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Child maltreatment in South Korea: An ecological systems analysis
Jun Sung Hong
⁎, Na Youn Lee
, Hye Joon Park
, Kathleen Coulborn Faller
University of Illinois, School of Social Work, Child and Family Research Center, 1010 W. Nevada Street, Urbana, IL 61801, USA
University of Michigan, School of Social Work, 1080 S. University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
University of Illinois, School of Social Work, 1010 W. Nevada Street, Urbana, IL 61801, USA
Received 9 December 2010
Received in revised form 20 January 2011
Accepted 29 January 2011
Available online 4 March 2011
Ecological systems theory
This article reviews risk factors associated with child maltreatment in South Korea within the context of the
ecological system theory. Although child maltreatment is a serious concern in South Korea, understanding of
this phenomenon is limited because most of the empirical studies address individual characteristics and few
consider broader ecological contexts. This review integrates empirical ﬁndings on the risk and protective
factors associated with child maltreatment in South Korea within the context of micro- (parent–child
relationship, intergenerational transmission of abuse, and domestic violence), meso- (interactions between
child–teacher and child–parent), exo- (mothers' employment and parents' socio-economic status), macro-
(drinking culture and corporal punishment), and chrono-system (Asian economic crisis) levels.
© 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
In this article, we review the research written in English and
Korean on child maltreatment in South Korea. We describe efforts in
South Korea to gather data about the incidence of child maltreatment
and the types of child maltreatment reported. We then frame the
ﬁndings related to the causes of child maltreatment using an
ecological systems model. (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). Thus, we use a
Western theoretical model to understand an Asian body of research.
This is a ﬁtting choice as South Korea has been powerfully inﬂuenced
by Western conceptualizations of social problems.
Although the maltreatment of children has generated considerable
public and professional concern in South Korea, to date there are no
established deﬁnitions of maltreatment that are appropriate to the
South Korean context. Indeed, some researchers (e.g., Choi, 1989)
have argued that it is problematic to directly apply Western
deﬁnitions of child maltreatment to South Korean society due to
cultural differences. It was not until 1999 that the deﬁnition and
classiﬁcation of ‘child maltreatment’were established by the Ministry
of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs. This was followed by the
enactment of the Revised Child Welfare Law in 2000 and then with
the establishment of the Korean National Child Protection Agency
(KNCPA) in 2001 (Pai, Kim, Chung, & Ryu, 2009). According to the
Article 2 of the Revised Child Welfare Law, maltreatment is legally
deﬁned as an act perpetrated by any adult, which poses harm to a
child's health and welfare. Child maltreatment is also deﬁned by the
Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs as physical, emotional,
or sexual abuse, abandonment, and neglect committed against a child
by an adult, particularly a caregiver (Jeong, 2005; Ju & Lee, 2010).
The relatively limited number of studies available in English that
examine child maltreatment in South Korea and Asian societies
appears to suggest low incidence rates compared to Western societies.
However, such conclusions have been questioned when viewed
through a cross-cultural and historical lens (Hahm & Guterman,
2001). To develop a plan for prevention and intervention, it is
important to understand risk and protective factors in Korean society
and culture. Individual-level risk factors for child maltreatment in
South Korea have been empirically examined by a number of
researchers (Kim, 1998; Nho, 2002). Kim's (1998) study, which
administered a survey to a nationally representative sample of
households, examined the association between socio-demographic
factors such as gender and age, and maltreatment. The researcher
found that seven out of ten children were physically abused more
than once in the past year; mothers abused their child more
frequently than fathers; and boys were more likely to be victims of
maltreatment than girls.
However, few studies consider broader ecological factors (e.g.,
corporal punishment), which contextualize child abuse. Moreover,
little attention has been given to the interrelations among the various
levels of the social ecology in fostering or inhibiting child maltreat-
ment. Thus, maltreatment needs to be understood within contexts of
various levels of risk and protective factors. We begin our discussion
with background of child abuse in South Korea and follow with the
Children and Youth Services Review 33 (2011) 1058–1066
⁎Corresponding author. Tel.: + 1 217 244 4662.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (J.S. Hong), firstname.lastname@example.org (N.Y. Lee),
email@example.com (H.J. Park), firstname.lastname@example.org (K.C. Faller).
Tel.: +1 617 233 1257.
Tel.: +1 734 763 3786.
