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South Korea’s Infanticide Problem Highlights Wider Population Struggles

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Just outside the South Korean capital of Seoul, two newborn children were found dead in June inside a house freezer, their bodies apparently frozen for years. Their mother, a woman in her 30s, admitted to the police that she had killed her babies, born in 2018 and 2019, due to economic difficulties she was experiencing already taking care of three older children. Less than two weeks later, authorities arrested a young adult couple in Gyeongsang province for allegedly murdering their five-day-old son and dumping his body in a nearby river.

The spate of baby killings has shocked the nation and brought heightened attention to the problem of infanticide and the abandonment of newborns in South Korea. In response, lawmakers on Tuesday passed tougher sanctions for committing such crimes—increasing the minimum jail time and fines in the criminal code, with extreme cases to be made punishable by death. Some experts, however, are worried that not enough attention is being paid to the root causes of such tragic events.

The new measures are unlikely to deter people who may be in desperate situations, says Cho Hee-kyoung, a law professor at Hongik University in Seoul and columnist for the Korea Herald newspaper. “No one who abandons a baby,” she tells TIME, “is thinking, ‘Oh, the penalty is only two years so I won’t be deterred.’ No one is now going to think, ‘Well, since the penalty has been increased, I’d better not do it.’”

What’s actually needed, Cho says, is increased support for single mothers, teen mothers, and other pregnant women at risk—as well as better access to baby boxes, or places where parents-in-crisis can safely give up newborns, as a last resort.

South Korea’s ‘ghost babies’

When a baby in South Korea is born, the responsibility of registering the child as a citizen—or foreign resident if their parents aren’t Korean nationals—falls on the parents. South Korean parents are expected to register their children with the local government within 30 days of birth.

But at the end of June, South Korea’s health and welfare ministry revealed that between 2015 and 2022, some 6,000 infants—including almost 4,000 children born from foreign mothers—had birth records in hospitals but were never registered. During the probe, the ministry found that of the 2,123 undocumented Korean infants, dubbed “ghost babies,” only 1,025 have been confirmed alive, more than 800 remain unaccounted for, and at least 249 have died, with several cases under investigation for foul play.

To address the gap in data collection, South Korea’s National Assembly in late June passed a bill, which will take effect next year, to require that medical workers, rather than parents, report newborns to local governments within 14 days of birth. And to address violence against newborns, lawmakers this week passed amendments to the criminal code, which will take effect in six months, that elevate the punishment for infanticide from a maximum of 10 years to the same as murder: life imprisonment or the death penalty. For those convicted of abandoning their children, the penalty was raised from a fine of up to $2,340 or two years imprisonment to a fine of $3,900 or three years imprisonment.

Questions about excessive punishment

Experts warn that heavier penalties are not necessarily effective at reducing crime. “Crime deterrence is not achieved simply via strengthening punishments or imposing heavy penalty,” Lee In-young, a law professor at Hongik University, wrote in a 2016 study that found that the ramping up of punishments for crimes may serve to quell public anxiety, but it has not correlated with lower crime rates.

There’s also a risk that excessive punishments can unfairly target minorities, according to Choi Jeong-hak, a law professor at the Korea National Open University. “An overly emotional reaction to certain crimes eventually leads to an ‘inefficient law that can only be applied in a few, specific cases,” he wrote in a paper, as quoted by the Korea Herald.

Earlier this month, lawmaker Chung Woo-taik of the ruling People Power Party released police data showing that out of 86 people accused of killing infants between 2013 to 2021, 67 suspects were aged 14 to 29, many of them female.

Limited access to abortion

Why so many unwanted pregnancies are carried to term may have to do with South Korea’s lack of access to safe and legal abortion services. Abortion has been decriminalized in the country since the start of 2021 following a constitutional court ruling in 2019, but lawmakers have yet to pass any laws clarifying parameters for the procedure. Those who wish to undergo or perform abortions tread a fine line between legal and illegal, with the murky landscape dissuading many medical practitioners from offering surgical abortion services for fear of being prosecuted.

The Mother and Child Health Act, passed in 1973, specifies five instances where abortion is permitted: if the pregnant person or their partner has heritable diseases or disabilities; if the person got pregnant due to rape or incest; or if the continued pregnancy poses a serious health risk. But any other circumstances remain in a legal gray area.

Abortion is also not included in the state insurance system, and those who wish to have an abortion have no official database of practitioners to refer to, often relying on advice from the internet or seeking to induce their own abortions despite potential health risks. To date, South Korea has not approved any abortion drugs for use.

A 2021 survey of 8,500 women found that nearly 70% of people seeking abortion said it was because of either a child’s potential disruption to work or education or their lack of financial security to raise a child.

High costs of having children

The recent concerns around infanticide in South Korea coincide with ongoing anxiety over the country’s demographic trends. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world, and the elderly are expected to make up a fifth of the population by 2025, putting further strain on its shrinking workforce amid growing demand for social services. The government has aimed to incentivize births through a number of programs, even at one point considering exempting young men from mandatory military service if they father three or more children.

But the reasons for not having kids run deep. Aside from an increasing desire to stay single among younger South Koreans, many couples cite high costs of living, long working hours for those with jobs and limited opportunities for the unemployed, an expensive and highly-competitive education system, and pervasive gender inequality among the factors that discourage having children.

A shift in social attitudes is also needed in largely conservative South Korea, says Youngmi Kim, a senior lecturer who teaches Korean culture and politics at University of Edinburgh, as cultural expectations over childbearing also play a huge role in discouraging people from having children or driving newborn parents to infanticide. “We cannot throw stones only to the mother or related family,” Kim explains. “There should be a supportive environment for that.”

Kim Min-jung, president of the non-profit Korea Unwed Mothers’ Families Association, says that rather than just penalizing those who do not wish to have children, there needs to be better assistance available for couples who encounter roadblocks in raising and rearing them.

“It is not easy for a mother to think about giving birth and raising a child without an economic foundation,” she tells TIME. “It is necessary to show parents who are in desperate situations how they can get support and help so they wouldn’t feel the need to consider such a tragic option.”

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