February 01, 2015

Child Maltreatment in South Korea: An Overview

Ann Park

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Cultural Exchange #1

Former Center public interest fellow and consultant, Ann Park, received a Fulbright Scholarship to study child welfare law in South Korea. In this column, she shares highlights of what’s she’s learning with a focus on aspects of interest to practitioners. 

The number of reported child abuse incidents in South Korea is steadily rising—from 4,144 in 2001 to 13,076 in 2013. In Korea, child abuse is grouped broadly into four types: physical, emotional, sexual, and neglect. In 2013, 26.2% of the child victims were neglected, 16.2% psychologically or emotionally abused, 11.1% physically abused, and 3.6% sexually abused.1 

Only recently has child maltreatment become recognized as a serious societal issue in Korea.2 Despite major upheavals in history, including Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea has achieved rapid, successful economic development since the 1960s. In the midst of this drastic economic, political, and social change, however, child abuse was largely ignored in society until the late 1990s.

Although the Child Welfare Act, the first legislation addressing children’s welfare, was implemented in 1961, it was mainly designed to rescue war orphans.3 Korea also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, yet until the 2000 Amendment, child abuse was not defined or explained.4

Confucian Tradition

Scholars agree that the reason for delayed social awareness of child abuse in Korea is rooted in traditional Confucian teachings, the source of core values and standards of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910 A.D.).5 Under Confucian tradition, children are considered possessions of parents, and parents are granted almost inviolable authority to raise and discipline their children.6 Corporal punishment has generally been accepted as a form of discipline rooted in parental love.7

Government & Families 

Additionally, child-rearing practices were traditionally considered private family business beyond the control of the state, so government intervention was rare.8 Professor Kim Sang-yong explains that the reluctance of the government could be attributed to the following saying: “Law cannot jump over the family fence.”9 Although the National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) is the central organization that oversees all 50 local child protection agencies (CPA) in 17 regions, it is not a government institution.10 Until recently, child protection agencies lacked the formal, independent power to separate an abused child from his or her parent, and often struggled with parents who refused to follow their orders.11 

Abuse Awareness Prompts a Movement 

CPAs also avoided challenging parental authority or rights. For example, in a 2013 case, child abuse was reported to the local CPA, but the CPA employees neither separated the child from the parent nor filed an accusation against the parent.12 The child victim died. This incident, followed by several others, received wide media coverage and raised public awareness about child abuse. 

These incidents triggered a movement among activists, lawyers, social workers, and politicians to create new legislation addressing the holes in the current child protection system for abused and neglected children. This new law was enacted in January 2014 and implemented in September 2014. 

Stay tuned. Next month’s column will highlight the new law. 


1. The National Child Protection Agency. The 2013 Report on the National Child Abuse Data. 2013,40. 

2. See Kim, Sang-yong, “Study on Developing a New Legal System for Prevention of Child Abuse and Protection of Child Abuse Victims,” December 2012, 36: 3, 15; see also Hahm, Hyeouk C., Guterman, Neil B. “The Emerging Problem of Physical Child Abuse in South Korea.” Child Maltreatment 6:169, 2001, 176.   

3. Purpose of Legislation, “Child Welfare Law of 1961.”; see  The National Child Protection Agency. Laws Relevant to Child Abuse.  

4. See Child Welfare Act of 1998 and Child Welfare Act of 2000; Hahm & Guterman, 2001,176. 

5. Hahm & Gutterman, 2001, 174; see also Pyo, Gap-su. “Causes of Child Abuse and Solutions,” 1993,165.

6. Ibid. 

7. Pyo, Gap-su. Causes of Child Abuse and Solution,165.

8. Hahm & Gutterman, 2001, 174; see also Moon, Young-Hee. “Legal-Policy Improvement for the Protection of the Abused Child -from View of Children`s Right,” (Beop-hak-non-chong), 2014, 59.

9. Interview with Kim Sang-yong, Professor of Chung-Ang University Law School, October, 6, 2014. 

10. See the “Child Rights Department Page of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare." 

11. Kim, 2012, 21-22. 

12. “Children are Not the Primary Policy Consideration Due to the Lack of Voting Power.” Joongang Daily News, April 14, 2014.