INFAMOUS IN the history of Korean criminal cases as one of the “three unsolved cases” in Korea, the 1986 Hwaseong serial murder cases have allegedly reached a breakthrough after 33 years, with Police announcing successful identification of the key suspect on Sep. 19, 2019. Commissioner of the National Police Agency Min Gap-ryong stated in a press conference on October 7, “The investigation records of the case as well as the testimonies of the witnesses are to be thoroughly reviewed once again, and verification of truth will be carried out to uncover what lies behind the incident*.” As the Police investigation on the infamous murders gained notable progress, there has been a nationwide attention on whether the Hwaseong serial murder cases would reach a long-awaited conclusion after decades of unsuccessful attempts.
The 33-year old murders
The Hwaseong murder cases are a succession of ten serial murders that occurred in the city of Hwaseong in Gyeonggi Province between 1986 and 1991. The serial killer targeted women with minute stature**, with the ages of the victims broadly ranging from a 71-year-old elderly to a 13-year-old middle school student. The investigation of this notorious serial killing began as Lee, the 71-year-old was found murdered on Sept. 19, 1986, with the cause of death identified as asphyxiation—there was no trace of sexual assault. The incident was initially considered as an isolated homicide case, until a series of murders consecutively occurred in the Hwaseong city in close proximity to one another. It was only after the second incident that occurred 500 m from the location of the first crime that many began to suspect the crime to be a serial murder. The second victim was 25-year-old Park, whose body was found on Oct. 20, 1986—the cause of death was asphyxiation with evidences of sexual assault as traces of semen were found. Despite extensive Police investigations, the murders continued, with other victims displaying a similar crime pattern: murder caused by asphyxiation usually accompanied by sexual assault. These methods of killing became gradually more identifiable as the victim’s own clothing such as stockings were later frequently used to tie up the victim.
As the murder continued, the city of Hwaseong as well as the whole country was engulfed in fear, breeding urban myths that warned women to not dress in red or to leave the house on a rainy day. The Hwaseong serial murder cases generated intense fear for not only targeting female victims, but the heinous nature of the crimes. The scale of investigation gradually expanded as the Police frantically carried out an extensive search for the murderer in an attempt to alleviate public fear. The investigation task force that initially began with 30 officers grew as the murder continued, increasing to 63 officers in 1987 and by 1989, 114 officers. The Hwaseong serial murders soon became the series of cases involving one of the most manpower in the history of South Korean Police Force, with an accumulated figure of 2 million officers and task force members being directly or indirectly participating in the investigation. Over the span of five years, over 21,000 individuals were on the suspects list, and the Police had carried out cross-referencing of approximately 40,000 fingerprints, along with 570 DNA analysis and 180 forensic hair analysis to identify a single individual behind the crime. But it all ended in vain. However, the investigations were not entirely fruitless, as ironically over 1,500 offenders unassociated with the Hwaseong serial murder cases were also apprehended for crimes discovered during the investigation. The search for the illusive murderer continued for years until it came to an unwanted conclusion in 2006, as the statute of limitations for the last confirmed incident of the Hwaseong serial murder cases no longer granted the jurisdiction to legally prosecute the perpetrator for the crimes***.
The hunt with little clues
So why was there a 33-year time gap before the case reached an end? Much of the challenges in identifying the culprit can be attributed to the investigative process that was in place 30 years ago. Kim Ju-han, Senior Researcher at Korean Institute of Criminology and Professor at Central Police Academy, provided several key points that led to the investigative challenges in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. Pertaining to the forensic capacity of the Police Force in the 1980s, Professor Kim pointed out the low level of technology as well as the poor protocols for preservation of the crime scenes and the evidences. In reference to the Hwaseong serial murders, Professor Kim stated that the key evidences collected and utilized by the Police in the investigation were primarily limited to fingerprints, footprints, and composite sketches of the key suspects based on eye witnesses from the seventh murder. The case was further exacerbated as the majority of the incidents had transpired in open fields and rice paddies, inevitably resulting in the contamination of the crime scene as well as the evidences collected—fingerprints were often not found and the footprints of the perpetrator were either distorted due to rain or damaged as careful preservation of the crime scenes were not available in the 1980s. “With so little concrete evidences in hand, investigation was primarily restricted to interrogations and verbal questionings,” stated Kim. While DNA analysis was incorporated into the later part of the investigation, they were also unable to provide a significant breakthrough—the evidences from the crime scenes were predominantly contaminated samples of blood and semen which lacked accuracy in results as compared to the oral tissues used in today’s forensic analysis. Professor Kim further elaborated that such technological limitations and complexity in the evidences collected hindered subsequent efforts when some of the semen samples was sent overseas to a Japanese facility, equipped with relatively advanced level of technology. However, the poor quality of samples as well as the rash conclusions on the traits of the perpetrator based on such samples led to mismatch with the Japanese forensic reports. Such failures further caused a huge setback in the investigations as the samples sent to Japan were arbitrarily discarded after a confirmation of mismatch. Over the years as the murders proceeded, the culprit had also left six strands of hair and a cigarette butt, but the techniques for detailed DNA analysis of such samples were neither developed nor implemented in fields.
