SEOUL — Investigators believe South Korea is a major source of the highly pure crystal methamphetamine that is raising alarm in Hawaii as "ice," a potent, smokable form of the drug that authorities say is already catching on in the U.S. mainland and may rival crack cocaine in popularity.
Indeed, crystal methamphetamine is already the drug of choice in East Asia, where marijuana and cocaine are scarce and heroin is all but unheard of on the street. In Japan, the most lucrative market for methamphetamine, police say they annually arrest more than 20,000 people for using and trafficking in the drug, nearly all of which is smuggled in from Taiwan and South Korea.
Methamphetamine abuse is booming in South Korea, too. The Seoul government has vowed to crack down on the epidemic before it gets out of control, but the illicit trade in the drug has evaded Asian authorities for decades.
Crystal methamphetamine has been widely used in the United States for many years in its conventional, powdered form, popularly known as "speed" or "meth" and usually taken by injection, snorted or ingested. Notorious as a favorite drug of motorcycle gangs, experts say its abuse has been rising among the general population in Southern California in recent years, supplied by hundreds of local laboratories.
Ordinary methamphetamine is simple enough to prepare that there is little reason to import it from abroad. Signs are now emerging, however, that a pure grade of methamphetamine cooked in clandestine laboratories in South Korea and other parts of Asia is finding its way at least as far as Hawaii. There, a Filipino youth gang called the "Hawaii Brothers" initially popularized the drug in its "ice," or rock form, and sparked a boom in abuse, according to investigators.
Late last month, South Korean authorities announced the uncovering of a major drug ring that had produced more than a quarter ton of methamphetamine since 1987 and in July allegedly delivered 22 pounds, with a street value estimated as high as $750,000, to a former U.S. serviceman and his wife in Honolulu.
Although Vietnamese couriers were intercepted earlier this year bringing into Hawaii small quantities of methamphetamine believed to have originated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, law enforcement authorities have yet to catch anyone in the act of smuggling the drug from South Korea.
Capt. Henry Lau of the Honolulu Police Department's narcotics division said informants have told investigators that a good deal of the "ice" is coming from South Korea, however. The fact that no major laboratories have been discovered on the islands also points to imports, he said.
"We believe our crystal meth, or the knowledge of how to make it, is coming from Korea," Lau said in a telephone interview.
Yoo Chang Jong, chief of the narcotics division of the Public Prosecutor's Office, which enforces South Korea's drug laws, said a recent surge in overseas tourism by South Koreans is believed to have provided a screen for drug couriers. The Seoul government lifted passport restrictions in January, and foreign travel was up 72% in the first eight months of this year.
Yoo speaks of a "white triangle" for Asian methamphetamine trade: After police cracked down on production in Japan in the 1960s, Japanese criminal gangs relocated their illegal laboratories to South Korea and later to Taiwan, where it is cooked and smuggled back to Japan to feed the habits of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of addicts.
Lately, however, the pattern has been changing, Yoo said. Tighter border controls have resulted in the diversion of much of the South Korean methamphetamine to the domestic market, resulting in a rapidly growing drug abuse problem. Methamphetamine arrests ballooned from 417 cases in 1984 to 3,208 last year, Yoo said.
"The government feels there is a crisis situation in Korea," said Yoo, whose staff will increase from 59 to 256 investigators by December.
The methamphetamine trade also has spread to Southeast Asia, where Japanese gangsters, known as yakuza , whose ranks include many ethnic Koreans, are increasingly active, as well as to the United States, Yoo said.
"Now it includes Hawaii and perhaps California too," Yoo said. "Only quite recently have investigators recognized the change of flow."
A woman identified as Lee Jin Suk, 54, confessed to delivering 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of methamphetamine to a "Mr. and Mrs. Alexander" in Honolulu in July, Yoo said. Lee, said by prosecutors to be the wife of a former National Assembly member, was among 23 people arrested last month in the largest drug operation ever prosecuted in South Korea.