The Korea Herald


Cold cases unfrozen

Crimes unsolved in the past could see breakthrough from advancing technology

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : May 26, 2017 - 16:32

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A defining cold case that left a bloody stain in South Korean history is a series of rapes and murders that happened in the late 1980s, when the country did not even have a lab capable of DNA analysis.

“The Hwaseong killings is the most devastating cold case South Korea has failed to solve,” said Kwon Il-yong, who is considered South Korea’s first criminal profiler. “I wish I was a part of its investigative process, so I could have solved it.”

Between 1986 and 1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, 10 women across different age groups, including both a 13-year-old and a 71-year-old, were killed. 

Composite sketch of the murder suspect in the Hwaseong serial killings. Composite sketch of the murder suspect in the Hwaseong serial killings.

Over 1.8 million police officers and investigators pushed to solve the case with 3,000 suspects, but the case eventually went nowhere due to the lack of forensic knowledge and technology back then.

Material evidence, such as semen samples from victims, hair and cigarette butts, were collected, but all failed to pinpoint the identity of the killer. It is now legally impossible to bring the uncaught killer to justice since the statute of limitations has already passed on the case.

According to Kwon, a case turns cold either because it was investigated during a time when the nation lacked profiling skills or the investigation process is prolonged to prevent wrongful conviction. 

Police authorities investigating the crime scene of the Hwaseong serial killings in Gyeonggi Province. Police authorities investigating the crime scene of the Hwaseong serial killings in Gyeonggi Province.

“Cases like the Hwaseong serial killings went cold because of dated forensic technology,” said Kwon. The late 1980s and early 1990s were when a sharp shift in crime motivations occurred, as fast changes in society and the economy left behind people at the margins of society, but the authorities failed to adapt to the times, he noted.

More than a decade after the Hwaseong case, renowned director Bong Joon-ho made a film loosely based on the sequence of events. “Memories of Murder” (2003) attracted 5.3 million moviegoers nationwide and added more notoriety to the controversial case.

Recent hit South Korean dramas, such as tvN’s “Signal” and OCN’s “Tunnel,” have also brought back nauseating memories from the time when the nation was shocked with horrendous questions that remain unanswered to this day. Both have time traveling as their main plot device, which seems to reflect the desire of many to solve cases that remain frozen in time.

Recently, cold case teams within police departments have been focusing on reopening files that have been buried in dust. Unsolved cases from the early 2000s were brought back with the hope of discovering new evidence through advanced technology.

Another mysterious rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl that happened in South Jeolla Province in 2001, called the “Dedeul River case,” is an example of a case that was reopened with successful results.

Police focused on reanalyzing DNA data extracted from retained semen samples along with new evidence found in the archives. A 40-year-old man surnamed Kim, who was already serving in prison on charges of robbery and murder, was resentenced to life in prison for his past wrongdoing.

Kwon said that it is crucial to keep an open mind when reinvestigating a case and recommended minimized exposure to outdated records which can distract one from producing fresh theories.

“The original files could hold errors which can sidetrack investigators from seeing the truth.”

He added that modern-day cold cases sometimes derive from complacent attitudes such as the police not taking disappearance reports seriously.

Kwon also emphasized the importance of patience and heading in the right direction when pursuing a reopened cold case.

“Solving a cold case is not only about the results, but the process itself,” said Kwon. “When a case is finally solved after a period of stagnation, then there is nothing better than that.”

By Jung Min-kyung (