A 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 Jeong-in.
It has taken the death of a 16-month-old, allegedly at the hands of her adoptive parents, to jolt the South Korean 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 in October last year 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.
Her injuries resulted from “strong external force applied on her back,” the South Korean National Forensic Service said, adding that broken bones and bruising pointed to “prolonged abuse.”
In response, the South Korean National Assembly this month passed a numerous 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.
However, 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 more difficult 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 centered on the police, who chose not to investigate, despite receiving three reports in five months that outlined concern over the baby’s welfare.
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 on murder charges last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that 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.
Petitions signed by tens of thousands of people demanded that officials be given greater investigative powers, and that children be forcibly and immediately separated from parents suspected of abuse.
The 2014 death of a 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.
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, South Korean Ministry of Health data showed.
“Jeong-in’s case has happened years down the road, which goes to show how little things have changed,” said Lee Jie-un, 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.”
“When the abusive parents are firm in their denial, it’s not easy to demonstrate that abuse has occurred,” 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.”
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