entertainers targeted in the anti-marijuana crackdown at the time. (Yonhap file photo)
The law enforcement used the Cannabis Control Act to target counter-cultural icons like the musicians or entertainers who performed at bars and clubs near the American bases. By removing the leaders of what was considered a degenerative cultural movement, the rest of the nation's youth would soon fall into line, which seemed to be the thinking of the government at the time, Kim explains.
"The government then created anti-marijuana propaganda films that conveyed the message that if you smoke it, your life and society as a whole will be ruined," a message that underlies the contemporary stigma of marijuana use, author Kim says.
Celebrities that were picked up on marijuana charges were made into humiliating examples. Most notable was rocker Shin Joong-hyun, who years earlier had refused to write a song praising the dictator. Shin was tortured, committed to a mental hospital and paraded before the media as a crazed drug addict. His career and rock and roll in general went up in smoke.
It wasn't only the Korean music scene that was decimated by the crackdown. Lee Byoung-soo, an officially sanctioned cannabis grower, says the effects of Park Chung-hee's anti-marijuana laws continue to have ramifications for his industry.
"Police come to my farm all the time, I have been taken in for questioning between 70 and 80 times," says Lee, who runs Hemp Mall, an online store selling hundreds of hemp products including clothing and cosmetics. "I'm just trying to save our country's tradition of hemp."
According to South Korean law, the use or possession of marijuana husks or seeds can result in prison sentences of up to five years or fines as high as 50 million won. Penalties can also be applied to individuals who have smoked marijuana overseas and then return to Korea.
Lee Byoung-soo runs the online store Hemp Mall (Courtesy of Jason Strother)
Despite this steep punishment, some Koreans still grow marijuana as well as other illegal plants, such as poppies, for their therapeutic effects. According to some law enforcement officials, senior citizens living in rural regions make up the majority of arrests for possession of these drugs. But these individuals are treated very differently depending on what they harvest.
"If the amount of poppy plants is less than 50 and the person is a first-time offender, we take into consideration their age and just confiscate the plants and do not charge him or her criminally," says Lee Bong-cheol, head of the narcotics division at North Gyeongsang Province's Police Agency. "However, daema growers are always charged criminally regardless of the amount because daema has a stronger narcotic effect."
Poppy plants and seeds secrete opium, a highly addictive drug that is used to make heroin. The physical addictiveness of marijuana is up for debate, but is considered by most health officials as more psychologically addictive especially amongst habitual users.
This apparent ignorance in South Korea's drug policy frustrates Kim Woo-jin. He says it's time for more realistic revisions to be made to the antiquated Cannabis Control Act.
"If the government really wants people to stop using marijuana, they shouldn't lock them up in jail, they should instead put them into treatment programs and provide better education about drugs overall," Kim says.
Kim, who still sports a ponytail and listens to his favorite bands from back in his university days, says he gave up smoking daema a long time ago but adds that on a couple trips overseas, some good friends passed around a joint. For old times' sake, he couldn't pass that up.