SEOUL -- South Korean authorities confiscated a record amount of drugs shipped through the U.S. military mail system in the first nine months of 2012, according to the Korea Customs Service.
While the overall amounts involved remained small -- less than three kilograms, or 6.6 pounds -- the larger scale of this year's seizures has received widespread attention in South Korea, where drug use is viewed harshly and misbehavior by U.S. troops often receives intense scrutiny.
South Korean officials put the value of the seizures at 57.6 million won, or $52,100. KCS said nearly all -- 2,837 grams -- involved synthetic marijuana, or Spice. Marijuana accounted for another 41 grams.
Governments around the world have been trying to deal with the issue of synthetic marijuana, which can fall through the cracks of legal systems from the U.S. to Japan.
Most of the drugs appeared to be connected to a single smuggling ring that was broken up earlier this year. At least two people involved in the case, including a U.S. soldier and a former U.S. servicemember, are being tried on drug charges.
The 2012 drug busts accounted for five cases -- half the number recorded since 2008, the KCS data shows.
USFK mail is examined by customs officials at the Joint Military Mail Terminal in Incheon before it is distributed to military installations.
On Monday, National Assembly member Kim Hyunmee issued a statement calling the JMMT "a new drug smuggling route," and claimed a lack of drug seizures there before 2008 shows the KCS "was defenseless against attempts to carry narcotics into the JMMT."
She said better mail monitoring and more inspectors are needed.
A KCS official, however, said only a few servicemembers have tried to ship drugs through the mail and the agency's efforts to crack down on smuggling appear to have been successful.
Those efforts include increasing the number of packages opened and hiring an additional six inspectors this month, bringing the total to eight. He said no Spice has been found since July.
USFK spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said in an email that "there has been a very small group of U.S. Forces Korea personnel engaged in this type of activity, and they typically involve an individual or a small group of individuals."
Buschick said the military cooperates closely with South Korean government agencies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and is working to "further improve USFK mail clearance procedures," she said.
"Stopping the use of drugs by our personnel is a priority, and we are using all the tools at our disposal to curtail its use including education, treatment, appropriate punishment, the creation of a drug-enforcement task force and increasing our law enforcement manpower," she said.
The KCS official said negligible amounts of drugs, mostly marijuana, were imported before 2008. That year, 33 grams of marijuana were detected; another 30 grams were found in 2010. KCS confiscated 324 grams of Spice and 50 grams of marijuana in 2011.
No drugs were found in 2009.