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journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/childyouth
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application of ecological systems theory to research ﬁndings on risk
and protective factors, using Bronfenbrenner's (1974, 1994) ecolog-
ical systems theory (Table 1).
2.1. Incidence of maltreatment
Reporting of child abuse cases to child protective services
increased rapidly from 4133 in 2001 to 9570 in 2008, according to
Pai et al.'s (2009) study. The researchers examined the prevalence
rate of child maltreatment in 2007 as reported by KNCPA. According
to the 2007 report on child abuse cases, which includes 5581
households reported to child protective services, 37.8% of maltreat-
ment cases involved child neglect, followed by multiple abuse
(37.4%), physical abuse (8.4%), emotional abuse (10.6%), sexual
abuse (4.8%) and child abandonment (2.8%) (Mun, Ku, Pak, & Kim,
As noted above, KNCPA was established by the Ministry of Health,
Welfare, and Family Affairs in October 2001; it aims to develop and
implement policies for intervening and preventing child maltreat-
ment and to enhance public awareness of child abuse and neglect.
NCPA collects, analyzes, and distributes information gathered from
child protective agencies nationwide on the prevalence rate of child
maltreatment; however, because the agency was established in 2001,
there is relative lack of statistical information on child maltreatment
prior to 2000. According to Hahm and Guterman's (2001) study,
which reviewed South Korea's epidemiological studies on child
maltreatment, the ﬁrst child abuse reporting center was established
in 1979 by the Korean Welfare Association; it, however, was closed
within a year due to lack of reporting. In 1985, the Seoul City
Children's Counseling Center established a child abuse reporting
center, which received 96 case reports over a ﬁve-year period. In
1989, the Korean Child Welfare Prevention Association attempted to
create a nationwide reporting system in sixteen child abuse reporting
centers, which received a total of 239 case reports over the ﬁrst three
Although reporting of child abuse appeared to have increased
signiﬁcantly over the years, the number of reported cases is scant and
the data sources are inconsistent to allow for valid and reliable
analysis of child maltreatment trends in South Korea. Thus, we
examined the recent statistical ﬁndings on child maltreatment by
KNCPA and the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs since
2000 (Table 2).
2.2. Types of maltreatment
Several ﬁndings have also emerged with respect to the type of
maltreatment. Although arguably corporal punishment does not meet
the threshold of abuse, 66% of parents surveyed reported using a whip
for disciplinary practice; moreover, 45% had previously hit, kicked, or
beaten their children, clearly abusive behaviors (Hahm & Guterman,
2001). Hahm and Guterman's (2001) review of previous studies on
maltreatment in South Korea report that the majority of these studies
only report on physical forms of abuse, such as hitting, kicking, and
beating. However, more recent studies in South Korea included other
types of maltreatment, such as emotional abuse and child neglect.
Two studies found that child neglect is the most common form of
maltreatment (Mun et al., 2009; Pai et al., 2009). KNCPA (Jung-ang
Adong Hakdae Yebang Center), which include a total national sample
of 5581 reported and adjudicated maltreatment cases from 2003 to
2007, found that child neglect constituted the majority of maltreat-
ment cases (n = 2107), followed by multiple abuse (n =2087),
emotional abuse (n=589), physical abuse (n = 473), sexual abuse
(n= 226), and child abandonment (n = 159) (Mun et al., 2009).
Another study (Nho, 2002) examined the factors that contribute to
three types of maltreatment (i.e., physical abuse, emotional abuse,
and neglect). Due to low reporting, child sexual abuse was not
included in the study. Using a national sample of 201 cases reported to
17 child abuse prevention centers in South Korea in 2001, social
workers at the centers completed the questionnaires used to identify
predictive factors for the severity of physical and emotional abuse,
and child neglect. Derived from Risk and Safety Assessment of the
Action for Child Protection (2000), the questionnaire consisted of
items on severity of problem behavior, language development, and IQ,
as well as on three types of maltreatment as deﬁned by the Ministry of
Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs. This study found that child neglect
is the most common type of child maltreatment. For the severity of
physical abuse, children's language development and severity of
problem behaviors, and the perpetrators' alcohol use were statistically
signiﬁcant. For the severity of emotional abuse, none of the factors
was signiﬁcant, although children's IQ and the perpetrators' alcohol
use were signiﬁcant for the severity of neglect.
