Mystery clouds death of 3-year-old South Korean girl left to starve by 'mum'

SEOUL – Police in South Korea thought they had the mother of a dead child when they arrested a 22-year-old woman on Feb 11 after a pre-schooler’s mummified remains were found in their home.

But a baffling twist in the murder case has emerged. Police revealed earlier this week that DNA tests showed that the woman is not the mother of the three-year-old girl, but her older sister.

The child’s supposed “grandmother”, 49, is in fact the biological mum.

The older woman, who on March 11 was in court to help with police investigations, told reporters that she did not give birth to another child, insisting the DNA results were false.

The case throws the spotlight on child abuse in the country.

The incident took place in Gumi city, in the eastern North Gyeongsang province.

Police suspect that the two women gave birth around the same time and that their babies were switched at birth.

The three-year-old’s birth was never registered, and the whereabouts of the other child remains unclear. Police investigations are ongoing.

An ongoing murder trial caused a national uproar in January when it emerged that the adoptive mother of a 16-month-old baby had allegedly subjected the girl to months of abuse, leaving her with severe abdominal injuries, including a ruptured pancreas.

Baby Jung-in died on Oct 13 last year.

Under public pressure to ramp up efforts to prevent child abuse, the police launched an awareness campaign last month. The average number of reports increased to 47 a day, up from 24 a year ago.

An amendment to the child abuse law, known as the Jung-in Act, was also passed in Parliament on Feb 26, making the death penalty a possible punishment for fatal child abuse.

Child abusers can now be charged for murder even if they caused death unintentionally.

Those found guilty could face the death penalty or up to seven years in jail – up from the current maximum five-year imprisonment.

A still image from EBS programme Any Ordinary Family, showing little Jung-in and her adoptive mother. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM EBS

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The new penalties apply in the Gumi case.

The 22-year-old woman, who is awaiting trial, told the police that she was not aware that the child is her younger sister.

She said she had raised the girl alone after divorcing her husband.

After the divorce, she received 200,000 won (S$237) in child welfare benefits every month from the provincial government.

They lived in a low-rise apartment, one floor above her parents, who called the police after finding the mummified remains of the child on Feb 10.

They had not seen the child in months after her “mother” abandoned her and left her alone in the home in August last year to get married again.

The 22-year-old woman told her parents that the girl was with her, but later admitted to the police that she had abandoned the child as she found it too hard to raise her alone.

“I left her in the home when I moved out,” she reportedly said. “I didn’t want to see her again as she was my ex-husband’s child.”

Autopsy results showed that the child had died of starvation, contradicting initial suspicions that she could have been killed first before the woman left the home.

DNA tests were conducted as the body was decomposed. That was when police learnt that the child and her supposed “mother” were actually siblings.

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Cases of child abuse

Jan 28: A couple living in Suwon city, south of Seoul, were indicted on charges of child neglect.

The woman, 29, allegedly beat her three-month-old daughter so badly that she suffered 11 bone fractures all over her body, including her skull. She was also dehydrated and malnourished.

The woman, apparently suffering postpartum depression, said she was angry as her baby kept crying and would not sleep. The man, 34, was apparently aware of the abuse but did not stop his wife.

Feb 8: A couple in their 40s living in Yongin city, south of Seoul, were detained for abusing the wife’s 10-year-old niece to death.

They allegedly beat her with a broom and other objects, and then shoved her head repeatedly into a bathtub filled with water until she stopped breathing.

The couple claimed they were merely punishing the girl, who was living with them, for being disobedient. She was entrusted to her aunt as her parents were busy with work.

Feb 9: A couple in their 20s living in the south-western city of Iksan were arrested for beating their two-week-old son to death.

They had claimed that the child fell out of bed, but admitted under intense police interrogation that they beat the baby for crying too much and throwing up milk.

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