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.
Lowrey Leong, agent-in-charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Honolulu, said authorities there have not been able to identify the Alexanders. Leong said that South Korea does not appear to be the "sole distributor" of rock crystal methamphetamine in Hawaii, but use of the drug has been associated with some ethnic Korean residents, and "we've also heard the Koreans are bringing it in."
The drug sells for about $300 to $400 a gram (1/28th of an ounce) on the street, about two to three times the price of crack cocaine, Leong said. Despite the higher cost, "ice" has appeal because it provides smokers with a more intense and longer period of euphoria--from four to 12 hours compared to about 20 minutes for crack, he said. Small quantities of the drug have been detected in San Francisco and Seattle in recent months, Leong said.
The debilitating effects of methamphetamine have alarmed health officials on both sides of the Pacific for several years. The drug is known to cause significant brain damage and acute psychosis akin to schizophrenia in users. Frequently, it is linked to aberrant behavior and violent crime--even in Japan, where the crime rate is extraordinarily low.
Yakuza gangs derive about half their income from methamphetamine sales in Japan, police say, distributing it to the demimonde of gambling and prostitution they control. On the wholesale level, rocks of crystal methamphetamine called gankoro are pulverized and cut into a powder known as shabu, which sells on the street for about $35 for a 0.05-gram dose. Smoking of the drug in its original rock form is unheard of in Japan.
The yakuza are loosely allied in the regional drug trade with the ethnic Chinese underworld, most notably Taiwan's Bamboo Union gang, and investigators have traced their activities to Manila. So far, however, officials say there has been no evidence that Japanese gangs are smuggling methamphetamine into Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.
"We know the gangs are established in Hawaii, but we don't know exactly what their plans are," said Kazuo Motegi, a superintendent in the drug enforcement division of Japan's National Police Agency. "It's considered a possibility that they're preparing for the drug trade."
Japan's love affair with speed began during World War II, when the militarist government supplied a commercial brand of liquid methamphetamine called Philopon to Imperial Army soldiers and factory workers to give them stamina.
After the war, Philopon was available as a legal, over-the-counter drug until its abuse got out of hand and authorities banned it. Organized crime produced the drug domestically for a while until a police crackdown prompted them to relocate their factories to South Korea, which still supplies about 40% of the Japanese market. Nearly all the rest comes from Taiwan, through a pipeline that largely evades police because the lack of diplomatic ties precludes joint investigations.
Heroin and other opiates are rare in Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, and cocaine remains relatively limited in use, mostly by people returning from trips to the United States. The singular enthusiasm among Japanese and South Koreans for methamphetamine is difficult to fathom, but some observers have attributed the craze to workaholicism and the fast pace of both societies.
Tsuneo Kondo, a former speed addict who is now director of Drug Addition Rehabilitation Center, a Tokyo half-way house, said his recent visits to the United States led him to suspect that changing life-styles may be behind an abrupt rise there in methamphetamine abuse.
"Japan has traditionally loved speed because we are such a busy people, always working. It's a drug that suits long hours on the job, and a hurried life-style," Kondo said. "Maybe people are getting busy in the United States."
Methamphetamine, known as speed, is a growing problem in Southern California, with the Inland Empire earning the dubious distinction of being known as "speed capital of the world." Authorities fear that a smokable mixture of speed and crack called "croak" has been spreading and could rival cocaine as the most widely used illegal drug of the 1990s.