|Photos of Jung-in, a 16-month-old girl who died after being abused by her adoptive parents, sit in front of her grave at a cemetery in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province, Jan. 13. Yonhap|
By Scott Shepherd
Korean society has rightly been shocked at the collective failure to protect the little girl, and questions are rightly being asked about whether social services or the police could have done anything to prevent her death.
Public grief is so potent that at the beginning of the year the Korean and English versions of the hashtag #SorryJungin were simultaneously trending worldwide at first and fifth place respectively.
This grief ― and rage ― will inevitably lead to serious reforms in children protection services in Korea. Indeed, President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun reportedly discussed the issue in their first meeting of the year.
And rightly so. It's an unremittingly awful story which is galvanizing the country to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Perhaps the only thing more awful than Jung-in's death is the fact that she is not the only child to have died in these circumstances. Two other heart-wrenching stories of babies dying last year received significantly less coverage.
The Korea Times reported last year that a Vietnamese woman "jumped with her baby, from the eighth floor of an apartment building in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, at around 7 p.m., Jan. 2, 2020. The baby died from severe head injuries." The mother survived with severe injuries.
The second story was equally horrific. The Korea Times reported that a Thai woman delivered a "baby at around 8 p.m., Mar. 29, in Gwanak District, Seoul, alone without medical assistance. The baby died around two hours later as she neglected the infant without giving it sufficient care including failing to clear amniotic fluid from the baby's nose and mouth."
Aside from the gut-wrenching agony of a baby's death, there is another worrying linking factor.
In the story of the Thai mother, the report states that "she had been staying in the country illegally, and therefore did not contact the police nor take the baby to the emergency room, out of concern that her illegal stay would be revealed."
"She also said that she could not go to the hospital as she did not speak Korean."
As for the Vietnamese woman, she "had visited a local hospital where she was diagnosed with postpartum depression and determined to be a suicide risk. However, she was just prescribed anti-depressants as staff decided hospitalization would be ineffective due to a lack of available interpreters at the hospital."
This is inexcusable.
Both mothers bear responsibility for their actions. There is no justification for infanticide ― and indeed both have been sentenced by the courts. Yet while we acknowledge the severity of the crime, how could we not feel sympathy for these poor women?
Society failed these two women and their babies just as much as it failed Jung-in. We can argue all day about specific details and about the rights and wrongs of any person's situation and actions, but fundamentally, it is all of our responsibility to protect the babies born in our midst. Is it really possible that a hospital in South Korea could recognize a new mother as being at risk of suicide and still let her go because they didn't want the hassle of finding a translator? Is this something any society can accept?
These tragedies were preventable. They shouldn't have happened and they can't be allowed to happen again.
It's not a coincidence that both of these women were foreign; it points to a wider problem of discrimination in Korean society. Although Korea is in some ways a "Westernized" nation, it takes a very different approach to multiculturalism and migration compared to its European and American allies.
Historically, Korea has been a closed country. While nowadays the term "hermit kingdom" usually refers only to North Korea, the term "hermit nation" originally referred to the whole kingdom of Joseon ― or "Corea", as the writer put it.
Korea, of course, has no automatic obligation to become a multicultural society. It's up to Koreans whether to open the country's borders in the way that many Western countries have. I'm not going to try to dictate the direction Korea should take regarding immigration. If the people of Korea ― or of any country ― decide that they want to live in a hermit kingdom, that's completely within their rights.
Yet while there's no need for any state to open its borders, there is a clear imperative for every country to protect its residents, whatever passport they hold. It is both morally and practically the right thing to do. The Korean government made a step in the right direction last year when it promised free coronavirus tests with no ramifications for anyone in the country illegally, but it needs to do more.
I don't have all the answers ― no-one does. But we can't stop from keeping on trying. The two tragic cases of infanticide show that there is a pressing need for change in the way Korea treats its foreign residents.
Clearly, as the case of Jung-in shows, babies born to two Korean parents may still be at risk. Researching this article, I've found far too many instances of babies dying unnecessarily, often at the hands of those who should have protected them. In the wake of Jung-in's death, as the lawmakers and bureaucrats inevitably reform the ways that babies are protected, they must consider ways to protect all the children of Korea, whether their parents are here legally or illegally, whether they only arrived last week or they can trace their ancestry all the way back to King Sejong himself.
By many measures, Korea is a great country, and it continues to improve; the changes seen in the space of a few decades are really astounding. But a society is judged not only on statistics such as GDP or growth rate, but also on how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable in its midst. The protection of babies ― all babies ― needs to be stepped up.
Dr. Scott Shepherd is a British-American academic. He has taught in universities in the U.K. and Korea, and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Chongshin University, Seoul. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.