Out of the shadowsFor 13 years, Kim Bo-eun had been sexually abused by her stepfather. Finally it hit the fan. In 1992, she and her boyfriend Kim Jin-kwan killed her father.
The murder brought the reality of child sex abuse, an issue that has always received scant attention in Korean society, to the forefront.
In the eyes of Song Yeong-ok, the war against sex abusers ― who deserve no better than “death, one way or the other” ― is a long way from being over.
For Ms. Song, a single mother, the nightmare that continues to haunt her began in May, 1998 when her daughter, then 7, was sexually abused by her kindergarten teacher. The incident shredded her life, leading her to divorce her husband and cut off contact.
“After the incident I could no longer have sexual relations with my husband,” Ms. Song says. “Nothing was normal after the incident. I just could not go on anymore. Every man looked to me like an animal.”
Despite the suffering, she feels lucky since her daughter has recovered from the initial shock and now attends an elementary school in Seoul, without any apparent problems.
Ms. Song inhales deeply and slowly from a cigarette ― the addiction is another by-product of her daughter’s trauma ― and recalls when her daughter began showing signs that something was abnormal.
“For a couple of months she did not want to go to kindergarten, and she would spend a much longer time in the bathroom,” says Ms. Song.
Drawing on her cigarette, she softly says “One day, she showed me her genitals and then said, “Mommy, teacher touched me here.”
Around that time, her daughter demonstrated other unusual behavior, but Ms. Song failed to notice it until her daughter spoke up. “One day while we were playing she came with scissors in her hands and tried to cut my hair,” Ms. Song says, bitterness in her voice. “He was bold.”
She visited a gynecologist and counseling center with her daughter. What the doctor told her only plunged her deeper into an abyss: “He told me that kids don’t lie.”
She was at a loss on how to proceed when one day her daughter developed high fever. Doctors told her to have her daughter treated at Yonsei Severance Hospital’s division for mental illness.
Ms. Song and her daughter stayed at Severance only five days, however; doctors there told her the hospital was inappropriate for children. “We were staying with drug addicts, mentally ill people. They were all adults,” Ms. Song says. “The atmosphere there was just terrible. It was not a place where parents and kids could stay in peace and concentrate on being treated.”
It turned out that no hospitals in Korea had specialized treatment centers for child sex abuse victims. So for some time, Ms. Song’s daughter expressed her trauma by such acts as overeating and masturbating.
“She would ask me why I can’t touch her like that bastard,” Ms. Song says. Pausing and staring at the desk, she says, “I am glad that part is all over now.”
What is not over is Ms. Song’s long courtroom battle. After a preliminary review, the Seoul District Public Prosecutors Office dropped her criminal case in December 1998, forcing her to pursue a civil action. In May 2001, the court ordered the teacher to pay 60 million won ($50,250).
It was the first time in Korea that reparations were paid in a child sex abuse case. But a larger victory came in July 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors were not justified in dropping the criminal case and ordered a new investigation. After five attempts, she managed to file a criminal court suit last December. It continues to wind through the system.
As she shuttled between courtrooms and hospitals, Ms. Song came into contact with what she described as a cruel, inefficient system that was supposed to help victims.
“What I don’t understand is how law officials can ask little kids like my daughter to make a statement over and over again. Do they have any idea how painful it is?” says Ms. Song, shaking her head. “I had prosecutors and judges asking kids the size of the suspect’s penis. Can you believe that?”
The brutal repetition of a painful experience is one of the chief reasons why child victims’ parents often pursue an out-of-court agreement with the suspected abuser; they can’t bear watching their child undergo such grueling questioning.
Kang Myeong-hoon, the lawyer who handled Ms. Song’s case, points out that videotaped testimony has recently been introduced to the trial process, enabling children to avoid answering a similar line of questioning over and again.
Still, its use is not mandatory. Mr. Kang adds that the biggest problem in child sex abuse cases is the lack of witnesses, just as in many adult rape or sex abuse cases.
The fact that a child is a victim, Mr. Kang explains, makes cases like these among the toughest to prosecute. “Often a child’s statement changes as time goes on,” he says. “Children often remember a specific thing but they may not remember details and may add things that did not happen, not because they want to lie but just because they are kids often mixing things up.”
Yonsei University Professor Shin Eu-jin, a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent issues, treats about 20 sexually abused children each year.
When asked about her cases, Dr. Shin cannot hide her frustration. “When you talk about people who have done these things you’re talking about soul murders here,” she says. “Victims suffer for years. It takes at least a year to treat a child.”
Her frustration is easily understood, as no specialized centers for child sex abuse exist in Korea where social workers and doctors can work in a systematic fashion. Nor is there much reliable data in Korea.
Dr. Shin has pleaded with government officials to open and run a treatment center for sexually abused children; she views the various counseling agencies now operated by nonprofit organizations, inadequate due to a lack of qualified professionals.
The oriental culture embedded into Korean society, which makes it somewhat less open to sexual issues compared to the West, is another dilemma. Dr. Shin cites cases in which fathers of juvenile victims decide to halt treatment to save face.
“They are afraid that word will get out,” says the psychiatrist. “They think family honor is at stake. But this mindset has to change.”
The psychiatrist recalls receiving no training in detecting or treating child sexual abuse cases until she went abroad.
Not content to wait for the government’s slow bureaucratic wheels to turn, in October 2001 Ms. Song founded an organization that provides support to victims and their parents.
Nowadays, the feisty 44-year-old juggles her job running a baby-sitting company with time at the organization, Assembly for Sexually Abused Children and their Families, where she fields phone calls and counsels victims and their family members on how to obtain treatment and proceed with a lawsuit.
The single mom vows to pursue her fight for justice. “People who go to hookers are normal compared to these animals that destroy families. If you are not a victim you don’t know what it is like. You don’t know what people like us have to go through.”
A 2002 study conducted by the Ministry of Justice of 300 child sex abuse cases found that 36.3 percent resulted from incest, which includes blood relatives and relatives through marriage, and 44.4 percent involved non-family that the victim knew, such as teachers or neighbors. Only 19.3 percent of abusers did not know their victims previously.
When the victims’ services center first opened, Hyeon Myung-suk, the minister of gender equality at the time, penned the opening statement at the beginning of a brochure. Along with the essay came a bouquet of flowers. Such steps have not delivered an adequate system for treating child sex abuse victims. Nor does anyone seem to care, Ms. Song believes, except for the victims and their families.
“If you just knew how it feels. If you just knew...”
by Brian Lee