In search of illegal poppy growers

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In search of illegal poppy growers

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Left: Opium poppies the Pyeongtaek Coast Guard impounded. Right: Coast guard officers sail to an island in Ansan, Gyeonggi, to crack down on opium poppy cultivation. [PYEONGTAEK COAST GUARD]

Jeong Young-bok gazed far ahead as he landed on Pung Island off the country’s west coast last Friday afternoon. He and a colleague from the Pyeongtaek Coast Guard had traveled more than two hours via patrol boat to crack down on a dicey hobby adopted by elderly Koreans on the island: cultivating opium poppies.

Jeong walked up a narrow slope and stopped as he approached a small garden of poppies. His job now was to verify whether they were being grown for their beauty - or to produce opium.

“The stems are hairy and the flowers are small and acorn-shaped, so they’re probably oriental poppies,” said Jeong. Oriental poppies are perfectly legal: they cannot produce opium.

Yet, the 33-year-old Coast Guard detective didn’t retreat. Sometimes, he said, opium poppies are mixed in between oriental poppies, which serve as a cover.

One of the key differences between an opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) and an oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), according to Jeong, is that an opium poppy tends to have a larger, rounder flower, and produces milky white sap. An opium poppy also has black dots on the base of its flower petals and blooms in vivid red. Oriental poppy flowers are mostly dark orange and are characterized by hairy stems.

Korea Coast Guard detectives like Jeong venture out to remote islands every year from April to July, when poppies are in full bloom, to clamp down on illegal drug cultivation. The act of planting opium poppies is strictly forbidden under domestic law, but elderly people on islands where hospitals and pharmacies are scarce have picked up the practice and use the flowers medicinally, usually for pain relief. Some people sell them.

Living on an island one to three hours from the mainland gives them a sense of impunity.

Jeong and his teammate scoured the home gardens of Pung Island for two hours last week without discovering any illegal substances. But their investigation was far from over. They immediately went to a neighboring island and continued searching. The Pyeongtaek Coast Guard alone covers 44 islands in total, including Pung Island.

From 2010 to 2017, the Korea Coast Guard made arrests in 613 cases related to drugs, 147 of which involved the growing of opium poppies. Last month, a 61-year-old woman on one island was caught cultivating 748 opium poppy flowers, while another 62-year-old man was busted cultivating 58.

But not all farmers get penalized. Under Korean law, police are authorized to confiscate and discard all opium poppies, but their owners are arrested only if they raised the flowers for 50 weeks or more. In that case, violators are slapped with a maximum five-year prison sentence or fined up to 50 million won ($45,250). The Pyeongtaek Coast Guard discovered 22 cases of opium planting from May to June 4 this year, but only three fell into this legal category.

BY CHOI MO-RAN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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