In October 2020 a 16-month-old girl named Jung-in died of severe internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma. Autopsy results also showed multiple bone fractures and bruises covering her tiny, malnourished body.
Even more outrageously, she was killed by her own adoptive mother, who had taken her home as a healthy and cheerful baby just eight months earlier.
Jung-in’s story is no horrific exception. Continuous reports of South Korean children dying at the hands of their caregivers make clear that the country has a child abuse epidemic. Lawmakers, bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens are attempting to address the problem, but it remains to be seen whether their efforts are working. Meanwhile, children keep on suffering.
To be sure, child abuse isn’t a new issue in this country. A few months before Jung-in’s case, there was the infamous “suitcase stepmom” who stuffed her eight-year-old stepson into a suitcase for the fault of “lying” (he died from cardiac arrest caused by the prolonged confinement). In 2013, two stepmoms in Ulsan and Chilgok beat their daughters to death, fueling public outrage as details of the violence emerged.
But the scale of child abuse seems to have taken a new turn this year. These are some of the stories that have made headlines.
- Seong Yu*, five, was beaten to death by her uncle after her mom abandoned her.
- A two-year-old orphan named Min-young died after falling into a months-long coma because her adoptive dad struck her repeatedly in the head.
- Ha-im*, nine, was killed after being left in the care of her aunt. This aunt, claiming her niece was possessed, fed her feces and tortured her by tying her up and submerging her in a bathtub.
- Bo-ram, another two-year-old, died when her single mom (who later was found to be her biological sister in a complicated twist) simply abandoned her without food or water in an empty apartment to go live with her new boyfriend.
- Seo-yeon*, a 20-month-old, was beaten and raped by her stepdad, who then killed her and hid the body in an icebox in his bathroom until authorities discovered her three weeks later.
Most recently, on Nov 20, a two-year-old boy in Seoul was abused to death by his stepmom. He had very similar injuries to Jung-in’s.
Data indicates the problem has grown manifold over the past two decades. In 2001 slightly more than 2,100 cases were recorded, but that figure jumped to more than 30,000 in 2019 according to a government report. 380.9 out of every 100,000 children are said to have experienced abuse that same year.
While the increase could be attributed to better awareness, even this report’s authors admit that their data includes only cases known to the authorities. The real scale could be much bigger.
Nobody can say with certainty why this is happening, but there are clues. In many cases perpetrators are young parents from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Gong Hye-jeong, head of the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association (KCAPA), said, “52.9 percent of known child abuse perpetrators in 2019 were in their teens and twenties. Judging by how a large number of them were giving birth in their teens, most were unprepared to raise children.”
One father, 26, from Incheon went on trial last year for throwing his newborn baby against the bed and putting the child in a coma. At the time of the incident, he was living in a motel room with the newborn and his 19-month-old toddler. His 21-year-old girlfriend—also the mother of both children—had just been arrested for fraud, and he had a grueling job working the night shift at a delivery company.
And in February, a couple in North Jeolla Province (ages 23 and 21) were arrested after their two-week-old newborn was found dead with bruises on his face. Initially testifying that the baby had fallen off the bed, they then admitted that they had hit the baby because he “kept on crying and would throw up his formula.”
The couple was already facing criminal charges for abusing their older daughter the previous year. She had been removed from their custody and placed in a child welfare facility at the time of the incident.
Another factor to consider is that many victims are not in the care of biological parents (or grandparents as is often the case in South Korea when parents aren’t available).
Min-young and Jung-in were born to unwed mothers who put them up for adoption days after they had come into the world. Others were left with relatives when parents divorced and mothers communicated only with the caregivers, not with the children, if at all.
The case of the 2-year-old boy who was beaten to death by his stepmom last month is typical: once his father took custody, the biological mother disappeared from the picture and didn’t see him until he was lying in a morgue. Meanwhile, witnesses came forward saying that the stepmother abused the child because his face reminded her of her husband’s ex-wife.
Not that biological parents always do better. In 2020, 82% of reported child abuse cases involved parents. Some say that this has to do with a culture that still accepts hitting or “spanking” as a valid parenting strategy. In response to a 2018 survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Public Welfare, nearly 40% of South Korean parents with young children answered that corporal punishment was “necessary for good parenting.”
