Seoul Survivor: Busted for Dope in South Korea

Isthmus | January 28, 2005
I have many wonderful memories of my time teaching English as a second language in South Korea. Like explaining how to conjugate verbs to sweet, little Yujin Park, and when my advanced storytelling class surprised me with a chocolate cake for my birthday.

But unfortunately, these moments are overshadowed by darker memories. The bloody riot I witnessed between the Russians and Chinese while I was waiting to be deported. And the time I stood, handcuffed and roped, waiting for the four Hangook federal judges to sentence me. These memories are seared into my psyche, impossible to forget.

Three months into my one-year teaching contract, I was sent to a detention center for nearly three months, fined thousands of dollars and eventually deported for smoking hashish. It was a harsh experience that I am still trying to make sense of, though perhaps that is too great a quest. All I know for sure is that I wish it had never happened.

Teaching ESL in East Asia is an alluring opportunity. Most countries, including South Korea, Japan and China, require only that a person be a native English speaker with a university degree to qualify as an ESL teacher. The South Korean government estimates that more than 100,000 non-Koreans, mostly Americans and Canadians, are employed as ESL teachers.

But, as I learned, there are risks, especially for those who assume the laws of other lands are similar to our own. I never sold or even purchased hashish but I was nonetheless convicted of a felony offense because THC, the active ingredient in both marijuana and hashish, was found in my system.

International studies

I should start with an admission: I have often skirted danger in foreign countries. At age 19, seeking excitement and purpose, I trekked through the politically divisive Himalayan mountain state of Jammu and Kashmir in north India. At age 22, I had been backpacking throughout South America for several months when my backpack -- containing my journal, several rolls of film and a little bit of cash -- was stolen. In despair, I hitchhiked from Lima, Peru, to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. There I laundered money for Mafiosi and lived in a whorehouse with Angolans in exile until I saved enough money to return to the United States.

In May 2003, when I was 26, I graduated with a B.A. in international studies from the UW-Madison. That summer, I returned for a fourth and final season to the regional railroad company where I had worked as a track maintainer. I drove spikes, set ties and laid rail alongside seasoned and grizzled railroaders. In October 2003, during the slow season, I requested a voluntary layoff so I could collect unemployment and pursue work related to my degree.

Since I have an international studies degree, I decided to seek employment abroad. I arrived in Amsterdam and spent most of autumn as a house guest of Dutch friends. I passed my time patronizing coffee shops and enjoying marijuana’s legal status, journaling and writing poetry, and exploring the city’s museums and canals. I intended to find residence in Warsaw, Prague or another large Eastern European city and write freelance articles for English-language, expatriate newspapers in the former Soviet bloc. But, as will happen when traveling, my plans changed.

As winter approached, the idea of spending a harsh, snow-laden season in Eastern Europe was replaced by thoughts of sunny Morocco, a country with a rich culture, and one that allowed me to continue cultivating a connoisseur’s taste for cannabis. I trekked vast expanses of the Atlas Mountains, spent several weeks mesmerized by the surreal nature of the sun-scorched Sahara, and rehydrated by lounging in Essaouira and other cities along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. I applied for teaching positions in Casablanca and Marrakech and looked for Moroccan-based, English-language publications, to no avail. When my unemployment benefits expired, I returned to the United States.

I was rapidly exhausting my savings account and desperately seeking a steady source of income when a friend told me that he was considering teaching in South Korea. He said there is ample opportunity and the money is good. Korean ESL academies (called hogwon in Korea) even pay for round-trip airfare and housing.

After researching ESL academies online, I applied for a teaching position through C.J. Kwon, a recruiter in South Korea. After a series of interviews, I was on my way.

Welcome to Korea

I arrived at Incheon International airport near Seoul on a Saturday, and Ms. Kwon was waiting at the gate to greet me. She was a bubble of enthusiasm, wearing vintage ’80s attire and being led around by her frantic shih tzu pup. She got me on board a bus to the city where I'd agreed to work.

