The Marijuana Crisis of ’75

I’ve been dipping into an excellent book on the history of Korean popular music now and then (이혜숙 & 손우석 – 한국대중음악사) and came across a fascinating passage on Park Chung-hee’s use of drugs scares to suppress the emerging youth culture that he found threatening. Here’s an excerpt (my rough translation):

After the defeat in Vietnam Park Chung-hee set about strengthening his dictatorship by stressing an external policy of self-reliant defence and an internal policy of ‘defending the system’. To that end, the possession of nuclear weapons, national harmony and traditional culture were all emphasised. However, the imitation of the Western youth culture of jeans, long hair, [folk] guitar and pop songs was widespread. At a time when it was necessary to defend the system and achieve national unity and a self-reliant defence it was impossible to remain indifferent to this degenerate Western youth culture. It was necessary to tighten social discipline. In the view of Park Chung-hee the base and degenerate culture of the West appeared in two forms: one was the folk guitar singers and the other was the entertainers who had originated in the [clubs frequented by] US Eighth Army soldiers. A crackdown on these people was urgent. He began by banninglarge numbers of pop songs and kayo and then moved on to a crackdown on marijuana. On December 2nd, 1975 a huge number of entertainers were banned completely from working in the so-called ‘marijuana crisis’ (대마초 파동). [한국대중음악사, p86]

The book goes on to quote Park Chung-hee himself on the marijuana problem:

“At this grave juncture that will settle the matter of life and death in our one-on-one [struggle] with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to our country… You must pull up by the roots the problem of marijuana smoking and similar activities by applying the maximum penalties currently available under the law.” [Chosun Ilbo, 3 February 1976, quoted in above book, p88]

There was a little bit more to this story, because the president’s own son, Park Ji-man, had smoked marijuana and been influenced by hippy culture. As the authors of the book point out, this was possibly further motivation for Park’s crackdown.

Of course there exist semi-conspiracy theories as to why marijuana is prohibited throughout the world and how it came to be prohibited in the first place. We can also ask the broader questions about why states would want to outlaw commodities for which there is a clear market and which could be so lucrative to both capitalist entrepreneurs and government tax revenues (David Harvey has some good passages on the limits of commoditisation in his recent book on neoliberalism).

This is probably not the place to get into all the historical reasons why this particular commodity happens to be prohibited. But the history of controlled drugs all over the world shows that social control is often one aspect in the calculations of governments enforcing prohibition laws. Korea was and continues to be a good example of this. The fact that illegal drug use is very low in Korea by world standards did not and does not stop the authorities from stamping down on the merest hint of usage, particularly when it comes to people in the public eye. As I’ve mentioned in a post before at my blog, there continue to be periodic scandals with prominent Korean entertainers being busted and sometimes having their careers ruined. And this is not confined to the world of pop singers or TV hosts – one of Korea’s most talented traditional musicians, percussionist and dancer Yi Kwangsu, has been in and out of jail a number of times as a result of his fondness for the odd reefer.

Of course, as a fibre crop hemp was crucial to the economies of both Korea and Japan for hundreds of years. But that’s another story…

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