2.3. Identifying maltreatment
Identiﬁcation of maltreatment normally depends on observations
of the consequences of child abuse rather than direct observation of
physically abusive behavior. Such observations require information
on the history of the injury (Warner & Hansen, 1994), and place
physicians in a pivotal role in identifying the etiology of injuries and in
deterring further abuse. Relatively few studies in South Korea have
investigated physicians' awareness and involvement in child abuse
cases (Choi et al., 2000; Hong, 1997). These studies both suggest that
physicians in South Korea are not informed about maltreatment cases
and do not regard diagnosing child maltreatment as their role. Hong
Insights gained from the research review.
•The prevalence rate of maltreatment is relatively high.
•Reporting of child abuse increased over the years.
•Neglect is the most common type of maltreatment.
•Few studies examined physicians' awareness of abuse.
•Physicians are uninvolved in reporting child abuse.
•Emotional disorder and age are salient risk factors.
•Boys and girls are equally likely to be abused.
•Both fathers and mothers are equally likely to be
perpetrators of all types of abuse.
Ecological systems analysis
Micro-system •Negative parent–child relationship is a risk factor.
•Childhood experience in abuse did not increase abuse.
•Abused mothers frequently punish their children.
Meso-system •Teachers are unlikely to be involved or report abuse.
Exo-system •Employment-related stress is associated with abuse.
•Low SES parents are more likely to abuse their children.
Macro-system •Alcoholism of mother increases the likelihood of abuse.
•Attitude toward corporal punishment is related to abuse.
•Confucian-based family hierarchy inﬂuences abuse.
Chrono-system •Asian economic crisis in 1997 intensiﬁed child abuse.
Total number of the types of maltreatment per year, 2000–2008.
Types 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Physical 476 254 347 364 423 439 473 422
Emotional 114 184 207 350 512 604 589 683
Sexual 86 65 134 177 206 249 266 284
Neglect 672 814 965 1367 1635 2035 2107 2237
Abandonment 134 212 113 125 147 76 59 57
Multiple 623 949 1155 1508 1710 1799 2087 1895
Total 2105 2478 2921 3891 4633 5202 5581 5578
Source:Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs (2008).
1059J.S. Hong et al. / Children and Youth Services Review 33 (2011) 1058–1066
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(1997) examined to what extent physicians were involved in child
abuse cases. A semi-structured child physical abuse questionnaire,
which asked about physicians' experiences in treating victims of child
physical abuse, was sent to 4761 physicians nationwide, asking about
their prior experiences in treating victims of child abuse. The ﬁndings
indicate that physicians have considerable experiences in treating
maltreated children, but these children were frequently discharged
prematurely by their physicians. Forty-eight percent of physicians
recommended discharge and only 10.2% reported child abuse cases to
the police or child protective services, which leave these children
vulnerable to further harm at home. Article 26 of the Child Welfare
Law mandates all professionals working with children, such as
physicians, school teachers, child protective services, etc. to report
any incidence of child maltreatment. However, the majority of
physicians in South Korea did not report maltreatment. Of note, the
response rate to the questionnaire sent to physicians was 13.5%,
which suggests physicians either do not see child maltreatment
reports as their responsibility or did not want to reveal reporting
failure or both. The low response rate is also a major limitation to
Choi and colleagues (2000) study assessed 47 abused children and
teens who came to the emergency room at a university hospital on the
demographic characteristics (i.e., age, sex, time of visit, perpetrators,
types of maltreatment, and types of injury). A structured survey was
administered to 70 pediatricians who treated 47 victims of child abuse
and 197 general violence victims in the emergency center. The Injury
Severity Score (ISS) assessed the severity of maltreatment. The
authors found that pediatricians in South Korea were uninformed of
the proper procedures for identifying and intervening in abuse cases
due to lack of training on protocols for handling maltreatment cases.
Most victims of abuse do not come to the attention of physicians and
other professionals (Choi et al., 2000). The authors raised the
importance of fostering physicians' awareness of and involvement
in maltreatment cases. However, the study relied on victims' or
parents' self-report or on the initial physical assessment by the
medical professionals, and many cases may have been overlooked
as a result.