After a two-hour bus ride, I arrived in Cheongju, a city whose half-million residents live mostly in identical skyrise apartments enclosed by rose-terraced fences. Martin, the owner of Swaton Language Academy, met me at the bus terminal.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when I arrived at my apartment. Martin showed me in, then left to let me get settled. Moments later Joanna, one of the academy’s teachers, knocked at my door, in high spirits. She said Sam and Adam, the two other foreign teachers from the hogwon, were at a local club, eager to meet me.

I left the apartment without unpacking a single item and took a cab with Joanna to the university district where the restaurants, clubs and sing-rooms are located. We arrived at O-bar, a cozy little hip-hop club that catered to foreigners, just past 11 p.m. Sam and Adam were playing pool and sipping Absolut and orange juice. “Welcome to Korea,” said Adam, pool stick in hand.

Adam was a 20-something French Canadian who'd taught at Swaton Language Academy for seven months and had a Korean girlfriend. He loved his life in Korea.

Sam, a 30-year-old Korean American from New York City, was a confident character with a checkered past. He had studied at NYU as part of a prisoner-education program while serving time at Rikers Island. He had surrendered his U.S. citizenship when he came to Korea about five years earlier, as part of a plea bargain to reduce his jail time in America.

After a couple of days, Sam asked me, “Do you smoke?” He knew I didn’t smoke cigarettes, so I understood he meant cannabis. “Yep,” I confided. Over the next three months, Sam, Adam and I casually smoked together. Later, I learned that Sam was a dealer and actually made more money selling hashish than he did teaching English.

Teaching was a great experience. Swaton is a private language academy that caters to upper-class members of Korean society. It instructs kindergarteners in the morning and elementary through high school students in the afternoon. Each small class (no more than 10 students) has a Korean teacher and a foreign teacher. The Korean teacher explains grammar one day and the foreign teacher practices conversation with students the next.

When Joanna, who was homesick and tired of her job, returned to Canada, she was replaced by Felix, a half-Jamaican and half-Jewish Canadian from Toronto. He smoked like a Rasta and blended well with our little crew. Felix was at Swaton for just two weeks when Sam was arrested for selling hash. The official charge: trafficking narcotics.

Cooperate, or else

Dark clouds hovered low and rain drizzled on the day in August 2004 that all the foreign teachers from Swaton Language Academy were arrested. That morning, some of the teachers, including myself, Adam and Felix, took the kindergarteners on a field trip to a science fair. When we returned to the hogwon, I entered the teachers' lounge and saw Sam with four grim-looking men in gray suits speaking in serious tones.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew something was wrong. Sam sat with his elbows on his knees and his head supported by his hands. He stared at the floor. His pale amber skin had changed to splotchy red, conveying embarrassment, and the delicate features of his face had contorted to a coarse, miserable expression.

Sam looked up and told me that the men were detectives. They were there to arrest him and to get urine samples from the foreign teachers. My heart sank, and I felt sick. I asked Sam if the detectives needed a search warrant to administer a drug test, and one of the officers responded, in broken English, that if we volunteered to take the test we would not be arrested. Sam agreed with the officer, saying it would be better for us to cooperate.

The four of us -- Sam, Adam, Felix and I -- were taken to Sam’s apartment, where Sam handed over the pipe we had often smoked from. He actually didn’t have any hash or marijuana at the time because he was waiting on a shipment from Thailand. The officers never learned of this fact.

Sam’s apartment was searched for bank statements and paraphernalia, and one of the officers administered the urine tests, which instantly affirmed that we all had THC in our systems. The detectives placed us under arrest. We were each taken to our apartments to retrieve our passports and then, handcuffed to one another, driven in an unmarked police van to the prosecutor’s office in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea.

Our thinking, which was overly optimistic, was that since it was Thursday they would probably keep us locked up for the weekend and let us go in time to teach class on Monday. We didn’t know that a few days would turn into a couple of months, with no chance of ever returning to teach.