The truth will be uncovered someday
Over the years, the Hwaseong serial murder cases have been transferred over to the Unsolved Case Division within the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency. The key behind the breakthrough was the preservation of the DNA sample found in the crime scene, refrigerated for over 33 years by the Police’s evidence database.
The identified suspect, Lee, who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder and rape of his sister-in-law in 1994, possessed a matching DNA with the sample collected in case #9, and cases #5 and 7 in subsequent examinations. The Korean National Forensic Service was also provided with the evidences from Hwaseong serial murder case #4 by the Police Agency on Sep. 19, 2019. On October 1, they had further successfully identified DNA samples from about 20 pieces of evidence samples collected from the crime scenes****.
How was the Police able to conduct the DNA analysis this time? The recent breakthrough was possible due to a legislation passed in 2010—Act On Use and Protection Of DNA Identification Information (Article 13722), enforced due to the potential risk of recidivism. According to the legislation, the Police are granted the right to collect DNA samples from offenders of specific lists of crimes including murder, rape, theft, and robbery—samples from which would be updated on the country’s DNA database. For the case of Hwaseong serial murders, the suspect’s DNA was miraculously available for cross-referencing as the suspects DNA samples were collected and uploaded onto the DNA database when he was incarcerated for another murder he had committed in 1994. The suspect closely resembled the composite sketch and displayed a matching DNA with 4 out of the 10 cases in total. The Police force decided to engage in daily face-to-face interrogation with the suspect over 2 weeks, with 9 sessions involving deployment of professional profilers to aid the effectiveness of eliciting relevant confessions from the suspect*****. As of Oct. 2, 2019, the Police announced that the suspect had been confirmed to be the culprit behind the Hwaseong serial murder case, confessing to the murder of 14 women and approximately 30 sexual assaults. Though further confirmations are needed to bring an official conclusion to the case, South Korea is finally close to the possible resolution of a 33-year old unsolved mystery. Despite expiration of the case’s statute of limitations, the Police expressed intentions to continue on with the investigations until the truth is disclosed, regardless of time constraints.
Despite the culprit finally being identified and the case coming to a close, the presence of the Hwaseong serial murder cases still stands in its significance within Korean investigation. It was the first Korean criminal case that actively attempted to employ major usage of “new” investigation methods in the 1980s and 1990s such as DNA identification and criminal profiling.
The Hwaseong serial murder case teaches many lessons to Korean society. “If the case had transpired today, the culprit would have been found within about three days, a week at maximum,” stated Professor Kim. The mystery of the Hwaseong serial murder cases stems not from the perpetrator’s ingenious strategy, but from investigative oversight and lack of technological capabilities.
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The brutality of the Hwaseong serial murder cases had significantly impacted the security perception of citizens exposed to the information through media then, as well as current Korean society through its reputation as an unsolved case. However, it is also a serious reminder of the deficiency the 1980s Korean investigation possessed as well as the advancements over the years. The truth behind the incidents is not one that deserves euphemism; they are cruel murder cases involving sexual assaults devoid of any humanity. Above all, Professor Kim explained in the interview that the resolution of the Hwaseong cases delivers a critical idea to Korean society; regardless of how despicable a crime had taken place, the truth will surface, no matter how many years it takes.
**Korea Police Agency