2.4. Characteristics of the victims
Characteristics of both maltreated children (and abusive parents)
have been examined by a number of researchers in South Korea (e.g.,
Kim, 2007; Kim & Kim, 1997; Nho, 2002). Jeong (2005) described risk
factors for child abuse victimization including being unwanted by
parents at birth, unwanted due to the child being the “wrong
”being born prematurely, mentally retarded, chronically ill,
physically handicapped or deformed, being raised by single mother,
adopted, and crying incessantly. Lee and Lee (2002) investigated the
association between kindergarten children's emotional disorder (i.e.,
attachment and anxiety disorder), and ﬁve types of maltreatment (i.e.,
psychological, physical, multiple, sexual, and neglect) from a sample
of 47 abusive mothers and 50 non-abusive mothers. They found that
children with emotional disorders are at greater risk of psychological,
physical, and multiple abuses, child neglect, and negative home
environment compared to those without emotional disorders.
Interestingly, the authors did not consider the reciprocal causation;
that is, children who have been abused are signiﬁcantly more likely to
have emotional disorders. Of note, child sexual abuse was not found to
be related to children's emotional disorders in this study.
In terms of victims' gender, there are discrepancies in the ﬁndings.
Earlier studies report that boys are more likely to be victims of abuse
than girls (e.g., Kim & Ko, 1987). The most recent studies on the
prevalence of maltreatment found few gender differences in the
likelihood of physical and emotional abuse (Mun et al., 2009; Pai et al.,
2009). Summarizing the ﬁndings from various child protective
services in South Korea, Pai et al. (2009) found that boys comprise
50.2% of all abuse cases among 9570 cases in 2008. Mun et al. (2009)
similarly report that boys comprise 49.8% of all types of abuse.
However, these studies did not consider the relationship between
gender and the types of abuse. Are South Korean boys and girls
equally likely to be at risk of all types of abuse? Or are boys more
prone to physical abuse while girls are more likely to be abused
emotionally and sexually, similar to the U.S.?
A study by Kim and Yoon (2002) also found that older children are
more likely than younger children to be maltreated at home. The
authors investigated the relationship between maternal attitudes
toward corporal punishment and their perceptions of child abuse
using a sample of 400 mothers of young children from various regions.
They found that mothers with children younger than ﬁve-years-old
were more aware of child maltreatment as a serious problem than
those with children older than six.
2.5. Characteristics of the perpetrators
Reported by KNCPA, 77.0% of perpetrators are biological parents;
of these, fathers constitute 49.8% and mothers 27.2% (Mun et al.,
2009). This is similar to studies in the U.S., which report that fathers
are more likely to be perpetrators of severe child abuse, including
child homicide (Lee, Guterman, & Lee, 2008) although when all types
of maltreatment are considered, gender is equally distributed.
However, earlier ﬁndings from South Korean research found that
mothers are more likely to employ corporal punishment. Researchers
in South Korea (e.g., Kim, 1998) have used corporal punishment and
child maltreatment interchangeably rather than examining whether
and to what degree corporal punishment constitutes child maltreat-
ment. Kim's (1998) study using a national telephone survey of 1272
clinical cases identiﬁed as maltreating families found that mothers
were signiﬁcantly more likely to support corporal punishment than
fathers. The study reports that 91.8% of mothers stated that they were
more likely to use corporal punishment compared to 82.9% of fathers.
These differences likely reﬂect the traditional role of mothers as
primary caregivers (Doe, 2000). Moreover, mothers who perceive
corporal punishment as a proper disciplinary method were less
likely to recognize child abuse as a serious social problem (Kim &
Other researchers in South Korea note that parents' mental health
status appears to be a relevant risk factor for child maltreatment (Yi,
2002; Yun & Choe, 2006). Abusive parents in South Korea may suffer
from mental and emotional distress, for example hysteria, obsessive–
compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, which
undermine their parenting practices and their relationship with their
children (Jeong, 2005).
3. Ecological systems analysis
The ecological systems theory, which considers multiple levels of a
social phenomenon, provides a useful theoretical framework for
reviewing the research on child maltreatment in South Korea. Child
maltreatment is multi-determined. When an ecological systems
model is applied, child maltreatment may be facilitated and/or
inhibited as a result of the interrelations among the individual,
family, neighborhood, and culture (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). An
ecological approach is conceived as an interactive set of systems
“nested”within each other, and conceptualizes the interdependent
interaction of systems as the main dynamics shaping the context in
which the individual experiences the phenomenon (Bronfenbrenner,
1976). This approach also focuses on the environmental quality and
asserts the need to consider various factors (e.g., cultural, political,
and economic) in shaping the quality of life for children and families
Son preference in the family is very strong in South Korea and is rooted in the neo-
Confucian-based patriarchal system.
