President Duterte Threatens to Extend Drug War and Kill Korean Gangs

The Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (left) talks to the country's top police official Ronald Dela Rosa (right) during a press conference at the Malacanang palace in Manila on January 30. Noel Celis/AFP/Getty

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened Korean gangs involved in the country's illegal drugs trade with death. Duterte, who promised to continue his "war on drugs" until the last day of his presidency in 2022, told local media that Korean criminals wouldn't be treated differently just because they are not Filipino.

Duterte's aggressive crackdown on drugs he initiated in the summer of 2016 has so far resulted in more than 7,000 deaths across the country according to Philippine National Police records.

In January, Duterte apologized to South Korea for the death of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo, 53, in October, which rights groups believe was linked to the anti-drugs policy. It was reported by the ABS-CBN news channel that the the Philippine National Police Anti-Illegal Drugs Group ( AIDG) had no evidence Ick-joo was involved in the illegal drugs trade.

Ick-joo was abducted from his home in Manila in October 2016, and taken to police headquarters where he was strangled. The police officers responsible—who are now in custody—then tried to extort money from Mr Jee Ick-joo's family by pretending he was still alive, according to the New York Times.

After the murder, Duterte called for a crackdown on rogue police elements, promising to bring those responsible to justice and disbanding the AIDG. Police chief Roland Dela Rosa expressed remorse over the death, but emphasized the case of Mr Ick-joo was isolated. However, in a press conference last Friday, Dela Rosa said the Korean mafia were to blame.

As a result of Dela Rosa's claim, President Duterte has threatened to apply the crackdown seen in his drugs war to Korean gangs, who supposedly operate out of the southern city of Cebu. The president claims the mafia are known for operating human and drug trafficking rings, prostitution and kidnapping. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) confirmed they are aware of elements of mafia existence in Cebu on Monday morning, but authorities are still searching for evidence that such a crime syndicate which could have carried out the kidnapping of Ick-joo exists. Senator Ping Lacson told the Inquirer, a Filipino newspaper, that the Korean mafia 'angle' might be "farfetched."

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II of the Philippines told local reporters that he was working with South Korea to determine the nature of the alleged mafia: "Our office is coordinating and contacting the Korean embassy if they have a police attaché or anyone to that effect that could help us [find out] about this Korean mafia, if ever it exists."

In the meantime, Duterte wants the Koreans to remain friends. South Koreans are the largest group of tourists to the Philippines annually. The Korea Times reported that the president said: "They're always welcome here. Korea is our friend. It has helped us in so many ways. To law-abiding Koreans, you will be protected, treated equally as Filipinos."