Families of missing children call for new laws, and a little more compassion
“Time stopped on that day of April 4, 2000. We’re trapped in this prison. This is my island and I’m trapped.”
It was around 6 p.m. on April 4, 2000, when Choi Yong-jin got a phone call from his wife telling him that their six-year-old daughter Jun-won had not returned home. Jun-won, like on many other occasions and as was normal for children during those times, had met up with friends at a nearby playground in the afternoon on her way home from kindergarten.
“She usually went to and from the house to the playground, but her mother told me that something wasn’t right,” said Choi. At the time Choi was working in another region and only came home on the weekends.
“Jun-won’s mother called me again at 8 p.m. to tell me that she couldn’t find her anywhere. I came straight home. It was around 10 p.m. and we reported it to the police,” he said.
The playground, where Jun-won was last seen playing at around 4 p.m., was a mere 50-meters (98.43 feet) from the apartment complex where she lived, in Sangbong neighborhood in eastern Seoul. Jun-won’s parents searched all over the neighborhood, even the nearby mountainside, until dawn.
“And this is how long it’s gone. We told ourselves that we’ll find her, that we’ll find her. But it’s gone on this long,” said Choi.
Jun-won’s disappearance has affected the family in more ways than anyone could have imagined — basically tearing the members apart. Choi and his wife have separated and the youngest of the two other daughters, Jun-hyun, had to live with her grandparents. Choi ended up quitting his job because he needed to travel at a moment's notice whenever he got a phone call from people saying they’d seen Jun-won or had news about her. Some days, he would fill his bag with leaflets with pictures of Jun-won and spend hours, even days, handing them out to strangers on the streets.
“People would call to tell me they’ve seen a girl that looked just like my Jun-won, and once I was shocked to see a girl that looked so much like her that I wanted to carry out a DNA test,” he said. “Then there are people who call us up for pranks. They say things like they have my daughter, that they want money or just say anything and then hang up. I would wander around the country handing out leaflets and it distanced me from the rest of the family. We couldn’t talk about it so we just fell into our own guilt and cut each other out. Most families with a missing child are like this.”
Guilt, said Jun-hyun, the youngest of the family who was less than a year old when her sister went missing, is perhaps Choi’s biggest motive for searching so hard for Jun-won to this day. She learned about her older missing sister from details she gathered growing up, never hearing the full story, but she said she blames no one — just wishes that her father would turn his energy to his other family members who are here now.
“He doesn’t take much care of us now, but he didn’t in the past either,” she said. “I can see that he’s trying more because of his guilt. But I wish he would turn his attention to us. I’ve told him this, and he says he’ll change, even though he doesn’t. But I don’t blame anyone. I’ve just grown up thinking that I should become stronger.”
Still in his search for his daughter and penance, Choi came across other families of missing children in his search for Jun-won and established the National Missing Family Finding Association in 2000, for which he acted as president. He said his first words to every new parent he met was, “I know you want to die. But let’s die after we’ve found our children.”
“There were often times when a parent suddenly didn’t show up to meetings because they had ended their lives,” he said. “It’s impossible for us to find our children on our own. The system needs to be changed and amended and the law has a lot of things that need to be fixed.”
Jun-won is one of 661 children in Korea who have been classified as long-term missing children as of April 2020. Of that number, 638 children have been missing for over five years according to the Korean National Police Agency. A child is classified as missing long-term when the time they have been disappeared since surpasses 48 hours since the first report.
In the search for missing persons, the first 12 hours, referred to as the "golden time," are crucial. As each minute passes the perimeter of their possible path increases, while evidence gets lost or destroyed over time and people's memories start to fade.
According to police, the probability of finding a child within 12 hours is 98 percent, but that drastically drops to 1.3 percent after 48 hours. The National Activist Headquarters for Finding Missing Children said that when it comes to missing children, the golden time is a mere three hours.
The number of missing children’s cases reported to the police was 19,146 in 2020, of which 105 remain missing as of Dec. 31.
As of the end of last year, nine children remain missing from the 21,551 cases reported in 2019, six from the 21,980 in 2018 and three from the 19,956 in 2017.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that there was even a law to specifically deal with finding missing children and supporting families with missing members.
Before the Act on the Protection and Support of Missing Children was established in 2005, many children were classified as having ran away from home if they were aged over 8, or lost if they were aged under 8.
