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[Newsmaker] South Korea gripped by anger and remorse over toddler’s death

Demonstrators gather in front of the Seoul Southern District Court to demand staunch punishments Wednesday, as the first hearing was held for the adoptive parents of a 16-month-old girl who allegedly died from months of child abuse last year. (Yonhap)
Demonstrators gather in front of the Seoul Southern District Court to demand staunch punishments Wednesday, as the first hearing was held for the adoptive parents of a 16-month-old girl who allegedly died from months of child abuse last year. (Yonhap)
Anger and sadness have swept across South Korea for the past week following the death of Jeong-in, a 16-month-old toddler whose death from months of child abuse in October caused a huge public outrage and controversy.

After the toddler’s case came to light through an SBS investigative reporting show earlier this month, a number of civic groups and members of the general public have called for better protection of adoptees and stronger penalties against child abuse offenders.

President Moon Jae-in urged for better execution of measures in place to prevent child abuse, criticizing authorities for their failure to prevent the death of Jeong-in and other child abuse victims.

“Despite having made police reports three times, (the authorities) failed to separate (the child from the adoptive parents) in the beginning, and the preliminary investigation was done poorly,” Moon was quoted as saying in a meeting with Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.

Chung vowed to revise legislations to impose harsher penalties on child abuse offenders and empower related government agencies, as well as move to assign clearer responsibilities for them.

Officials were not the only ones who were infuriated by Jeong-in’s death.

The case triggered an outpouring of grief nationwide, with hundreds of people placing flowers, letter and gifts by Jeong-in’s tomb in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province.

More than 230,000 people also signed a public petition to the Blue House asking for stronger penalization on her adoptive parents to set an example of how the country should respond to child abuse cases.

An online campaign expressing remorse for Jeong-in’s death has also swept the country, with people sharing hashtags like #SorryJeongin on social media. A number of celebrities including BTS member Jimin joined the movement, bringing greater attention to the problem.

Due to the heightened attention on the case, more than 813 people had put their names in a lottery to bid for the 51 seats on the first day of trial on Wednesday.

Jeong-in’s adoptive mother now faces murder and child abuse charges.

The Seoul Southern District Court, where the trial was held, was filled with activists and protesters calling for even a death penalty for Jeong-in’s adoptive parents. The court was also filled with flowers and wreaths commemorating Jeong-in’s death.

Members of the public also showed attention to another possible child abuse case that was brought to light on Friday.

A 4-year-old child in pajamas was found shivering in the cold, crying in front of a convenience store in Gangbuk District, northern Seoul at around 5:40 p.m. on Friday. The police have launched an investigation into the child’s mother for possible child abuse.

Civic groups have been staging protests and rallies across the country since the Jeong-in case came under the spotlight earlier this month, calling for a special inspection on the police and the adoption agency involved in the fatal child abuse case.

At a press conference Thursday held by the Blue House, children’s rights activists demanded authorities probe Holt Children’s Services, the largest adoption agency in Korea, on whether it had made mistakes and failed to prevent the toddler’s death.

The press event was attended by a number of parent associations and children’s rights activist groups and adoptive parent groups.

“The government should find out whether Holt had detected signs of abuse even before it was informed,” they said, adding that the agencies’ response to each of the three abuse reports also needed to be looked into.

The adoption agency apologized to the public but said an inspection from the Ministry of Health and Welfare found no irregularities in regards to the case.

A number of people also made donations to children’s rights activists groups like the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association and asked for more support on children’s rights.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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