WITHOUT A TRACE

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WITHOUT A TRACE

Most Koreans carry business cards that typically are decorated with company logos, titles and phone numbers. The business card of Choi Yong-jin, a Seoul architect, features a photograph of his daughter. She's about 4 years old in the picture, is wearing a white ribbon in her hair and seems about ready to break into a smile.

Choi Yong-jin, 41, has a great deal of trouble sleeping these nights. Whenever he lies down, the "frog boys" haunt him and he soon finds himself pacing the floor of his Seoul home and puffing on a cigarette.

As most Koreans know, the frog boys left their Daegu homes in March 1991 to hunt for frogs in a nearby woodlands. They were never seen alive again, and their remains were found late last month. The outcome of the frog boys saga has saddened most everyone on the peninsula who closely followed the events 11 years before. Mr. Choi can relate to the grief of the boys' families and friends. Like the frog boys, his daughter, little Jun-won with the white ribbon, went out to play one day and has never been seen again.



Two years ago, Choi Yong-jin worked in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, an hour and a half drive from his home in Mangwu-dong, northeastern Seoul. He went back home only on weekends and holidays, which always brightened the family. Mr. Choi loved going home, to see his wife, Min Hye-jin and his three daughters -- Jun-seon, Jun-won and Jun-hyeon.

On April 4, 2000, at about 6 p.m., Mr. Choi received a phone call at his Yongin apartment. He was packing to go home to Seoul to spend Arbor Day, a national holiday, the following day, with his family.

"Jun-won has not come for dinner," Hye-jin said as soon as he picked up the phone.

"So," Mr. Choi said, as he placed items in a suitcase.

"But that's not like her," his wife continued. "She's not like that at all, you know."

Jun-won went to a kindergarten where she had many friends. Energetic and quick-witted, Jun-won was a leader among her classmates. Often after school she would spend a couple of hours on the playground next to her apartment complex, or at friend's house. But she always came back home before 6 p.m. for dinner.

To calm his wife, Mr. Choi said, "Look, don't worry. You know how smart our little lady is. It's going to be fine. But maybe this time I should teach Jun-won a lesson. Maybe I shouldn't bring her her favorite strawberry ice cream tomorrow."

Around 8 p.m, the phone in Mr. Choi's apartment rang again. It was Hye-jin once more, this time her voice trembling noticeably. "Something's wrong. Jun-won's still not back. And all her friends say they didn't see her after school."

Mr. Choi felt a cold rush move across his back. He was to leave Yongin early the next morning. Suddenly he stopped packing, ran outside, climbed in his car and headed straight for Seoul.

Driving home, Mr. Choi could only think of Jun-won. The middle daughter, she was the apple of his eye. Three weeks after she had entered kindergarten in 1999, Jun-won grumbled, "Daddy, there's nothing more for me to learn in school. I want to go to elementary school right now."

As an architect, Mr. Choi was skilled in math and so he started teaching Jun-won math. A fast learner, he remembered as he drove. Back then, Hye-jin had been busy looking after the couple's newborn, Jun-hyeon. So, it was not a big deal for Jun-won to take care of herself. Recalling how brilliant his little daughter was, Mr. Choi tried to relax as he drove. She knows how to take care of herself, he thought.

When he reached Seoul around 9:30 p.m., there was no sign of Jun-won at the Mangwu apartment complex's playground.

When he went upstairs, he found Hye-jin walking about the apartment, crying. He immediately called the Jungnang police station and reported Jun-won missing, and gave an officer there all the details. Specifically, Jun-won had walked home from school that day, arriving at the apartment a little after 2 p.m. "I'm home," she told her mother, then said she was going outside to play. After that, no one remembered seeing her.

At about 10 p.m., Mr. Choi went outside with a flashlight and looked in everywhere in the area. He opened trash cans and poked in the bushes. He climbed a nearby hill and called again and again: "Jun-won-a! Jun-won-a!"

When Mr. Choi returned home after midnight, he learned that police officers had visited his apartment, talked to Hye-jin and then left.

For the next three days, Mr. Choi did almost nothing except hunt for his daughter. In time, he quit his job in Yongin to dedicate himself to searching full-time for Jun-won.

His first task was to let as many people as possible know about his daughter's disappearance. Mr. Choi made handbills that bore Jun-won's photograph, her physical description and contact information. Soon he established a daily routine: He pestered police officers and stuck handbills on any flat surface he could find. By mid-summer, he saw no progress in the case and the police had ceased being interested. Frustrated, upset, obsessed, Mr. Choi began to roam about Korea, sometimes driving, sometimes on foot with a backpack. Wherever he went, he would look for Jun-won.

He visited orphanages and nursery schools across the peninsula. When a child reported missing is found in Korea, that child is held at the nearest police station for 48 hours. If guardians don't show up, the child is sent to a haven for missing children, and there are about 10 of these havens in Korea. If no one claims the child at a haven, the child is sent to an authorized orphanage, and there as many as 293 of those in the country. There, the child stays until age 18.