1060 J.S. Hong et al. / Children and Youth Services Review 33 (2011) 1058–1066
Author's personal copy
(Garbarino, 1977). Developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, the ecological
systems theory represents a reaction to the limitations of some social
science research (Bronfenbrenner, 1976, 1994). According to this
model, the individual or a group of individuals is a part of ﬁve inter-
related system levels: micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chrono. This
model will be used to review the ﬁndings from empirical studies of
child maltreatment in South Korea.
Bronfenbrenner (1977, 1994) deﬁnes the micro-system as a
pattern of activities, social roles, and interpersonal relations experi-
enced by the individual in a direct setting (e.g., family, peer groups,
and school) that contains the individual. The interactions within the
micro-system consistently shape the individual or groups of indivi-
duals. As in other socio-cultural contexts, various factors at the micro-
system level, which consist of individuals and groups of individuals
with whom the individual have interactions in the immediate
environment (e.g., home), play key roles in child maltreatment,
including child maltreatment in South Korea. Micro-system level
factors studied in South Korea include 1) parent–child relationship, 2)
intergenerational transmission of abuse, and 3) domestic violence.
3.1.1. Parent–child relationship
Negative parent–child relationship is a salient risk factor for child
maltreatment in South Korea as a number of studies have found (Jeon,
2003; Kim & Seok, 2003; Yoon, 1997a; Yun & Choe, 2006) from both
children's and parents' reports. Jeon (2003) examined the association
between family factors and child abuse victimization in a sample of
543 ﬁfth grade elementary school students in Seoul, who were
administered an age-appropriate questionnaire. The questionnaire
consists four categories, which includes family structure, family
functioning, parents' childrearing practices, and parental character-
istics. The author found that children, whose parents failed to provide
affection, were likely to report that their mothers were punitive and
engage in emotional maltreatment. The study further indicated that
parenting practices and parental characteristics (e.g., deviance) are
signiﬁcantly related to both physical and emotional abuse.
In conjunction with negative parent–child relationship as a risk
factor for maltreatment, studies have also reported that maltreatment
can affect parent–child communication, as suggested by Yoon
(1997a), who examined the impact of abuse and neglect on parent–
child relationships and children's self-esteem using a random national
sample of 628 elementary and middle school students aged 10 to
14 years. Children in this study who rarely communicated with their
parents are more likely to experience physical and emotional abuse,
and neglect, compared to those who communicated with their
parents. The study however did not indicate the measures employed,
nor take into account relevant factors that can potentially mediate the
relationship between abuse and parent–child communication, such as
parents' and children's characteristics.
Researchers in South Korea have also consistently found that inter-
parental conﬂict can undermine parent–child relationships, which
can increase the likelihood of child maltreatment. Yun and Choe
(2006) investigated the association between mothers' depression,
inter-parental violence, and child neglect. The researchers adminis-
tered a structured questionnaire to a sample of 400 mothers of
toddlers in North Chungcheong province. They found evidence that
child neglect is associated with the effects of maternal depression and
partner conﬂict on their children's behavioral problems. Like Yun and
Choe, Lee (2004) examined how mother's marital conﬂict, parenting
style, and children's behavioral problems are associated with
maltreatment in a sample of 428 ﬁfth and sixth graders in two
elementary schools located in Busan. Lee found that children who
reported inter-parental conﬂict were more likely to report that their
mothers were controlling and to have experienced physical and
verbal abuse. There were several limitations to this study. First is the
issue of generalizability, as the sample in the study primarily consists
of upper-middle or middle class families. Moreover, although children
were asked to respond to the survey, the researcher did not mention
whether the surveys administered were age-appropriate and cultur-
3.1.2. Intergenerational transmission of abuse
Studies on the linkage between history of childhood maltreatment
and the perpetration of maltreatment have been conducted exten-
sively in the U.S. However, there is a paucity of studies in South Korea.
In one of the few studies in South Korea, Kim and Seok (2003)
investigated the effects of abuse during childhood on perpetration of
maltreatment during adulthood in a sample of 334 mothers of
elementary school students in Seoul. Using a survey, the authors
found that childhood experiences of abuse during childhood did not
increase maltreatment, although childhood abuse was associated with
harsh parenting practices, spousal conﬂicts, and domineering atti-
tudes of mothers. However, the researchers did not speciﬁcally deﬁne
maltreatment nor made any distinctions between maltreatment and
harsh parenting practices.