“Discipline” (hunyuk 훈육) gone awry is indeed a common legal defense when child abuse turns fatal. Turning the focus on perceived misbehavior of kids, the abusers cited their frustration over the 2-year-old Min-young’s unwillingness to bring her plates to the sink, the 16-month-old Jung-in’s refusal to eat baby food, and the fact that the 20-month-old Seo-yeon woke up often in the middle of the night, among myriad other trivial reasons for inflicting life-ending violence.
Among 43 known children who died from physical abuse in 2020, nearly two thirds—27—were under the age of 24 months. It means even those not old enough to speak were subjected to brutal beatings.
The government’s intervention has so far been insufficient. In Jung-in’s case the local police were alerted three times to possible abuse but they dismissed the concern and sent her back to the adoptive parents every time. Children’s protection services don’t have enough personnel to perform their function. No one reportedly checked on Min-young, killed by her adoptive father, at home from October 2020 until her death this May even though the adoption agency was required to.
The Covid pandemic has made things even harder. Social distancing protocols mean it isn’t easy for social workers to pay home visits, even though much abuse takes place in the household away from public view. The stepmother who killed the two-year-old boy in Seoul pulled him out of daycare in May 2020 citing the virus as an excuse before proceeding to beat him at home undetected for a year and a half.
ONE YEAR AFTER JUNG-IN
Still, Jung-in’s case has been a catalyst for change after an investigative journalism program Unanswered Questions on private broadcaster SBS devoted an entire episode to it in early January. In an unusual move for the media, SBS showed her photos from before and after adoption without pixelating the images as is the custom. It made the abuse even more palpable. The show also shed light on the critical mistakes by the police, who did not separate her from her abusive adoptive parents in time.
Public outrage was unprecedented. Social media exploded with the hashtag #SorryJungin (#정인아_미안해). Celebrities also participated in the online campaign to express their solidarity. Jung-in’s story even spread globally through platforms like instagram and Twitter as foreigners from all over the world took to appealing for justice and filing petitions with the court in South Korea in a demand for strong punishment.
In the following days, the head of the national police issued a public apology, and the Yangcheon district police chief, responsible for the area where Jung-in had lived, was suspended. Holt Children’s Services, Inc., an agency that facilitated Jung-in’s adoption, also apologized, and its chairperson Kim Ho-yeon stepped down in April.
In response to the development, lawmakers were quick to pass an amendment dubbed "Jung-in's Law" this March to the existing act governing child abuse. It became obligatory for the police to investigate without delay all reports of child abuse filed with them. Police officers and social workers have been empowered to remove children from their domicile when abuse is suspected.
The legal change also permitted a death sentence to be imposed on an abuser who intentionally kills a child. But more significantly, the government repealed the clause in civil law allowing parents to inflict corporal punishment on children. (Put plainly, South Korean parents had the legal right to beat their children in the name of discipline until the beginning of this year.)
Not everyone is convinced this is enough. The KCAPA for one believes far harsher sentences as well as publication of abusers’ identities are required to deter future abuses. They also criticize a judicial system that often reduces criminal sentences on appeal and appears lenient on perpetrators.
In fact, changing the nation’s mentality itself should also be a part of the solution. 74 percent of respondents in a May 2021 survey acknowledged that South Korea had “a serious child abuse problem” and corporal punishment of children by parents should be banned. Yet only 40 percent knew that beating children was in fact already illegal, and 44 percent said they were aware of cases where children were being physically punished.
Perhaps an even more difficult challenge, however, is to address a social structure that exposes many kids to harm. It needs to be recognized that children of financially disadvantaged, young parents are especially vulnerable to abuse.
And finally, more thinking must go into finding and protecting the children who suffer due to the uncontrollable rage felt by the adults around them. Some experts note that a high level of anger in Korean society is being directed at its most vulnerable members such as children. Unless this anger can be quenched through mental health interventions, terrible cases like Jung-in's will continue to haunt us.
*Names of these victims were revealed by the KCAPA.
Note: Ages were noted in accordance with the international system of counting.
Note: More details about these child abuse cases can be found on the KCAPA’s official Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/kcapa1106/
Cover: Jung-in (a screen capture from the Jan 2, 2021 episode of SBS program Unanswered Questions)