Despair when a child goes missing
“Sorry, I don’t even have an office,” said Choi, head of the Gyeonggi branch of the Korea Association of Missing Child’s Rights, a support group of parents whose children are missing.
Choi’s cigarette glowed as he inhaled. “I can’t afford to run an office,” he said, adding that his phone was disconnected because he couldn’t pay the bill.
Earlier in the day Choi had tried to contact the parents of two girls who went missing Christmas Day last year in Anyang. Both sets of parents refused to talk to Choi or the press.
“I know the pain those parents are going through right now,” Choi said. “They are just too devastated to meet anyone. I know because I’ve been there myself.”
Choi lost his five-year-old son, Jin-ho, eight years ago.
A nationwide search for Lee Hae-jin, 10, and Woo Ye-seul, 8, has met with no success since Dec. 25.
“Every day a team of 500 policemen and 70 detectives work from 9 in the morning until midnight looking for the two girls,” said Kim Byeong-rok, the Anyang detective in charge of the case, over the phone last week. “As of now more than 6,500 police have been involved.”
The detective said he, too, hasn’t been home much since he took charge.
The two girls were reported missing at 20 minutes past midnight on Dec. 26. The police began their inquiries by interviewing neighbors and searching for evidence.
“We sent out files nationwide and had police officers comb the area for clues,” Kim added. “The last time they [the two missing girls] were caught on a street camera was around 3 p.m. An acquaintance of the families saw them around 5 p.m. near the Anyang Arts Center.
“We have no leads on where they are now.”
No ransom calls have been made and there’s no evidence indicating that the girls were kidnapped. “The biggest obstacle in our investigation is securing witnesses,” said Kim. He couldn’t give further details about the investigation.
The police have raised the reward for any information regarding the two girls’ whereabouts from 20 million won ($21,340) to 30 million won.
The case of the two missing children from Anyang reminds people of what happened in Daegu on March 26, 1991. Five boys between the ages of 9 and 13 went missing after they left their homes around 8 a.m. They were believed to have traveled to nearby Mount Waryong to catch frogs. The boys were referred to as the “gaeguri sonyeon,” or the “frog boys.”
None provided any leads.
The remains of four of the boys were found on Sept. 26, 2002, on the grounds of a high school in Dalseo, Daegu. Five pairs of shoes were also discovered.
Forensic scientists concluded that the boys were murdered. They’d each suffered extensive head injuries. They were given a joint funeral at Kyungpook National University Hospital on March 26, 2004.
The case’s statute of limitation expired in 2006 and the killer, or killers, have never been found.
According to a report released by the National Police Agency in August 2007, 7,064 children went missing in 2006, a 160 percent surge from the 2,695 the previous year. Out of the 7,033, 31 remain missing.
The increase is due to data collection. Before last year, the data only accounted for kids eight years old or under. The law was revised and as of 2007, the figure includes kids 14 years old or under.
The success rate in finding children is impressive. In 2005, all children reported missing were found, and in 2004 only one was left unfound.
However, these figures do not include children with physical or mental disabilities who are reported missing.
In 2006, 10,406 adults were reported missing and only 10,273 were found. That figure, however, includes adults with disabilities. Statistics for 2007 will be released by the agency later this month.
According to the National Center for Missing Children, which is commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, as of November last year 8,059 non-disabled missing children were reported missing, 7,994 of whom were returned to their families.
The number of missing children and adults with disabilities during the same period was 6,564, of whom 6,462 were found.
Park Eun-sook, of the National Center for Missing Children, said since 2005, when the newly revised missing children law was enacted, 99 percent of cases have been solved.
“The system has become more efficient and we have helped return children back to their homes as quickly as possible,” Park said. “Cases like the missing Anyang children are rare.”
The revised law has also provided benefits for parents of missing children, Park explained. The government provides 3.5 million won a year for professional counseling ― divorce among parents with a missing child is high ― plus 1 million won a year for medical payments.
In addition, there are transportation and food costs when parents go in search of their kids. This is called an activity payment. These payments differ from region to region.
No financial support for living expenses is provided, though.
“We try our best to help find these children as soon as possible since they might be exposed to criminal activity,” Park said.
The center last year received a budget of 800 million won and has 10 people working in the office.
Choi of the Korea Association of Missing Child’s Rights isn’t satisfied. Children remain missing because of insufficient human resources and interest, he said.
“Only those who have lost their children know what it is like to have a missing child,” he said.
