South Korean pastor tends to flock of abused children
But the real damage, Hwang Chum-gon was soon to learn, was on the inside: The girl had been regularly beaten by her own parents, her body and spirit crushed by people she loved and trusted.
"The entire staff was speechless at the sight of her body," Hwang recalled of the 1999 incident. "It was too horrible. But we were later shocked to learn that her condition was worse than it appeared."
For more than two decades, the 46-year-old minister has run a group called the Open Center Youth Foundation, which rescues South Korean children abused by their parents and other relatives.
From a nonprofit effort that started out of his home in 1990, Hwang went on to establish a series of nationwide centers to temporarily house and counsel 500 abused and homeless children.
"Children who come here have gone through unspeakable abuse and torture," said Hwang, a suntanned man with a easy smile. "They have been physically abused from their own parents and relatives, neglected, some even sexually abused from their own father."
The 7-year-old, for instance, shied away from other people. "She couldn't make eye contact with the staff and had to sleep in the closet," Hwang said. "But what was so terrible was that this little child had an unresolved anger in her heart. One day, she took out a fish from the fish tank and cut it with the scissors to express her anger. None of us scolded her, but we gave her a warm hug and held her."
It is one of South Korea's little-known secrets: The society has a high rate of physical abuse against children, yet the problem has received limited public and professional attention, according to one Columbia University study.
A 2002 World Report on Violence and Health showed that high levels of child abuse in South Korea persist even though corporal punishment has been banned in schools and health professionals are required to report child abuse they encounter.
In one study, more than half of South Korean children polled said they had been beaten by their parents. In another, two-thirds of parents reported whipping their children, and 45% confirmed that they had hit, kicked or beaten them.
Hwang says abuse in South Korea stems from attitudes among many parents that children are possessions to be treated as the adults see fit.
Hwang sees the results of such violence, with most children referred to him by governmental organizations, churches or the victims' own parents. In one such encounter, a father pleaded with Hwang to take custody of his young son, saying he was afraid he might someday soon kill the child.
"I see so much sorrow and anger in the kids who arrive," Hwang said. "If these children grow up with such anger, they will be more prone to anti-social activities."
Hwang hails from a humble family background but says he was not abused. He said he worked hard throughout high school and college and worked to support himself for his own education. "While going to college, I was driven with the motivation to be successful," Hwang said. “Achieving that was No. 1 priority for me.”
But then disaster struck. In his sophomore year in college, Hwang developed a mysterious lung disease that doctors at first mistakenly diagnosed as leprosy.
During his three years of convalescence, Hwang said he decided that becoming successful in business wasn't enough. He said developed a deeper faith and decided to dedicate his life to those less fortunate.
He said that one night, walking in his Seoul neighborhood, he noticed a number of children wandering the street after dark. "I saw many kids sleeping on park benches, with newspaper as the blanket," he recalled.
Many told him they could not go home because they were afraid of physical abuse by their parents.
Hwang estimates that 85% of child abuse in South Korea comes at the hands of a victim's biological parents. "I realized, then, that this was my calling," he said, "caring for the abused children, to heal them, and help them to stand on their own feet."
In Yangpyeong County, about 100 miles south of Seoul, Hwang operates one of his shelters –- a multistory building where 15 children live and receive counseling while attending school in the area.
In the rural center, youths work on gardening projects, chase chickens and eat fruit from nearby trees. The buildings are filled with windows.
"I wanted the children to be able to get a sense of the light and nature," said Hwang, who along with his youth counselor wife does not have children. "Nature itself is the best healer. It cures the heart."
The 7-year-old girl Hwang saved from the abuse by her parents is now 19 and this year began college to study art counseling for abused children.
In a recent nongovernmental organization newsletter, she described how Hwang's center helped her overcome the pain of her past.
"Now I am standing at the starting point of the race," she wrote. "I can't wait to learn more about the art counseling and helping children overcome obstacles, just like I did."
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Hwang Chum-gon with several boys identified as victims of abuse by relatives. Credit: Open Center Youth Foundation