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Tragedy highlights flaws in system

Aug 17,2019
The tragic deaths of a woman who defected from North Korea and her five year old son, likely from starvation, are exposing serious flaws in South Korea’s welfare system.

On July 31, a maintenance worker at a public housing apartment in Gwanak District, southern Seoul, went to check on residents of a unit who had failed to pay rent and utilities fees for over a year. Upon entering the residence, the employee found the emaciated bodies of a woman and a young boy, decomposing in the strong summer heat.

The woman, identified only by her surname Han, was a refugee from North Korea who had settled in South Korea over a decade ago after escaping the repressive regime.

Police found no traces of food in the home, save for some chili powder, while Han’s bank account was empty as well, with the last transaction being a withdrawal of 3,858 won ($3) in mid-May. Forensic investigators concluded that Han and her son likely died in May based on the stage of decomposition their bodies were in. While no evidence suggesting murder or suicide was found, police say they cannot yet rule the deaths were due to starvation and are awaiting further analysis.

The incident, first announced by police on Monday, comes as a particular shock for the government, since it has taken significant measures to expand its social safety net after a similar case in North Chungcheong in April last year, when the bodies of a woman and her four year old daughter were found two months after the woman’s murder-suicide. She had been struggling financially since her husband had committed suicide five months earlier.

One reason why Han and her child fell through the cracks of the government’s welfare system was due to its failure to discover her case in time. Korea’s welfare system is maintained through a government-wide database consisting of 29 different indicators including utilities, health insurance, rent and pension, across 14 different agencies. Every two months, the government dispatches employees to check on 50,000 people selected by artificial intelligence among five million people deemed to be at financial risk to see whether they are in need of assistance.

After the North Chungcheong murder-suicide case made headlines last year, the government hired a total of 2,892 additional civil servants as part of an effort to increase the number of on site visits to those in need.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Gwanak District Office and police, Han had not paid rent and utilities at her apartment for over 18 months. Bills had racked up to 450,000 won in gas usage, 4.8 million won in rent and other public utilities. Her gas and water were subsequently shut off.

According to public records, she moved into the apartment unit in Gwanak District in December 2009 when she first came to South Korea, and lived there for ten months before she moved to Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang. In September last year, she returned to the Gwanak apartment after spending almost a year in China.

Shortly after her return, Han filed for and was granted a monthly stipend of 200,000 won in child benefits and family support allowance. According to public records from the time, she had no income save for around 3 million won in financial earnings, which made her eligible to be registered as a basic livelihood security recipient and receive a basic subsidy of at least 1.6 million won a month.

In addition, Han divorced her husband in January this year and became a single mother. Any single parent in Korea with a child that is a minor is eligible to receive 200,000 won a month. Han needed only to apply for the subsidy, but may not have been aware such a system existed. All she actually received in government welfare was the 200,000 won, but even this was reduced to 100,000 won after her child reached the age of five.

Information on Hans’s failure to pay utilities or rent for over 18 months apparently never made it to the database of the Welfare Ministry.

Han’s apartment, while a form of public housing, was maintained by a private company, Seoul Housing and Communities Corporation. While the building’s managers informed the outsourced company that Han was not paying her rent, the records were not relayed to the government.

Utilities like electricity or water were also included in the maintenance fee for the apartment, so both the Korea Electric Power Corporation, a public company, and the Office of Waterworks of the Seoul Metropolitan Government were unable to detect that no electricity or water was supplied to Han’s home for months.

Han had also not paid her health insurance for 18 months. Failure to pay for over six months would have led to an automatic notification in the system, but the amount she owed was too low for her to be selected among the 50,000 that are eligible to receive the on-site visits by civil servants.

One high ranking official in the Welfare Ministry told the JoongAng Ilbo that it was “a very difficult task to discover blind spots in the welfare system,” and that Korea’s efforts served an administrative role that few countries have the capacity to carry out. “We will continue to improve the system in the future,” the official said.

On Thursday, the ministry announced it would dispatch a team of four of five employees from different departments in the ministry to the Gwanak District Office to investigate Han’s case further. It is a rarity that the central government takes charge of a case normally left up to local authorities.

On Friday, the ministry is also set to hold a meeting with welfare department heads of all 17 administrative regions across the country to discuss ways to improve detection of families in need of assistance.

The ministry also plans to coordinate with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to ensure people living in public housing of all kinds are included within its welfare database.

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, LEE TAE-YUN AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]