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Police To Inquire Into Late Actor Lee Sun-Kyun Drug Investigation

By Ellie Sprinthall, BA International Relations and Korean

Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide and drug use

Following the apparent suicide of South Korean actor Lee Sun-Kyun in December 2023, police have announced they will look into how Lee’s drug investigation was handled.

The late actor, best known for his role in Parasite, was suspected of taking illicit drugs such as marijuana and ketamine. In October 2023, he underwent three rounds of police questioning, the most recent on 23rd December which lasted 19 hours. This investigation was also the subject of intense media scrutiny.

As reported in the Korea Times, Lee claimed that he was tricked into taking the drugs and that he did not know what substances they were. On three separate occasions during the investigation, he tested negative for drugs.

“The inquiry into the police’s investigation comes after an artists collective, led by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, held a conference to protest the police’s investigation and the media’s coverage.”

The inquiry into the police’s investigation comes after an artist’s collective, led by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, held a conference to protest against the police’s investigation and the media’s coverage. 

Speaking at the conference, Bong said, “I demand that the authorities investigate. We demand that the police investigate whether there was any lapse in the security of the investigation from the moment the details of the deceased’s investigation were first exposed until two months later.”

Other participants in the conference included several actors and directors, as well as representatives of the Producers Guild of Korea and the Independent Film Association. Keeping in line with their criticisms of the media coverage of the investigation, the conference participants did not take questions after their remarks and did not hold a photo session.

KBS, a major broadcaster in South Korea, was a particular target of criticism from the artist’s collective, having previously leaked a private phone call between Lee and a female escort.

After the conference, the artist collective announced a petition signed by over 2,000 artists that they would submit to the National Assembly.

According to Korea JoongAng Daily, police say they did not take any “excessive” measures during Lee’s questioning and that Lee consented to the 19-hour-long questioning session. An anonymous officer said that, prior to his death, the investigation was in its final stages and that Lee was unlikely to be indicted.

In response to the conference and public backlash following Lee’s death, the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police anti-corruption and financial crime unit will look into how police handled Lee’s investigation, such as whether the police made Lee speak to the press before his questioning sessions. They will also look into the media reports of the investigation and whether they infringed on Lee’s privacy.

South Koreans’ reactions to these events have mostly supported Lee’s family and the artists’ collective and against the authorities. On X, formerly known as Twitter, users have posted messages such as “Lee Sun-Kyun’s cause of death was murder by the prosecution, police, and media’’ and “Following Lee Sun-Kyun, these scoundrels are going to cause another celebrity to commit suicide.”

On TikTok, commenters supporting the demands of the artist’s collectives posted supportive messages such as, “I’m cheering you on; please make everything clear so that his death does not become unfair.”

In a private funeral on 29 December, Lee was laid to rest. He is survived by his wife, actress Jeon Hye-Jin, and their two sons.

Photo caption: Lee Sun-Kyun in October 2023 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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