3.1.3. Domestic violence
Research in South Korea has found a signiﬁcant relationship
between domestic violence and child maltreatment perpetrated by
mothers (Kim, 1998, 2003, 2007; Lee, 1989, 2004; Nho, 2002; Shin,
2001). Studies (Kim, 1998; Lee, 1989) consistently report that wife-
battering victims in South Korea employ corporal punishment
signiﬁcantly more frequently when punishing their children than
non-victimized mothers. Kim (2003) examined how exposure to
domestic violence inﬂuences children's behavioral problem in a
sample of 1102 fourth to ninth grade children in Jeonnam province.
Data on exposure to domestic violence and children's behavioral
problems were collected using the Revised Conﬂict Tactics Scale and
the Korean version of the Child Behavior Checklist (K-CBCL). The
study reported that among the children who were physically and
psychologically maltreated, and neglected, over half also witnessed
father-to-mother abuse at least once over the past year. Domestic
violence exposure was also found to have a statistically signiﬁcant
negative impact on children's externalizing behavior problems.
Interestingly, middle school students were signiﬁcantly more likely
than elementary school students to exhibit externalizing behavioral
problems when they were exposed to domestic violence.
One of few researchers in South Korea who compared child
maltreatment of mothers and fathers involved in spousal abuse, Kim
(2007) studied a national stratiﬁed random sample of 1523 married
couples who were contacted for an interview via telephone and
assessed spousal abuse and child maltreatment using the Conﬂict
Tactics Scales. He found that abusive husbands were likely to verbally
and physically maltreat their children, both slightly and severely. In
contrast, victimized husbands were less likely to verbally or physically
abuse their children. On the other hand, abusive wives were prone to
employing only minor forms of physical punishment, while victim-
ized wives were verbally abusive to their children and used more
severe forms of punishment. These results suggest a complex
relationship between domestic violence and child abuse (Doe, 2000).
A meso-system consists of interrelationships between two or more
micro-systems in which the individual is situated (e.g., school and
home). Experiences in one micro-level system or direct interaction
(e.g., school) may inﬂuence another (e.g., home) (Eamon, 2001).
Although there are numerous meso-system interactions, the only
ones studied in South Korea are interactions between child–teacher
1061J.S. Hong et al. / Children and Youth Services Review 33 (2011) 1058–1066
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and child–parent; that is, interactions in one system (child–teacher)
may affect interactions in the other system (child–parent).
Because teachers have the most consistent and sustained
interactions with children in school, it is important to examine
teachers' awareness of child maltreatment cases; this could exacer-
bate or mitigate abuse at home. Studies on South Korean teachers'
involvement in child abuse cases also point out that even though
teachers recognize child abuse as a serious issue, they are unlikely to
intervene and report (Kim, 2009; Kim & Jeong, 2002; Kim & Park,
2001; Kim & Yoon, 2003; Yoon, 1997b), particularly in cases
involving non-physical maltreatment (e.g., neglect and emotional
abuse) (Cho, 2003; Lee & Kim, 2002). Cho (2003) studied 415
elementary school teachers in 15 schools located in Seoul and
Incheon. He found that although teachers understood child physical
abuse as a serious problem, they had little understanding of non-
physical abuse (e.g., neglect). Moreover, these teachers were not
informed of the proper procedures for reporting child abuse
violation. Kim and Park (2001) surveyed 116 elementary, middle,
and high school teachers' perceptions about physical, emotional, and
sexual abuse, and neglect. They found that teachers recognized
physical and sexual abuse as serious problems. However, these
teachers were unaware of their duty to report maltreatment cases
and to whom they should report. Lee and Kim's (2002) study is
consistent with Kim and Park's (2001) ﬁndings. In their research,
which examined 284 preschool teachers' awareness of child abuse,
they report that the majority of teachers were unresponsive to
behavioral symptoms of abuse compared to physical symptoms,
although they were educated about abuse. The teachers also believed
that they should not be involved in students' family affairs.
Furthermore, teachers' lack of involvement in child abuse cases is
linked to their perceptions of corporal punishment and their
perception of child maltreatment as a family problem. One study
indicates that teachers were less likely to perceive corporal punish-
ment as a form of maltreatment than the general public (Yoon,
1997b). Shin and Koh (2005) argue that the majority of South Korean
parents and teachers perceive excessive forms of corporal punish-
ment as effective deterrence in children's misconduct. Both parents
and teachers also believe that abolishing corporal punishment would
foster children's misbehavior and a complete lack of respect for adults.
