[VIDEO] Gone but not forgotten: Korea's long-term missing children

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[VIDEO] Gone but not forgotten: Korea's long-term missing children

“If I can be absolutely sure that it is done, then maybe I could get over it. But it doesn’t work that way. It is never done. I have to find her because I did not abandon her. I would walk to the ends of the earth if I knew there was an end. But it does not work that way.”
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.  
The playground, where Jun-won was last seen playing at around 4 p.m., was a mere 50 meters (164 feet) from the apartment complex where she lived, in Sangbong neighborhood of eastern Seoul. Jun-won’s parents searched all over the neighborhood, even the nearby mountainside, until dawn. She was never found.
“It was a difficult time since there was no text message tracking system or anything, and the only leads we could get were from other people’s reports. These poor conditions ate us, parents, alive. We had no-one else but ourselves. I filled five notebooks regarding the 30 to 40 reported sightings I got.
"Although I checked some of them by myself, most of them meant little to nothing. Inaudible screeching to ransom calls, silent hang ups – most of them were like that. It was all new to me, finding a missing person. I had to quit my job, and my life became a mess as my wallet dried up. Every day, the pain haunted not only me but the rest of my family,” said Choi.
A poster printed by Choi Yong-jin, which reads, ″Please look for my young daughter.″ [JEON TAE-GYU]

A poster printed by Choi Yong-jin, which reads, ″Please look for my young daughter.″ [JEON TAE-GYU]

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 disappeared for surpasses 48 hours since the first report.
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 21,980 in 2018 and three from 19,956 in 2017.
Along with a lack of personnel and the massive workload 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 ultimately left to the parents and families. The current president of the Find a Missing Child Association of Korea is Seo Gi-won, who has held the position since 2008.
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 from her home. According to Seo, the hardest part for him was that he was alone in all of this. People's interest in the matter comes and goes, while the funding from the government has been inadequate for years. 
“The lost child protection law at that time nominally required three days to pass before a formal investigation could be initiated. The police swept the house but to no avail. Searching the house doesn’t clarify anything. They searched the neighborhood as well but could not find anything either so they launched an investigation two days after the missing report. In two days, you can be virtually anywhere around the globe these days.
"With no CCTV or anything we had no choice but to depend on other people’s reports. After the missing person TV broadcast, we got numerous reports and we had to deal with them one by one. The police could not spare man power for each report. All of those reports and visits meant money… An exorbitant amount of money. The government did not give us a cent for making leaflets. We had to pay millions of won for the leaflets and banners and send them over to the police stations all around the country by ourselves,” said Seo.


Fortunately, a lot has changed since the Act on the Protection and Support of Missing Children was established in 2005. The police set up a special team on missing children’s cases that runs 24 hours a day and the National Center for the Rights of the Child, or the NCRC, is funded by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to support and help families of missing children in their search for their loved ones.
Yet, there are just over 800 officers solely designated to missing person's teams in the whole country, with 61 officers dedicated to long-term missing children's cases. The annual budget for the NCRC to spend on missing children's families is just under 950 million won and has not risen in recent years.
It is up to the families to keep speaking out and make sure that their children do not get forgotten by the public. But thankfully, more helping hands are starting to reach out from different parts of society. 
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 about 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.


Public advertising group Balgwang took a different approach.
“A child is said to go missing every 30 minutes. It’s important that people keep a look out, but that’s not the case. So we thought about how to grab people’s attention on this matter, and took the idea from K-pop stars’ Happy Birthday adverts on subways as a method of attracting people’s attention on the adverts. That’s how we came up with the twist in the advert,” said Lee Yu-jin, a member of Balgwang.
Every Lunar New Year, Korean families gather to share love and joy, but there are those who still remain separated from their loved ones. And it is for these families that we need to keep looking for any missing child that may still be out there.
BY JEON TAE-GYU [jeon.taegyu@joongang.co.kr]
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