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South Korea gripped by trial of 16-month-old Jeong-in's alleged killer

Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Nemo Kim in Seoul
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Yonhap News Agency/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Yonhap News Agency/Reuters

The video clip shows a healthy, happy child smiling from ear to ear, her milk teeth gnawing at a pink fluffy toy. Within months all of South Korea would know her name: Jeong-in.

It has taken the death of a 16-month-old, allegedly at the hands of her adoptive mother, to jolt South Korea’s government into what campaigners say is long-overdue action to protect the most vulnerable children, amid a dramatic rise in reported abuse cases over the past decade.

Jeong-in was pronounced dead at a Seoul hospital last October from severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding that police suspect had been caused by repeated beatings by her parents, who had adopted her eight months earlier.

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Her injuries resulted from “strong external force applied on her back”, the national forensic service said, adding that broken bones and bruising pointed to “prolonged abuse”.

Her adoptive mother went on trial on murder and child abuse charges in Seoul southern district court on Wednesday last week. She has admitted some instances of abuse but denied she intended to cause the victim to die. The adoptive father faces negligence charges.

In response to the case, the South Korean national assembly this month passed a slew of child protection laws including a ban on corporal punishment in the home and a requirement by police to investigate immediately when alerted by medical professionals or child welfare agencies.

But a clause that would have seen longer prison sentences in fatal abuse cases – the current maximum is five years – did not go to a vote amid criticism from lawyers that tougher penalties would make it harder to secure convictions.

News of Jeong-in’s death triggered an outpouring of grief, matched in its intensity by anger over authorities’ failure to act on evidence of physical harm and malnutrition. Much of the criticism centred on the police, who it is alleged chose not to investigate despite receiving three reports outlining concern over the baby’s welfare in the space of five months.

Social media was flooded with messages of anguish and indignation, with Jimin, a member of the K-pop group BTS, among those using their online profiles to call for justice under the hashtag #SorryJeongin.

After her adoptive mother went on trial last week, the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, conceded the country had failed children like Jeong-in.

More needed to be done to detect signs of abuse and to separate children from abusive parents, Moon said, although he drew criticism for suggesting that adopted children who struggled to settle in to their new homes could be “sent back” by their adoptive parents.

Related: 'Luxuries I can't afford': why fewer women in South Korea are having children

Petitions signed by tens of thousands of people demanded that officials be given greater investigative powers and children be forcibly and immediately separated from parents suspected of abuse.

The 2014 death of an seven-year-old girl, whose body was found in a bathtub after she had been beaten by her stepmother, triggered a national conversation about child abuse, but piecemeal legal changes have done little to protect at-risk children.

South Korea had more than 30,000 reported cases of abuse in 2019 – more than 40 involving children who died – compared with 5,578 cases in 2008, according to the health ministry.

“Jeong-in’s case has happened years down the road, which goes to show how little things have changed,” said Jieun Lee, a lawyer and director of the Korea Childcare Promotion Institute. “This is why so many Koreans are angry about what happened to her, in addition to the horrific nature of the case.”

Lee said the involvement of multiple agencies had made investigations less effective. “The three agencies are unable to work together efficiently,” she said. “When something like Jeong-in’s case happens they’re too busy shifting the blame on to each other. They have to decide who is in charge of each part of the case. But there are only 240 child abuse officials and over reported 30,000 cases … they’re terribly understaffed.”

Experts have pointed out that child protection officers and police are inadequately trained to spot signs of abuse – a prerequisite for separating them from their parents and taking them into care. In addition South Korea has just 75 shelters for abused children, prompting a government promise to build dozens more.

“When the abusive parents are firm in their denial it’s not easy to demonstrate that abuse has occurred. We have a decent system but what’s most important is expertise, adequate experience, and the determination of the officers in charge,” Lee Bae-geun, head of the Korea Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, told the Hankyoreh newspaper.

As the trial of the woman accused of killing Jeong-in began at the Seoul southern district court, hundreds of protesters outside held banners demanding that she be given the death penalty, and laid wreaths in remembrance of her alleged victim. “Sorry to notice too late,” read one tribute. “Love you.”