From his first appearance on TV in 2001, Lee Sun-kyun captivated audiences with his mellow tone and avuncular smile. He strode genres, his filmography spanning from heart-wrenching dramas to nail-biting thrillers. He received international fame and acclaim for his starring role in “Parasite,” an acerbic satire on South Korea’s crippling inequality that won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, becoming the first non-English film to do so. More recently, he was nominated for best actor at the 2022 International Emmy Awards for his acting in the sci-fi series “Dr. Brain.”
Hearts sank worldwide, therefore, when Lee was found dead on December 27 in a parked car in central Seoul. He died from an apparent suicide at the age of 48. Before his death, Lee was under police investigation for allegedly taking illegal drugs.
Discourse surrounding his demise remains superficial, especially for those living outside of South Korea. Rightly, film aficionados around the world are in shock, and will continue to be so. Everyone deplores such a tragic loss of great talent. And those who read a bit more find out that Lee was the latest body count in South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s “war on drugs.” But there’s more to it.
Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, posited that each and every suicide is never an isolated, individual affair, but rather a manifestation and consequence of a given society’s “collective tendencies” or “collective passions.” An individual is at once a participant in a society and a victim of the society’s social mores and tidings. What Durkheim defined as “fatalistic” suicide involves cases where individuals are subjected to such unbearable psychic pressure that they envision no better future.
This concept can be applied to “social murder,” which refers to deaths and suicides engendered by social systems and institutions that leave suffering individuals no other choice but to end their lives. Although scholars commonly invoke this term when discussing economic policies that disregard the socially vulnerable, or reckless policies that exacerbate climate change, Lee’s suicide fits this mold.
So, what did South Korea do to Lee – and all others stigmatized as drug users?
South Korean society as a whole – the public, the media, and social institutions – pilloried and socially buried Lee. First off, the police leaked its internal investigation of Lee to the press in October 2023. South Korea’s criminal law prohibits publishing information on a suspected crime before official charges are filed. This is to prevent undue public attention and stigmatization of the suspect, especially with the possibility in mind that internal investigation may find insufficient evidence and the case could be dropped. Yet, the police and the media have flouted this principle more often than not.
Unfounded rumor and speculation ran wild. The police and the media were in lockstep, and the crowd cheered them on. People started expressing their disappointment. They called Lee a hypocrite, a “drug criminal” hiding behind the mask of a smiley dad. They pried open Lee’s private life and spied on his family. Dailies of all stripes and social media channels picked him apart. Even national broadcasts jumped on the bandwagon.
The elementary principle of “innocent until proven guilty” was just a doormat. Retailers removed Lee’s posters from their shop windows. Companies Lee had endorsed were already considering suing him for harming their brand image. Film studios were debating whether his new films should even be released.
They didn’t care that Lee tested negative in multiple drug tests. They didn’t care he was the victim of blackmail. (Lee admitted to the police that one time he consumed a substance offered by one of his acquaintances without thinking it could have been an illegal drug. Another of his acquaintances threatened to disclose this incident to the public, demanding money in exchange for silence.)
Despite some examples of his questionable night-time recreation, his case would have most likely been dropped given the negative drug tests. The entire mess didn’t warrant Lee’s ruin; even if he was a drug user, this should have been the cause for pity and helping hands.
Rather, Lee was pelted. The public already held a trial in their mind and condemned him to death.
South Koreans have an intense aversion to illegal drugs. Drug abusers are branded and banished, with no chance of redemption. The press trailed Lee everywhere, as if they were reporting on the end of his career and his life. Society showed him a bleak future, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In tandem with the public’s antipathy to drug abusers, or those suspected of using drugs, are the government’s policies and judiciary and medical systems. Specifically targeting Lee, the Korea Communications Commission, the government agency that screens broadcast contents, expressed its willingness “to ban drug criminals from appearing on TV.”
The phraseology adopted by both the public and government lies at the core of the problem: People who take drugs are regarded and described as criminals, instead of patients requiring social and medical rehabilitation. Once labeled as criminals, they need to be swiftly plucked out of society and carted off to jail.
In 2022, President Yoon created a drug-busting task-force made up of 840 specialists. He also more than doubled the budget to fight drug-related crimes. They rounded up more than 20,000 people in 2023, a two-fold increase from the years before Yoon’s term.
It’s important to locate the source of drug trafficking and eradicate turf wars, but the majority of those being arrested are just users suffering from addiction. Yet, in 2022 for instance, the Prosecutor’s Office consigned only 14 cases to medical treatment. This illustrates the degree to which law enforcement is bent on identifying and prosecuting substance users, instead of offering opportunities for treatment and social rehabilitation.
Under a social framework that views substance addiction as primarily a crime, not a medical condition requiring treatment, the logic is that the more addicts the police bring to “justice,” the better. The heavier the punishment, the more righteous they feel. They are perpetuating the false impression that the society is becoming cleaner, when in fact, for the past five years, about 50 percent of drug users ended up in court again.
Meanwhile, the Yoon administration slashed the budget for medical treatment of substance addiction by 85 percent. Hospitals treating addicts have had to shutter their services due to lack of government funding. And what little funding remains is for consulting, not professional treatment, and awareness campaigns.
Public humiliation dismantled in a day the two decades of Lee’s legacy. The police grilled him for 19 hours, overnight. He faced total social ostracization and stigma. Lee told his wife in his suicide note that “there’s no other choice.”
If a pathway had been laid out for society to embrace him, offer him proper medical care, and welcome the resumption of his career, Lee would have still been with us. Every victim of addiction deserves the chance Lee was never given.