While wandering about Korea, Mr. Choi was shocked to find that there are many illegal orphanages that take children reported missing. When that happens, he learned, it's almost impossible for a child to be found, much less returned home.

For more than a year, Choi Yong-jin visited orphanages and havens, legal and illegal, but he found no trace of Jun-won.

This spring, he received a phone call at home. He was told that a girl who resembled Jun-won was living at the Good Saint Maria's Home, an orphanage in Yongin. He raced over to the place, where a young girl immediately caught his attention. Jun-won had been small for her age. She had an oval face and silver fillings on all her back teeth. The girl at the orphanage had all these characteristics. The girl, however, had been sent to the orphanage with her brother when their parents died.

When Mr. Choi saw the girl, and then realized she wasn't Jun-won, he hugged her and wept.

Earlier this year, Mr. Choi began to regularly visit the Korea Welfare Foundation, in central Seoul. The foundation specialized in helping parents find their missing children. Mr. Choi had decided that the police were not helping him at all. At the center, he met with other parents with whom he identified, and he began to get together with them on a regular basis to share stories, anguish, anger.

Meanwhile, Hye-jin stayed at home with the other two daughters. The couple had been having problems getting along, problems rooted, they both sensed, in Jun-won's disappearance. Hye-jin had not given up the search for her daughter, even though her husband felt she had.

A lot of Mr. Choi's anger comes from his belief that the police have done little to help him. When supposedly searching for Jun-won in the neighborhood, the police squad, Mr. Choi noticed, would typically sit around and smoke cigarettes. Worst of all, Mr. Choi discovered in the late summer of 2000 that the Jungnang police station had reported Jun-won as a runaway. That fact caused Mr. Choi one day to lose his temper in the station house, cursing at the officers.

"Give me back my daughter!" he raged.

The detective in charge at the Jungnang station seemed nonplussed, as if he had heard this sort of thing before. Mr. Choi, though, felt he needed to start a war with the police, or his daughter's case would be forgotten.

Mr. Choi had learned from other parents of missing children that a "three-hour rule" exists. In other words, if police haven't found a missing child in three hours, that child never will be found. He also learned that most police stations have at least five or six "hot" cases that they currently handle. Those cases usually range from homicide to arson. A missing child is rarely among the "hot" cases.



According to the Korean National Police Agency, 3,506 children were reported missing in 1999 and 4,165 in 2001. Among those missing children, 290 in 1999 and 185 in 2001 were never found.

"We understand how desperate parents can be, but there can be limits when we don't have any specific proof that the case was a crime of violence," says Lee Yun-hyeong, a sergeant at the Jungnang police station.

Lee Eun-ju, a staff member at the Korea Welfare Foundation, says that the foundation has received 3,205 missing children cases since 1986, and 746 of those cases are still unsolved. Ms. Lee, however, sees some hope for the improving ratio of successful cases -- 77 percent in 2000, 85 percent in 2001 and 86 percent through August of this year. "What strikes me," she says, "is that many parents can't be contacted. Which means that they gave up on finding their children."

Choi Yong-jin, who vows he will never give up his search, insists that the reality is much worse than the statistics. "There are more than 180,000 long-term missing children in this country," he says as he sits in an office in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul, where these days he runs his own small architectural practice. He found that that he could no longer go on without making a living. He brought a bed and a wardrobe for his office, and most of the time spends the night there.

Along with about 50 other parents, Mr. Choi participated in a street demonstration on Children's Day, May 5, in front of Children's Grand Park in Seoul. It helped to be there, he says, to share with others who were going through similar things that he was.

On June 8, Jun-won's birthday, Mr. Choi went to the Mangwu-dong apartment to eat cake and miyeokguk, or seaweed soup, a traditional birthday treat. He found he couldn't eat; he was too upset.

His marriage, he says, is on shaky ground. "For about two years, parents like me who have a missing child give up on their daily lives and help each other to find that child. But after three years, they begin to quarrel a lot and usually have financial difficulties."

According to Mr. Choi, parents of a missing child are likely to be divorced five years after the child disappears. "I consider myself almost divorced. I still keep the house and a family in Mangwu-dong only because I believe that some day Jun-won will find her way back."



These days, as Mr. Choi regularly walks Yangjae-dong's busy main street, he shoves his handbills at passers-by or tapes them to store windows. He is so used to posting handbills that he cannot go past a bulletin board without checking to see if one of his flyers is in full view. If he stops to talk to someone, he makes sure to reach into his pocket and and hand over a business card, one that shows an almost smiling 4-year-old. As he moves along, Mr. Choi keeps an eye out for young girls who are the same age as Jun-won would be now.

During one of his recent walks, the mother of a girl on a sidewalk tried to hide her daughter from Mr. Choi, fearing he might be a potential kidnapper or child molester.

Just as some of the parents of the frog boys believed during their 11-year wait, Mr. Choi sometimes thinks, as he walks the streets, that no news might be good news. With that thought in mind, each day he makes sure that his freezer at home is filled with strawberry ice cream -- little Jun-won's favorite.

by Chun Su-jin

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