‘How did it make you feel?’

At the prosecutor’s office in Seoul, we were fingerprinted and photographed. The investigator said we were facing federal criminal charges. We were allowed to call our families -- collect, of course -- to inform them of our situation.

Our arrest, it turned out, traced to a drug sale that Sam had made through the mail to a man named James. When James was arrested, he implicated Sam, who in turn gave up the names of people he had smoked with and sold to in an attempt to reduce his own sentence.

Over the weekend, we remained in a police station holding cell. Several times we were taken back to the prosecutor’s office and asked a series of alternately serious and absurd questions. How old were you when you first smoked marijuana or hashish? How often do you smoke? On what dates and at what hour did you smoke while in Korea? How did it make you feel? What did you do when you smoked? And so on.

Besides the four of us, about 15 teachers from other hogwons were caught up in the dragnet. The flurry of arrests reflects a zero-tolerance policy not atypical in Asian countries, where marijuana and hashish are considered comparable to heroin, cocaine or crystal meth -– highly addictive and dangerous. Users face mandatory prison sentences, large fines and, if they happen to be foreigners, deportation.

Adam, Felix and I were charged with usage because no drugs were found on our person or in our apartments. Sam was charged with possession and trafficking. We were then taken to Songdong Detention Center.

Locked up

None of us knew how long we were going to be there. We were issued our prison blues -- faded and tattered jumpsuits -- and led down a dark, dank corridor to various cell blocks. Because we were co-defendants, we were put in different cells.

There were three cells designated for foreigners in the detention center, two of them at full capacity. I was placed in a foreigners’ cell and Adam and Felix were put in cells with Korean inmates, as was Sam, who was actually Korean. Adam’s cellmates were corrupt Korean politicians and businessmen. Felix shared a cell with Korean drug offenders, mostly irritable addicts suffering withdrawal. Both were eventually transferred to foreigners’ cells.

As it turned out, I was the only American in the foreigners’ cell and, in fact, the entire prison. My cellmates were Mongolian, Filipino, Iranian and ethnic Koreans from China.

There were no telephones for prisoners to use at Songdong, but we were allowed to write letters if we could afford stamps, stationery and a pen. I had been arrested without any money on me, but luckily Adam spotted me $30, which didn’t go far, but helped.

I remained in the small, windowless cell with seven other inmates for my entire stay. The cell was no larger than 10'-by-7' with an adjoining bathroom that reeked of shit. The toilet was a hole in the ground, and to bathe we had to take cold bucket showers, careful not to touch the black mold covering the walls. At night, we slept on the concrete floor with one blanket each.

Our daily routine was divided by breakfast, lunch and dinner. We always ate rice and kimchi (pickled cabbage seasoned with peppers). The only surprise was the soup -– which consisted only of hot water, salt and some sprouts -- and the surprise was whether or not we had it. To pass time, I read the Korean-English Bible I had stubbornly requested, and played backgammon with the Iranians.

On days when the guards decided to allow it, we were permitted to walk around the narrow, dusty yard for 20 minutes. In Korea, offenders of all stripes share the same facility. I roamed the yard with people serving life sentences for murder, as well as those doing a month for drunk driving.

The most dangerous characters I saw were members of the Korean mafia, who were identified by their burn marks, self-inflicted lacerations and tattoos. Tattoos are not a common sight in Korea except in prison, where the men are ornamented with tattoos of roses, butterflies, Buddhist symbols and dragonflies.

None of the Korean inmates seemed like hardened criminals, and some of the men even walked holding hands in a nonsexual, yet completely effeminate manner. I was never frightened of being beaten or raped, as one might be in an American prison. But, unaware of how long I would be there and unable to communicate well with others, I felt myself becoming increasingly embittered.

