An online community of mothers of young children in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, is being blamed by the public for the recent death of a day care worker, who took her own life after one of the community members brought child abuse allegations against her online.
The case has drawn attention as it involves several issues that have long been a social problem in South Korea, including child abuse, online bullying and widespread misogyny against young mothers.
The late teacher, who had been working at a Gimpo-based day care center, died Saturday, two days after the member of the community wrote a post saying her 4-year-old nephew had been neglected and abused by the worker during a field trip to Incheon. In the post, the aunt of the child said she was not there on the trip, but some 10 people at the scene witnessed the abuse and told her.
Other members of the community soon identified the day care center and shared the name and pictures of the teachers online. Malicious comments attacking the teacher followed.
Soon after the teacher’s death was reported in the media, over 80,000 Koreans signed an online petition asking Cheong Wa Dae punish members of the community for their “witch hunt-like behavior” and online bullying. More than 160 signed a petition demanding all online communities of mothers be shut down.
In the initial post, the aunt of the child claimed her nephew, who wanted to be hugged by the teacher, approached her while she was cleaning a picnic mat that had been used during the field trip. The aunt says the teacher pushed her nephew away and he fell hard on the ground. She did not bother checking whether the child was all right and continued cleaning the mat, the woman claims.
Police had not investigated the allegations of abuse before the teacher’s abrupt death.
Online bullying has long been a social problem in South Korea, where the suicide rate is among the highest in the developed world. A number of celebrities, including actress Choi Jin-sil and singer U;Nee, have taken their own lives after facing online attacks.
Choi had to endure malicious online rumors that claimed she secretly worked as a loan shark and was responsible for the death of an actor who died after suffering financial hardships. U;Nee, on the other hand, took her own life in 2007 after facing online attacks for her appearance, especially mocking her for having undergone cosmetic operations.
Meanwhile, the country has also seen a number of serious child abuse cases in the recent past, many of which involve day care staff and teachers.
In July, a 4-year-old girl died after having left alone for eight hours in a hot day care bus in Dongducheon, North of Seoul. In August, it was found that a day care staff member suffocated an 11-month-old boy to death, by wrapping a blanket around him and clasping his body tight for about six minutes -- in her attempt to “make him sleep.”
Online communities of mothers, on the other hand, have been triggering another wave of “mom-chung” sentiment -- a type of misogyny in Korea that specifically targets young mothers. In July, a member of such a community shared a post saying she witnessed a school bus that carried more than 10 children was dangerously driving too fast. She claimed that the bus was owned by a Taekwondo studio for its young students.
It was later revealed that the woman fabricated the account, as the evidence submitted to the police by the Taekwowndo studio, including the vehicle’s black box, showed her accusations were untrue.
Many critics of the case attacked the members of such communities, calling them “mom-chung” -- a derogatory term to describe stay-at-home mothers who purportedly exploit their husbands’ hard-earned money while doing nothing productive.
But Lee Na-young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, pointed out that online bullying and harassment in South Korea does not only take place in mothers’ communities, and is prevalent in many other online spaces.
“It seems like the criticism against the mothers’ online communities has been combined with the existing misogyny that has been prevailing for a number of years,” Lee said.
“What happened to the day care teacher is heartbreaking. But mothers should be able to continue voicing their concerns over child care issues at day care facilities. (The recent case) should not be used to silence such concerns altogether.”