A spate of gruesome deaths of children has shocked the South Korean public and generated calls for stern punishments for the perpetrators.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the pandemic has caused 'a broader child rights crisis' in the world
Igniting the recent scrutiny on child abuse is the case of the adopted 16-month-old girl, Jeong-in, who died on October 13, 2020, at a hospital in Seoul, after suffering fractures of ribs, hip, clavicle and skull.
Her adoptive parents insisted the injuries were from the girl being accidentally dropped, but forensic experts determined she was the victim of long-term abuse. Prosecutors have filed a murder charge against both adoptive parents.
Also drawing public and media attention is the death of a 10-year-old girl, who was killed in Yongin city, south of Seoul, on February 8. Her guardians – aunt and uncle – said the girl was unable to control her bladder, and that they were disciplining her by holding her head under water.
In another case, a three-year-old was abandoned by her single mother in a house in Gumi, only to be found months later in a semi-mummified state.
A report out of Iksan, on the southern coast, describes how a two-week-old boy was beaten to death on February 9 by his parents. The parents initially said he had fallen out of bed, before confessing he was crying too much and vomiting milk.
Professor Lee Bong Joo of Seoul National University says that South Korean society is more aware about child abuse and neglect than ever. However, during the pandemic, less cases are coming to the fore, he adds.
"My concern is that if there is actually increasing instances of abuse and neglect due to COVID-19 but decreasing reports, then hidden cases of abuse and neglect are growing and will result in a bigger problem in the future," he told DW.
The South Korean government had initially suspended child welfare home visits because of the pandemic, which in addition to children not receiving regular monitoring from their teachers at school, resulted in less reports of abuse.
The influence of COVID-19 on child abuse is the subject of a wide-ranging UN report, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres suggesting the pandemic has caused "a broader child rights crisis."
"When you look at recent studies, you can understand the increasing levels of stress within families - with the lockdown situation - and there is also evidence of growing conflict between children and parents because of the increased time the children stay home," Professor Lee said.
Lockdown measures have put greater strain on parents, who according to UN sources, are the perpetrators of child abuse about 70% of the time.
This childcare deficit leads to "an increasing trend of abuse, especially emotional abuse and neglect, because parents can't always stay at home, and younger children are left at home alone and neglected," Lee added.
Despite the pandemic, the issue of child torture has piqued the public's interest in South Korea, especially after the cases of recent child deaths emerged.
There is a growing body of research uncovering the long-term effects of child abuse and neglect.
Professor Lee has led programs addressing the broader causes of child abuse and neglect, such as "We Start," to combat intergenerational transmission of poverty and inequality.
"It involves broader social problems; definitely poverty plays a big role," he underlined.
But there are also other social factors involved. South Korea family life traditionally involved three generations under one roof. Following South Korea's economic development, children now leave home sooner and grandparents live alone in so-called silver towns of newer apartments, leaving young families with children increasingly on their own.
For new parents, explains Lee, "It's gone from a large, extended family to a nuclear family, so there is really no supporting resources that they used to be able to get from an extended family. Now they have to take care of it by themselves, which all effects the incidences of child abuse and neglect."
South Korean politicians have called for doubling existing sentences for child abuse perpetrators. But Lee believes that punishing parents will not solve the problem. A more comprehensive approach is required, he stressed.
Over the years, South Korea has privatized many childcare services, including adoption, which has led to numerous problems. The adoption agency Holt Korea has been found to have violated South Korean law by not conducting follow up visitations in the case of the 16-month-old girl, Jeong-in.
South Korea is currently undergoing a transition in which the public service will take back some investigative responsibilities. Previously, parents could just refuse to cooperate when visited by a private childcare officer. Now such visits will be conducted by police, explains Professor Lee.
But there is still the issue of priorities and budget.
"If you look at the total budget the government puts into child abuse and neglect, it is a small token … especially compared to the elderly," he said. Government priorities move in the direction of electoral success, "and children do not vote," he added.