After nearly two months without any outside contact, the guard called my serial number and said that I was going to court today. I was reunited with Sam, Adam and Felix. Everyone looked healthy except Adam, who was thin and gaunt. He was only eating rice because he said the soup and kimchi ran through him like water.

We were taken to the courthouse handcuffed and bound by ropes. When it was our turn, we stood together, the ropes burning into our arms, before the federal judges. Adam, Felix and I had chosen to have a public defender, while Sam had hired a private attorney. Sam’s trial was delayed because his attorney was not present.

The trial began with the judges asking us a series of questions through an interpreter regarding age, profession, the number of people in our family and other sometimes relevant, mostly absurd questions.

The prosecutor then questioned us in an attempt to prove our guilt. “You know that smoking hashish is illegal in Korea and you still smoked it, didn’t you?” “Yes,” we answered.

Our public defender asked, “None of you have lived in Korea for more than a year and you are still unfamiliar with Korean laws, right?” “Yes,” we answered. “Merely smoking marijuana and hashish in the U.S. or Canada does not carry such heavy penalties as in Korea, correct?” “Yes,” we answered.

We were returned to our cells at the Sondong Detention Center and a week later brought back to court for sentencing. The judges said Adam and I had to pay $3,400 (reduced from $5,000 because we had served two months), and be deported. Our sentence was slightly harsher than Felix’s, because he had not yet acquired his educator’s visa, while we were officially teachers.

Kicked out

After our sentencing, we were transferred to a filthy and overcrowded immigration center called Mukdong, where we were allowed to use pay phones to make arrangements to pay our fines and purchase plane tickets home. A few days later we were taken to another, less crowded, immigration center called Hwaseong. Again, we were separated, this time never to see each other again.

During my two-week stint at Hwaseong, I shared a very large cell with prisoners from around the world. I paid my fine with a loan from my parents, who had worked tirelessly with the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to arrange my release. It was at Hwaseong that the riot occurred.

It began when a Chinese man spilled a bowl of rice on a Russian man and a few of his cohorts during lunch. The fight soon erupted into a full-scale rumble. Broomsticks became weapons and garbage cans became shields. The guards watched with contempt and amusement from the other side of the bars, until a Chinese man broke a sink and attempted to use a jagged piece of porcelain to gouge chunks of flesh from the Russians.

Finally, the guards entered the cell and subdued the Chinese man and two Russians. The guards took the three men to a room adjacent to our cell. We could hear the Chinese man being beaten by the guards. A guard emerged from the room with blood on his fists and forearms and a look of disdain on his face. He yelled a half-threat, half-warning at us. The three men had to serve 15 days of solitary confinement and were still there when I left.

A few days later, my plane ticket arrived and I was deported.

I returned to Madison last fall with a pile of debt, no job and no money. I stayed with friends and family, trying to figure out the next step. Because there isn’t much opportunity for an international studies graduate in Wisconsin, it briefly crossed my mind to teach English in Japan. But for the time being, the thought of returning to East Asia makes me cringe. After a month in Madison, I moved to Brooklyn to stay with a friend, crashing on his couch and looking for work. I eventually found some writing and editing gigs, and got my own apartment.

Adam left Korea the day after I did and has returned to college in Canada, seeking a master’s degree in education. Last I heard, Sam is serving several years at Songdong Detention Center. Felix, unable to pay his fine, is serving out his sentence; he should be deported by June.

My experience has changed my perspective on international travel and how to interact with other cultures. Although I am a seasoned traveler and have smoked cannabis both legally and illegally in many countries, I have learned how important it is to know the laws of a country before engaging in such activities. I knew smoking hashish was illegal in Korea, but I never imagined the severity of the penalty for merely having it in my system.

I have not lost my passion for international travel, but I am more attentive to the possible repercussions of my actions. If I hadn’t broken the law and been deported, I would still have a good job teaching ESL. Instead, I am in New York City struggling to find work and dealing with the mental anguish and emotional baggage of being a former prisoner.


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
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