Death of ‘Parasite’ Actor Linked to South Korean Anti-Drug Crackdown
South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun, known for playing the wealthy father in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite, was found dead in his car on Wednesday morning. Inside the car, parked near Waryong Park in central Seoul, investigators found a charcoal briquette. The briquette, a compressed block of coal that can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, suggests he died by suicide. He was 48 years old.
Lee passed away at the pinnacle of his career. In addition to starring in the Oscar-winning thriller, which earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award alongside his fellow cast members, he also played a leading role in the internationally acclaimed sci-fi film Dr. Brain. His last two films, Sleep and Project Silence – horror and disaster films, respectively – both made it into the 76th Cannes Film Festival.
News outlets speculate Lee’s suicide may be related to his criminal charges. In October, the actor was arrested by the Incheon Metropolitan Police for allegedly using marijuana and other illegal drugs at the home of a hostess in Seoul’s Gangnam district earlier in the year. Lee’s most recent police interrogation, which took place last Saturday, went on for a shocking total of 19 hours.
According to an article from Korea Times, Lee said that he was “tricked by the hostess into taking the drugs and that he did not know what he was taking.” He had tested negative for a reagent test and a lab-based drug test from Korea’s National Forensic Service, and submitted a polygraph lie detector test at the insistence of his lawyer.
The Korea Times article also states that, before his death, Lee filed a complaint against the hostess and one other, seemingly unknown person, “accusing them of blackmail and swindling him out of money.” When the actor was first taken in for questioning on October 28, he said he was “sorry for my family, who are enduring extreme pain at this moment.”
In an apparent suicide note addressed to his wife Jeon Hye Jin, which was published by the Korean channel TV Chosun the following day, Lee wrote he “cannot do anything else, there is no other way but this.” Relaying a message to his agents, he added that “the financial penalties for breaching advertising and movie contracts are overwhelming. I am sorry.”
Although the motivations for Lee’s suicide remain the subject of debate, journalists link the event to the Korean government’s ongoing crackdown on recreational drug use. This crackdown began in April, when conservative president Yoon Suk Yeol announced a “war on drugs” and created an 840 person-strong department to help him wage it.
New laws subjecting producers, distributors, and users to prison sentences of up to 10 years in prison have since led to the arrest of over 17,000 people – a number that not only includes other South Korean celebrities like actor Yoo Ah-in and K-pop singer Kwon Ji-yong, but also a group of American army officers accused of shipping in synthesized marijuana through the US postal service.
The scale and scope of the crackdown is questionable. Included in the government’s list of illegal drugs are not just cocaine, opiates, and methamphetamines, but also soft drugs like marijuana. If South Korea once appeared willing to adopt more liberal drug policies, President Yoon is stirring the country in the direction of zero-tolerance regimes like Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
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