A few years ago, I began writing this post, though I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it. Now, I think I do know, and it unsettles me. The story is somewhat disturbing, though I don’t do “trigger warnings.”
At the time, Mrs. Jiwaku and I were discussing Korean name fashions (and their connection to TV and media events) and somehow we got onto the top of names that were of unusual length. You see, while most Korean names have three syllables — the family name being the first, and the personal name the second and third — the most famous case today probably being Kim Jong-un — there are Korean names with fewer or more syllables. For example, about fifteen years ago, there was a fashion in naming kids “pure Korean” names. Instead of using names derived from Chinese characters, people took the indigenous Korean words that sounded appropriate for kids’ names, and used them. The most memorable of all was a student I taught in Jeonju named Haetbit. (Though, unfortunately, when other people referred to her, the subject marker, 이, ended up making her name sound like “Haet-bitchy.”) She was a sweet kid with an unforgettable name.
The most noticeable variation in Korean names, though, is the number of syllables. I have met people with two syllable names (a family name and a single-syllable personal name, like “Han” or “Jin”) and one person with a four syllable name (I can’t remember exactly, but along with her family name it sounded close to the Korean word for circle, “동그라미” — so that a lot of people called her “Circle” as a kind nickname).
When we discussed this, Miss Jiwaku told me that as a kid, she had been haunted by a much longer name, probably the longest modern Korean name she’d ever heard: it was a name with eight syllables, and it had been part of the national news in Korea back in 1997 — yes, a few months into the so-called “IMF” crisis — and which, even for years after, she and her friends talked about with a certain sense of terror.
Miss Jiwaku’s childhood memories (before looking it up and verifying) were much more lurid and shocking than the reality — she recalled hearing that the girl had suffered a much more terrible fate than she really did. However, the report was deeply shocking, and the girl’s fate was, nonetheless, quite awful.
What happened was, basically, an eight year old girl named “박초롱초롱빗나리”, Park Chorong-Chorong-Bitnari (which Mrs. Jiwaku translates as “Park Twinkle-Twinkle-Going-to-Shine”) disappeared on the way home from one day. This was in Jamwon, which was at the time a pretty good neighborhood of Seoul. Someone called her parents demanding twenty million won (about twenty-thousand dollars). The police got involved, at which point the kidnapper panicked because she had failed to consider that things might get to that point.
Her solution? She fed the child a sleeping pill, and then strangled her to death.
Besides all of that, I suspect that what shocked people more deeply still was the fact that the kidnapper/murderer was a woman…
A pregnant woman.
Her name was Jeon Hyeonju. When she was apprehended, she gave a sob story, a hard-luck story, pleading her bad marriage… not an abusive husband, mind, but just that her husband was unemployed and had never finished university and that they were deep in debt and he wasn’t earning any money at the time, and because she’d come from a more privileged background but had failed to adjust her spending habits accordingly. This, at a time when middle-class and lower-class Koreans were struggling with layoffs, and South Korea itself was in dire economic straits, and people were being exhorted to donate their own valuables (gold jewelry especially) to stabilize the economy.
Basically, in that context, the woman said, “Please understand, I’m a selfish fuckhead who needed money and was in dire economic circumstances [just like the rest of our whole country at this moment]. Therefore I kidnapped a child, and then I murdered her when I realized I’m an inept kidnapper and didn’t want to get arrested.”
She could simply have blindfolded the kid and dropped her off near a police station or school or something. But when you think kidnapping children is the solution to your credit card debt, I suppose you’re not that bright to begin with. Except that this woman had obviously had plenty of opportunities: indeed, she had studied abroad (which I imagine in 1997 was a lot less common than it is now), and had married only a few months before, in February 1997. The marriage was one her parents had apparently opposed, likely because of the groom’s economic status.
When she was convicted, Jeon received a life sentence for her murder. As far as I can see from looking around online (there’s a lengthy article at Wikipedia, in Korean), she is still in prison today, and one wonders what will happen to her when she gets out of prison. Perhaps she has been forgotten… or perhaps not? Like I say, the murder case was indelibly inked on the mind of a lot of people of Mrs. Jiwaku’s generation.
Hearing all of this, another brutal case came to mind, one I mentioned a few years ago, of a serial rapist named Cho Du-sun, who brutally raped an eight-year-old girl in a church (surprise, surprise), and then severely damaged her colon and genitals while attempting to remove his DNA from her colon.
Cho was sentenced to 12 years in prison — not even the maximum sentence for rape — after pleading drunk. (Yes, having been drunk is a viable plea in Korean law, one that can lead to a reduced sentence.) While this might sound ridiculous (and given the precautions he performed, it sounds far from tenable that he was drunk) I was struck by the relative leniency. Granted, Cho didn’t murder his victim (though he seriously handicapped her, and doubtless mentally/emotionally scarred her for life), but the fact all he got was twelve years… this not even being his first offense as a sexual assault (among other crimes).
It’s worth noting that life sentences are usually reserved for murder cases, and Cho did not quite commit murder. (Though, frankly, the only reason the girl didn’t die was that she was (a) found in time, and (b) was lucky enough to survive the extreme brutality committed. That at least has to count as attempted murder, if you ask me.)
But if you consider the plea of drunknness side by side with the plea of pregnancy (ie. subject to all kinds of hormonal chaos), I can’t help but think that Jeon got the book thrown at her because she was, firstly, a woman, and secondly, pregnant. It’s like that is too horrific a violation of the stereotypes: we can imagine a nasty old man serial raping kids, and in fact I’ve read (in Douglas T. Kenrick’s Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, which I reviewed here) that children have an instinctual fear of males strangers, rather than all strange adults.
But we have a lot more trouble imagining a pregnant, relatively well-educated woman kidnapping and murdering a child, especially someone else’s and most especially a child so very small as that. That is much harder to get your head around–especially if traditional gender roles (and stereotypes about women’s “nurturing” instincts) feature largely in your mind, but I suspect that this also compounded with the anxieties about the future that everyone was feeling, and perhaps a little bit of the “Well, see, someone’s having an even worse time than us!”–to make Jeon’s murder case was so much of a national scandal at the time.
Every time I read about a case like this, it just reinforces an idea I encountered long ago, about the “anthropomorphization of humans.” I forget the name of the person who expressed the idea, though I know he was a computer programmer in California. He suggested that the set of assumptions and expectations we bring to the table when dealing with humans are erroneous in more ways than we normally realize: that human beings are probably more realistically understood when looked at the way we look at other primates, but because we grow up in cultures that load us with cultural norms and expectations, we have clouded vision when we look at other people.
We have, in other words, a fantasy in our heads about how human beings are internally, and how they behave… and as unrealistic as it may be, we cling to it unless and until someone oversteps those bounds in the most impossible-to-ignore way. Then, suddenly, we’re all shocked…. how could a human being do such a thing?
We trade our historical memory, and our inborn understanding of the range of kinds of human beings that exist–from the wonderful to the monstrous–and what range of capacities exist within each human being, as well. I am not convinced that every one of us is capable of anything, but anything is certainly within the range for a lot of us individually — and when we group up, the range seems to expand, often for the worst. So our sense of what is “really human” seems, apparently, to be at least partly some kind of illusion, albeit perhaps the very illusion that enables the kind of large-scale cooperation that makes cities, complex institutions, and ultimately large-scale civilizations possible. Perhaps it’s a feature one would expect in any gregarious species to develop the kind of self-conscious intelligence that we have.