SEOUL, South Korea — Police in South Korea have accused 17 American soldiers of smuggling and distributing synthetic marijuana, which they say was brought into the country through the U.S. military’s postal service.
Four South Korean nationals and a Filipino national were also taken into custody, Cha Min-suk, a detective in Pyeongtaek, a city south of the capital Seoul, told NBC News in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Cha said the arrests came after “unprecedented” search-and-seizure operations on at least two U.S. military bases, including Camp Humphreys, the hub of U.S. Forces Korea and the U.S. Army’s most active airfield in the Pacific, according to its website.
Cha said the suspects were accused of illegally importing around 12 ounces of synthetic cannabis from the U.S. using the American military postal service. Over the course of a year he said they were also alleged to have sold, distributed and used the drug, which is illegal in South Korea.
Synthetic marijuana is an umbrella term used to describe drugs that mimic the effects of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
People convicted of importing marijuana into South Korea can face prison sentences of five years to life, while those caught buying and selling it can face a minimum of one year behind bars, The New York Times reported. Those caught using it can be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to $37,600, the newspaper said.
All 17 U.S. soldiers were able to return to their military bases after questioning, but Cha said one who is alleged to have played a key role in the alleged smuggling and distribution operation was being detained within a U.S. military base.
United States Forces Korea said in a news release Wednesday that it was aware of the investigation into “alleged illegal drug behavior and misuse of the military mail system,” but no military members were being detained or held under confinement.
“USFK does not condone any behaviors among its personnel that violate South Korean laws, rules or directives and supports this investigation,” it said, adding that it expected everyone working on the bases and their family members “to conduct themselves appropriately, both on and off duty.”
The incident comes two months after Travis King, a U.S. soldier based in South Korea, made international headlines after sprinting across the border into North Korea while on a civilian tour of a border village.
King was in the process of being returned to the U.S. to face military discipline after spending nearly two months in a South Korea prison on assault charges.
Stella Kim reported from Seoul, and Chantal Da Silva from London.