Note: This article was written during my internship at New America Media. It was my first published article ever.
SAN FRANCISCO — Korean American immigrants may not know what “meth” is, but they certainly know “hiroppong,” the Korean word for meth. Hiroppong or meth use has been a rising problem in the Korean community since the late 1980s.
This is what a typical Korean youth addicted to meth might do, according to Hyobin Hwang, who works for the Asian American Drug Abuse Program in Los Angeles. “High school kids skip their lunch and use that money to buy it,” says Hwang. “A one time hit costs about $10.” Meth can be found in any Koreatown “norebang” (karaoke room) or any Korean bar. Not all these places sell drugs, but if you find the right place and you don’t look like a snitch it’s a relatively simple transaction, according to Hwang.
Korean youths aren’t just buying meth, some are in the business all the way, says Hwang. “Korean youths are dealing as well. We’ve heard from clients and law enforcement that Koreatown in Los Angeles has meth labs too,” says Hwang. Los Angeles Police Department did not confirm this statement.
The early roots of methamphetamine can be traced back to Japan, when in 1919 a Japanese chemist first made what is known as amphetamine. Meth was used by both sides in World War II as a means to keep troops alert and performing under extreme situations such as sleep deprivation and physical stress.
Meth use among Korean Americans may have its roots in South Korea where it first appeared in the Korean War. A memorandum sent to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1992 from Dr. Joseph D. Douglass Jr., a national security analyst, cites the high incidence of use of hard narcotics such as heroin and the synthetic ‘hiroppong’ with regards to U.S. servicemen with cardiovascular damage. “While several possible contributing factors were identified, doctors concluded that the drugs were probably a major cause,” said Dr. Douglas.
Hiroppong became popular in Korea in the 1980s where it was hailed as a “cure-all” that helped people stay awake, and concentrate for long periods of time—perfect for the overachieving businessman or businesswoman or the stressed and overworked student.
“It is popular with workers in overachieving, highly productive economies such as those in Japan and South Korea,” says Dr. Richard Rawson, the associate director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Program at the University of California Los Angeles. Meth has also been known to increase athletic performance and to help mild depression. Meth has other “benefits” including weight loss and sexual enhancement making it a popular drug among the image conscious and club goers. Assistant U.S. attorney Paul Laymon, summed it up best at a task force meeting on the meth epidemic in 2004 in Appalachia, Tennessee when he said sarcastically, “Who wouldn’t want to use it? You lose weight and have great sex.”
In a research paper published in March 2004 regarding drug use in South Korea, Professor Byung In Cho from the Korean Institute of Criminology wrote, “Salaried men, students, and housewives, a faction that historically was considered non-drug users, are now as susceptible to the dangers and temptations of illegal drugs. Drug abuse which was once considered to be rampant only among criminals or people in entertainment has pervaded into common society.”
The Korean American community still downplays the existence of drug use.
Many more frequently think of high alcohol consumption when looking at substance abuse problems in the community. “It’s been stereotyped that all Koreans drink, and I have yet to meet a single Korean who does not or has not drank,” says Ivan Lee, a Chinese American student at the University of California, Davis.
“Koreans love their soju (a popular Korean wine),” says Eric Ha, a Korean American youth in Seattle. “And if you don’t smoke, you’re, like, too ‘chakae’ (loosely translated means ‘goody-goody’).”
What do people in the Korean community know about harder drugs? Gary Kim, a Korean American from Burlingame, Ca. says, “I have some Korean American friends who smoke ‘weed’ but I also have a greater amount of friends who don’t do any drugs at all.”
Some have not noticed meth use in the Korean community at all. “I don’t know any Korean person who has done meth,” says Tina Kwon, a student at San Francisco State University.”
“Korean parents think their kids aren’t using drugs,” says Hwang, “There’s a lot of denial when it comes to meth.”
Hwang says that there is also a lot of denial in the churches, “When we try to workshop with the [Korean] community, or churches, they say, ‘we don’t have a problem,’” says Hwang. The church has considerable clout in the community and in the Bay Area alone there were approximately 200 Korean churches in the year 2000, according to the 100 Year History of Korean Immigration to America. Denial from such an important (and growing) sector of the Korean community could prove difficult, says Hwang.
Denial means that this problem, however small now, will not be addressed, he says. “There aren’t a lot of drug services for Asians specifically either,” says Hwang. He says that it is up to the Korean American community to tackle the problem head on.
Bo Kim, an intern at New America Media, is a senior at the University of California, Davis.