Over the past few years, child abuse in Korea has reached unprecedented rates of violence and frequency. Recently, the story of a doctor's autistic son evoked sympathy and anger throughout the country. The doctor sent his son to numerous orphanages, temples and other care-places abroad; he even lied and said his son was a Ko-Pino (Korean-Philippine), in order to avoid custody. Money that should have been spent to care for his son was used to abandon him; which scarred the young boy both mentally and physi- cally, leaving him with a more severe case of autism and blindness in one eye.
Unfortunately, this story is only one of many, as child abuse cases, of not only extreme cruelty but even murder, frequently surface in the news. From abuse in daycares and preschools to parents killing their own children or deliberately leaving them to starve to death, Korea has seen a plethora of crimes toward children. Protection of juveniles is a rather new concept as in the past, crimes of rape towards a minor, such as the ‘Cho Doo-soon case’, went without harsh punishment and child abuse was usually deemed a private family matter. Crimes targeting children are happening almost every day. However, they go unpunished which shows that there are clear limitations and loopholes in the law. The structural and ideological problems in Korean society are in need of dire change.
Current Situation and Damage
“First, child abuse is a serious and concerning issue in Korea. Second, our society does not view physical discipline as a possible form of abuse. And lastly because of these reasons we lack agreement on what the definition of child abuse even is” says Kim Hee-kyoon, a professor at the University of Seoul Law School. He emphasized the abuse that occurs daily without notice is the real danger of the current situation. These dangers can greatly harm children and will eventually have detrimental effects on society as a whole. Child abuse cases can be largely divided into four types as defined by the National Protection Agency; physical, mental, sexual and neglect. They can occur singularly but with a high chance; compositely. According to the 2017 Child Abuse Status Report, 80.4% (17,989 cases) occur inside households followed by schools, daycare centers, preschools and child welfare facilities. The report also noted that 76.8% of child abusers were the child’s parents.
Child abuse can cause extreme damage on minors’ mental and physical health. It prevents healthy development of one’s self-concept and self-respect and has aftereffects that remain throughout adulthood. The effects of the four types of abuse vary. Physical abuse can lead to avoidance of adults, panic at the cry of other children, violent and contained behavior as well as fear of parents and exaggerated fear of danger. Mental abuse can cause children to attach to an object; develop behavior and speech disorders, have a fear of mistakes, and avoid physical contact with parents. Sexual abuse can affect sexual behavior negatively, leading to self-harm, depression, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders. Neglection can lead to running away, theft, short attention span, mental uneasiness and chronic fatigue. Furthermore, child abuse can have long- term effects on children which harms their general health. According to the 2017 Child Abuse Status Report, the reason why 22.2% of abusers commit crimes is largely due to poor nurturing attitudes and no methods of accountability. This is followed by social and economic stress and isolation at 13.1% and marital or domestic conflict at 7.2%. Other factors are personality disorders and addiction problems.
Limitations of the Law and Society
Under the Korean law, protection for minors lies largely in the Child Welfare Act which defines what is needed for the welfare of children, what child abuse is and what is considered a crime. When this act is contravened the Special Act on the Punishment of Child Abuse Crimes is applied. Professor Kim Hee-kyoon pointed out a large deficit in current laws, “Although it may not conflict with the Special Act, there are many acts of maltreatment to children that go undefined by any law. In this case there are no realistic means of punishing or applying sanctions to the issue”. This loose and vague boundary for child abuse allows laws to lack solidity and execution. Additionally, laws that protect ‘private family matters’ also deter legal intervention. On May 23, the government emphasized the prohibition on physical punishment and elevated rights for children overall through the ‘Inclusive Country Child Policy’. 54 countries are already participating in this movement and Korea examined its legal punishment exception from the ‘right to discipline as a parent’. However, the proposal met fierce debate in the country as the proposal was deemed unfit in the wake of the current social atmosphere. In the past, plans to protect children in daycare centers or other situations have been introduced by the government but have usually failed in effectiveness.
Weak laws cannot only shoulder the blame as society plays a big role in how child abuse is viewed. According to the National Child Protection Agency, child abuse rates lay in the erroneous notion that children are possessions of their parent(s). With this viewpoint, the child becomes an ‘item’ with which the parent can do whatever they want. ‘Harsh discipline culture’ is deeply rooted in Korean society with the saying ‘whip of love’ being an extreme generalization. When these factors, along with others combine, they cause discipline to be issued in forms of physical abuse towards minors. “As family structures have changed from extended family which was a long-standing tradition in Korea, to the age of nuclear families, homes have lost role models for discipline”, adds Kim Hyun-soo, a psychotherapy professor at Hanyang University. Not only role models but overall education on family issues and discipline lacks throughout the entire society especially in schools. Since there is a scarcity of support or information, parents have nowhere to go with their problems and parents-to- be have no education on how to parent. Lastly, social structural problems also play greatly into Korea’s child abuse situation. With a strict hierarchy when it comes to age and top-down relationships, children have great difficulty in escaping abuse.
The Optimal Approach to Prevent and Solve Child Abuse
Changes in laws and society must go hand in hand. Professor Kim Hee-kyoon asserts that laws must become clearer and stronger and overall need revision to include all mistreatment towards minors with suitable punishments. Along with this change, there needs to be more education and open discussions about family issues, says Professor Kim Hyun- soo. Classes on these issues should be taught at universities and family counseling should be more generalized. But most importantly, “A strong system must be actualized for the victims of child abuse. While welfare centers may have plentiful resources, they still greatly lack in therapy for children. At 18, they are thrust into society without any help and there is a dire need for steppingstones from therapy and care to reconnect with family and going into society”, says Professor Kim Hyun-soo. Consequently, laws and society must not only prevent and solve child abuse but also have the duty to take care of existing victims and construct a safe reliable system for them is of equal importance.
Child abuse is not just the problem of one family; it is a crime that poses threat to the safety of society. A shift in awareness, education for child abuse prevention and a continuous effort to change are the only ways to reassure the well-being of the most vulnerable in society.