Why do desperate people kill their own children?
Disturbing growth of murder-suicide cases reveals some Korean parents‘ dangerous obsession with family
Published : Jun 30, 2022 - 17:41
Updated : Jul 7, 2022 - 11:53
Initial investigation by the police into the deaths of 10-year-old Cho Yu-na and her parents found no evidence of foul play, fueling suspicion that the child has been a victim of so-called “family suicide.”

The family of three, who went missing in late May, were found inside the submerged family car that was salvaged near Wando-gun, South Jeolla Province, on Wednesday. It was discovered that the family had tremendous debts and testimonies from acquaintances suggest that they may have suffered financial damage via the recent cryptocurrency crash.

The exact cause of the family’s death remains unclear, as the autopsy report on their bodies came back inconclusive. But the circumstances surrounding their death have led to widespread speculation that the couple took their own lives and took down their daughter with them.

Filicide-suicide on the rise

There has been a rise in the number of cases of filicide followed by the parent‘s suicide. According to data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 28 cases in 2018, which rose to 42 in 2019 and to 43 in 2020.

On May 23, a mother and her six-year-old son with development disorders died after a fatal fall from an apartment building in Seoul in what appears to be another case of a parent killing their child and themself.

Last week, a mother in her 50s was sentenced to a six-year prison term by Suwon District Court for killing her disabled daughter. The mother, who survived an attempted suicide and turned herself in, had written a suicide note saying, “Meet better parents in your next life. I’m sorry.”

Experts say South Koreans have been lenient toward parents killing their children, with some even sympathizing with the murderers. The widespread use of the term “familial joint suicide,” which contradicts the fact that most of the victimized children would not have consented to be killed, indicates how society views such cases, they said.

In 2020, a judge at Ulsan District Court voiced strongly against the use of the term, while handing down a four-year prison term to a mother who killed her 9-year-old daughter and survived a subsequent suicide attempt.

“The essence of this crime is a parent murdering their child with their own hands. ... We need to abolish the misleading perception of society. We cannot listen to the testimony of the murdered child. ‘Suicide’ is the language of the parent. The language of the child is ‘killed,’ and the language of the law says this is a clear murder,” the judge said.

A submerged car which belonged to Cho`s family is being pulled off the shores of Wando, South Jeolla Province, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

‘It’s not parental love‘

Lee Soo-jung, a professor of forensic psychology at Kyonggi University, pointed out that the way parents who kill their children and commit suicide think is quite different from that of a typical child abuser. Nonetheless, it is just as dangerous.

“Child abusers in fatal incidents are hostile toward their victims, but the parents who attempt a ’family suicide‘ feel an endless level of responsibility toward them. Such perceived level of responsibility is either out of misunderstanding or delusion and is very dangerous and unnecessary to the family members who become victims,” Lee wrote in her recent column.

Some Koreans tend to have an “abnormal level of obsession” toward family, which drives them to believe that their family cannot survive without them, she said.

Cultural norms also come into play, according to anthropologist Lee Hyeon-jung of the Institute of Cross-cultural Studies at Seoul National University. Confucianist values, still a significant influence in Korean society, are of great importance to family identity as a group and often ignore the role of each member as an individual.

She added that, while the term “family suicide” is widely used, more proper descriptions like “child murder followed by a parent’s suicide” or “homicide-suicide in the family” have been used more recently, primarily by scholars.

“This is a point of view that considers the parent-child relationship, not as a bond between individual entities, but as a group sharing the same destiny, whose life or death is decided by the parent,” she wrote.

Lee also said that fixed gender roles, widely accepted across East Asia, pressure mothers to see themselves as an ultimate caregiver. They strengthen the idea that a young child‘s happiness and survival are virtually impossible without the biological mother.

“From the mother’s viewpoint, it would be better to take her child‘s life rather than to leave the child behind to lead a painful life without her,” she wrote, referring to this as a “distorted manifestation of the maternal instincts.”

This is also reflected in the filicides by fathers who, as head of the household facing overwhelming financial failure, can feel a “distorted sense of responsibility” and opt to end things rather than let the family continue to suffer.

As of now, it is unclear why the Cho family plunged to the bottom of the sea with no apparent sign of attempting to escape. We don’t know if the 10-year-old Yu-na had indeed been a victim of the family‘s actions.

What is clear is that an increasing number of these tragedies occur in Korea each year. And that they are often sparked by just as tragic a misunderstanding, by the parents, on their own familial role and on what is best for their child. 

By Yoon Min-sik (