Alcohol sales to minors: South Korea relaxes penalties for sellers ‘deceived’ into committing offence in response to public outcry

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

South Korea will relax punishments on sellers found to have been deceived into alcohol sales to minors. ©Getty Images
South Korea will relax punishments on sellers found to have been deceived into alcohol sales to minors. ©Getty Images

Related tags South korea Alcohol regulations

The South Korean government will relax the punishment levelled on retailers and other sellers found to have been deceived into alcohol sales to minors, after receiving complaints of ‘excessive responsibility’ from the industry and outcry from the general public.

Alcohol sales to underage minors were a major discussion topic and source of public uproar online in South Korea late last year, after a social issue rapidly emerged where these minors, generally high school students, would purchase or order alcohol using false identification cards, and then report themselves (or threaten such action to the sellers) after consumption.

In South Korea, consumers are allowed access to alcohol from January 1 of the year that they are to turn 19 years of age.

Under current legislation, no penalties can be levelled on minors for any relevant consumption or purchase of alcoholic drinks, even if this is meant as a prank or a set-up for business owners that sell or serve alcohol, and even if false identification was used during the purchase.

“The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) will be amending current legislation standards for penalties against business owners who sell alcohol to minors [and can prove] they were innocent and deceived into doing so,”​ MFDS Minister Oh Yoo-kyung said via a formal statement.

“This amendment has been made in response to several complaints from the industry that businesses are being burdened with excessive responsibility after being deceived into selling alcohol to these underage minors, and is meant to ease the burden especially on small business owners.

“The current standard penalty for providing alcohol to minors is two months of business suspension for the first offence, three months for the second and complete closure for the third offence – this will be amended to seven days of suspension for the first offence, one month for the second and two months for the third.

“These suspensions can also be converted into monetary penalties where suitable.”

The amendments will also allow retailers and other sellers to utilise CCTV video or other evidence to prove their innocence and having done the due diligence of checking identification before the sale went through, hence proving they had been deceived and unintentionally sold the alcohol to minors.

“Penalties may be exempted only when said business operator can prove they were deceived by the minor having forged or falsified their identification card, but they had already fulfilled the necessary obligation of verifying said ID,”​ MFDS added.

“There must also not be any indictment of the business by any relevant law enforcement agency, whether investigative or judicial.”

The ministry is currently still accepting public comment and opinions regarding this amendment on its website until March 18 2024 for the decree and until April 3 2024 for the particulars of the new rules.

Pranks out of control

Sellers actually face immense risk by selling alcohol to minors as there are penalties to be faced not only under the food safety regulations but also the Juvenile Protection Act in South Korea which would land them up to two years of jail time or a KRW20mn (US$15,500) fine.

Cases of alcohol sales to underage minors have been on the rise in the past year, and although no confirmed retail data has been released, from a foodservice perspective industry data from the Korean Foodservice Industry Association has shown that over 78% of all such cases have come from minors turning themselves in whether as a prank or to get back at businesses for any reason, resulting in these businesses – and not the minors who perpetrated the offence – being punished.

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