Bizarre twist in case of 3-year-old S. Korean girl left to starve by 'mum'

DNA results show woman thought to be child's mother is actually her sister, police say

A 49-year-old woman being escorted to Daegu District Court last Thursday for investigations in relation to the death of a three-year-old girl in Gumi city. She was earlier believed to be the grandmother of the child, but DNA results have revealed tha
A 49-year-old woman being escorted to Daegu District Court last Thursday for investigations in relation to the death of a three-year-old girl in Gumi city. She was earlier believed to be the grandmother of the child, but DNA results have revealed that she is in fact the girl's biological mother.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YTN

Police in South Korea thought they had the mother of a dead child when they arrested a 22-year-old woman on Feb 11, after a pre-schooler's mummified remains were found in their home.

But a baffling twist in the murder case has emerged. Police revealed earlier last week that DNA tests showed the woman is not the mother of the three-year-old girl, but her older sister instead.

The child's supposed "grandmother", 49, is in fact her biological mother. The older woman, who was in court last Thursday to assist with police investigations, told reporters that she did not give birth to another child, insisting the DNA results were false.

The case throws the spotlight on child abuse in the country.

The incident happened in Gumi city, in the eastern North Gyeongsang province.

Police suspect that the two women gave birth at around the same time, and that their babies were switched at birth. The three-year-old's birth was never registered, and the whereabouts of the other child remain unclear. Police investigations are ongoing.

Separately, an ongoing murder trial caused a national uproar in January when details emerged that the adoptive mother of a 16-month-old baby had allegedly subjected the girl to months of abuse, leaving her with severe abdominal injuries, including a ruptured pancreas.

Baby Jung-in died last Oct 13.

The police, under public pressure to ramp up efforts to prevent child abuse, launched an awareness campaign last month. The average number of reports increased to 47 a day, up from 24 a year ago.

An amendment to the child abuse law, known as the Jung-in Act, was also passed in Parliament on Feb 26, making the death penalty a possible punishment for fatal child abuse.

Child abusers can now face murder charges, even if they had caused death unintentionally.

Those found guilty could face the death penalty or up to seven years in jail - up from the current maximum five-year imprisonment.

  • Other recent child abuse cases

  • Jan 28: A couple living in Suwon city, south of Seoul, are indicted on charges of child neglect. The woman, 29, allegedly beat her three-month-old daughter so badly that she suffered 11 bone fractures, including on her skull. She was also dehydrated and malnourished.The woman, who was apparently suffering postpartum depression, said she was angry as her baby kept crying and would not sleep. The man, 34, was apparently aware of the abuse but did not stop his wife.

    Feb 8: A couple in their 40s living in Yongin city, south of Seoul, are detained for abusing the wife's 10-year-old niece till she died. They allegedly beat her with a broom and other objects, then shoved her head repeatedly into a bathtub filled with water until she stopped breathing. The couple claimed they were merely punishing the girl, who was living with them, for being disobedient. She was entrusted to her aunt as her parents were busy with work.

    Feb 9: A couple in their 20s living in the south-western city of Iksan are arrested for beating their two-week-old son to death. They had claimed that the child fell out of bed, but admitted under intense police interrogation that they beat the baby for crying too much and throwing up his milk.

    Chang May Choon

The new penalties apply in the Gumi case.

The 22-year-old woman, who is awaiting trial, told the police she was not aware that the child was in fact her younger sister.

She said she had raised the girl alone after divorcing her husband.

After the divorce, she received 200,000 won (S$237) in child welfare benefits every month from the provincial government.

They lived in a low-rise apartment, one floor above her parents, who called the police after finding the mummified remains of the child on Feb 10.

They had not seen the child in months, after her "mother" abandoned her and left her alone in the home in August last year to get married again.

The 22-year-old woman told her parents the girl was with her, but later admitted to the police that she had abandoned the child as she found it too hard to raise her alone.

"I left her in the home when I moved out," she reportedly said. "I didn't want to see her again as she was my ex-husband's child."

Autopsy results showed that the child had died of starvation, contradicting initial suspicions that she could have been killed first before the woman left the home.

DNA tests were conducted as the body was decomposed. That was when police learnt that the child and her supposed "mother" were actually siblings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 14, 2021, with the headline 'Bizarre twist in case of 3-year-old S. Korean girl left to starve by 'mum''. Subscribe