Choi said when he lost his son the system was in a much worse condition. Only a handful of police officers helped him search for his child.
Additionally, Choi said, initial investigations often mishandle the search, especially in the case of the two girls from Anyang. “These girls are old enough to find their way back home,” Choi said. “The police have to see the situation as a crime.”
Instead of simply circling the neighborhood, the police should see if the children have been forced to beg on the streets or pick pockets. “Or they could be misplaced in a psychiatric ward,” Choi said. “What’s the point of setting up an investigation base if you’re looking in the wrong places?”
Kim Doo-bong, a senior police officer at the National Police Agency, assures the public that the police act quickly and professionally in such cases. He said an initial investigation starts as soon as a child is reported missing. Within 24 hours a review committee evaluates the extent of the investigation and decides if reinforcements are needed.
According to Choi, he is the only parent in Ansan whose child has gone missing. Another family reported their 2-year-old infant missing, but they moved to Gangwon when their child was found dead in a sewer.
“I would be lying if I said I was not relieved when forensics told us that the child wasn’t Jin-ho,” Choi said. “But my son still remains missing. I have no plans to give up my search.”
Choi recalls the day his son went missing. It was a Sunday afternoon on May 7, 2000, and his wife and two sons were home after church. “My wife said she was putting the younger boy to bed while Jin-ho played in front of our building,” Choi said. He was outside for just half an hour, but he hasn’t been seen since.
Choi said a team of police officers helped him look for his son, but it wasn’t enough. “I borrowed a neighbor’s truck and I drove for hours around the neighborhood calling my son’s name through a megaphone attached to the top of the truck,” Choi said. “At times like this nobody really cares except the parents because it is not their children who are missing.”
Choi says he no longer circulates flyers of his son in public areas.
“It really hurts when someone spits on the picture of your son, the flyer is crumpled into a trash can or people step on the picture,” he said.
Choi said his life was shattered when his son went missing. He and his wife have separated; she wants a divorce. His mother passed away a year ago.
“Her health deteriorated a year after Jin-ho went missing. She first lost her hearing and then she broke her hip when she suddenly stood up thinking my son had returned,” Choi said.
Relations with his brothers and sisters have become strained as well. “I couldn’t bear looking at a happy family, even that of my brother,” Choi said.
He had to close his business ― a successful dumpling shop ― and he’s spent millions on flyers. He’s traveled the length and breadth of the country, responding to anyone who thought they might have spotted Jin-ho.
The mental strain is acute. He distrusts people and his suspects his neighbors. He’s in debt and he suffers from depression. He broke some of his son’s toys because they reminded him of Jin-ho.
And he rarely goes out at weekends for fear of seeing other families enjoying time together.
“I live in fear so much,” Choi said. “I don’t let my younger son, Seok-bong, play outside [even though] he is at an age when he should roam the neighborhood freely with his friends.
“I tell my son when he whines that he wants to play outside: ‘Go ahead, if you want to be separated from me like your older brother.’”
He lets his son go to taekwondo training and private classes at a hagwon, a private study center, but only because transport is provided so there’s little chance of a repeat kidnapping.
His depression has led to self-harm, and Choi entertains thoughts of suicide. “I jumped from a six-story building and I was hospitalized for a while,” Choi said.
He didn’t elaborate further and tried to take back what he said.
“It was nothing, never mind,” Choi said with a bitter smile.
Seok-bong, now 11 and moving up to fourth grade, keeps Choi centered. “I live for him,” Choi said. “But at times I just want to give it all up and just finish this life of mine.”
But he knows he must stick around to see Seok-bong marry and have children.
“You know, Seok-bong once said he was going to become a police officer and catch and kill the bad guys who kidnapped his brother,” Choi said.
“Can you imagine how much it hurts a parent to hear his son is going to kill someone?”
Choi gazes at a photo of his missing son. He’d be moving up to sixth grade by now. The photo prompts Choi to say how much he hates Korea and wants to leave.
He wanted to give his son all that a father can. It turns out Choi never knew his own father, though he refused to go into details.
“I wish I could win the lottery,” said Choi, half in jest. “Then I could pay for a search to find my son.
He visits his old neighborhood twice a week. “I go there hoping my son will turn up,” Choi said. “I may not recognize him from his appearance, but I would know him by instinct.”
Choi lit another cigarette. “I was never a guy who asked for much. I just wanted a happy home.”
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]