“It took the police exactly two full days after my daughter went missing to begin an investigation, but you can literally go to anywhere in the world in two days,” Seo Gi-won, the president of the Finding a Missing Child Association of Korea. His daughter Hee-young went missing in 1994 at the age of 10 from Namwon, North Jeolla. Like Jun-won, she was last seen playing at a playground no more than 50 meters away from her home. Seo has been sitting as the president of the association since 2008, which has 350 family members with missing children.
“People started taking more interest in the issue of missing children from 2003. But the law had many flaws at first. For instance, my Hee-young wasn’t classified as a missing child because the law dictated children who were aged between 8 and 14 as runaways, not missing. That later changed to being aged 18, which is the international standard."
The law has helped, Seo said, because there are clear guidelines on what should be done, such as establishing a special team on missing children’s cases that run 24 hours a day. A special missing cases team was founded in every regional police precinct as well as at the National Police Agency in 2008 with around 1,000 police officers around the country. But the way that investigations take place still needs to be changed, according to both Choi and Seo.
The current missing children’s act dictates that the Ministry of Health and Welfare is in charge of supporting missing children’s families and the police to carry out the investigations, but does not spell out the collaborative efforts that need to take place between the two parties. Even the National Center for the Rights of the Child (NCRC), which has been endowed with missions regarding missing children by the welfare ministry, does not have investigative rights or professionals, contrary to other similar centers in across the globe such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the United States.
Added to the lack of personnel and the massive workloads faced by individual police officers, pursuing long-term missing children cases often falls to the wayside and the task of tracking down the child is left to the parents and families.
“I spent hundreds of millions of won just in the first year I was looking for my daughter,” said Seo. “Fortunately, I had been running several businesses that allowed me to travel around the whole country. But that’s not the case for other parents. Even the funding for our association is almost zero, and I’ve been running it at my own expense.”
The annual budget that the NCRC receives from the Ministry of Health and Welfare for operating all businesses related to missing children's cases is 950 million won ($859,198), and has not been raised for years. That budget includes supporting families with travel expenses when they visit other regions for information or printing out leaflets and publishing books to raise people’s awareness on missing children among other activities.
“We support the families with what we can, but we don’t fund associations in particular because there are parents who are still looking for their children outside of any group efforts,” an official from the NCRC said.
The NCRC holds a full week of promotional projects every May to coincide with National Missing Children’s Day that falls on May 25 as well as other year-round projects such as having missing children’s pictures and information published on various media outlets.
While Choi and Seo both urged for change to take place in the law, they also both pleaded that the general public must pay more attention to the matter. Related organizations and the media need to work together to make sure that missing children’s portraits and information are exposed more often than just the occasional adverts so that people pay more attention to children they come across in their daily lives.
Both Choi and Seo say that the most pressing matter is encouraging everyone to care — people should remember that there are children missing from their homes and be ready to help them return if they ever get the chance.
Last year in November, a documentary film titled “Evaporated” hit local theaters. It was Korea’s first documentary film to deal with missing children. The film follows the life of Jun-won’s family — their efforts to find her, the despair as each day goes by as she remains missing and how each family member is affected. It took six years to film.
Other efforts are beginning to take place across the country. The Korea Post began the “Hope Tape” project in May last year, which prints out the pictures and information of 28 long-term missing children on rolls of packing tape that is used to wrap parcels. Snack manufacturer Crown said that it has been printing information of a long-term missing child on every package of popular snack Jollypong since 2016 and helped unite a family that had been separated for 52 years in 2017.
A recent project has been kicked off by a public advertising group Balgwang, which means “to light up.” The group started an online campaign to raise people’s awareness about long-term missing children by mimicking the happy birthday adverts that K-pop fans make for their favorite stars and publish at subway stations. The group photoshopped empty subway billboards with images of Seo’s daughter Hee-young, Hyo-jeong and Hye-hee with the dates of their birthdays and the messages, “May people’s sight light your way back home” and “We wish we could celebrate with a photo of you now, not of when you were younger,” and posted the images on social media.
The campaign was viewed by over 400,000 people within a few days and the support earned team Balgwang the opportunity to have the photographs turned into actual advertising material to be posted on the digital billboards on the platforms of subways No. 1 through 4 in video format.
“When we came in contact with the families of the missing children, they told us that the birthdays of the children are the hardest for them,” said Jin Hye-min, a member of Balgwang. “So we were careful to make sure we didn’t approach the matter lightly and had thorough talks with the families. One family dropped out because of that. There were some hurtful comments saying that there’s no use, but if this campaign helps to raise even the slightest awareness from people, then I think it’s worthwhile. It’s the smallest possibility, but we wanted to take that.”
BY YOON SO-YEON, JEON TAE-GYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]