Ju and Lee (2010) assessed the degree of maltreatment experienced
by children in protective custody in South Korea. Using a legal
deﬁnition of child maltreatment by the Korean Child Welfare Law, the
researchers examined possible factors for abuse and how children
cope with their experiences. Using quantitative data from face-to-face
interviews with 357 children between the ages of nine and 12, and in-
depth interviews with 14 of these children, the authors focused on
measuring physical and emotional abuse using the Child Maltreat-
ment Experience Scale (CMES) developed by the ﬁrst author. They
report that emotional abuse accompanied physical abuse and the
majority of the offenders were biological parents. The children also
felt they could not conﬁde in their teachers at school because the
teachers ignored them and did not wish to be involved in family's
The exo-system level is composed of interactions between two or
more settings, one of which does not directly affect the individual.
However, the occurrence of the event indirectly inﬂuences processes
within the immediate setting in which the individual is situated
(Bronfenbrenner, 1994). For example, the relation between mother's
employment and parenting practices is an example of an exo-system
level factor relevant to child maltreatment. Experiences in one system
that do not directly affect the individual (child), such as mothers'
employment may inﬂuence interactions in another, which has a direct
effect on the individual (e.g., parenting practices). Two exo-systems
level factors include mother's employment (Lee, 2006) and parents'
socio-economic status (SES) (Jeon, 2003; Kim & Yoon, 2002; Mun
et al., 2009).
3.3.1. Mothers' employment
Mother's employment and employment-related stress can affect
her parenting practices, as one study has shown. Lee (2006) examined
the association between mothers' employment, drinking, and child
maltreatment in a national survey of 6500 mothers of fourth, ﬁfth, and
sixth grade children who were contacted for a telephone interview.
The study found that mother's employment status (or lack thereof)
was signiﬁcantly related to all types of abuse (i.e., physical and
emotional) and neglect. Further, unemployed, alcoholic mothers in
particular were more likely to be physically abusive and neglectful of
their children than employed, alcoholic mothers. Mother's employ-
ment-related stress undermines their attachment with their children,
which increases negative parenting practices such as maltreatment
and neglect. However, the researcher did not describe how represen-
tative the sample was, how many mothers were approached, or the
measures that were used to obtain information. Moreover, this study
did not control for additional relevant variables that potentially
moderate the association between mother's employment and mal-
treatment, such as types of employment and marital status.
3.3.2. Parents' socio-economic status (SES)
Parents of lower educational background and SES were signiﬁ-
cantly more likely to abuse their children than those with higher
educational attainment and SES. Consistent with Kim and Yoon's
(2002) ﬁndings, researchers in South Korea also report that low SES
parents who frequently abuse their children also less likely to
distinguish between physical abuse and parental discipline than
parents of higher SES. Jeon (2003) examined the association between
child neglect and parent-level factors such as fathers' educational
attainment, marital status, and employment status. A survey, which
consisted of four sections, including family structure, parental
characteristics, and parenting practices, was administered to 543
ﬁfth-grade school children in Seoul. The author found that fathers
with low educational attainment and those who were unemployed
were more signiﬁcantly likely to neglect their children. Mun et al.
(2009) also found that low SES parents also fail to recognize that
neglect is a type of maltreatment that can impair children's physical,
emotional, and mental development.
The macro-system level is referred to as a cultural “blueprint”that
may determine the social structures and activities in the immediate
system levels. This level includes organizational, social, cultural, and
political contexts, which may affect the interactions within other
systems. It also consists of the overarching patterns found in micro-,
meso-, and exo-system level characteristic of a given culture or
subculture, with particular reference to the belief system, bodies of
knowledge, material resources, customs, lifestyles, opportunity
structures, hazards, and life course that are embedded in each of
these system (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). Research has addressed macro-
level factors, such as drinking culture, corporal punishment, and Neo-
Confucianism, which are salient to child maltreatment in South Korea.
3.4.1. Drinking culture
Alcohol consumption in South Korea is a part of social custom and
exchange, which leads to shared group identity, fostering honest
conversation, and facilitating coping mechanism for stressful events
(Sharpe, Abdel-Ghany, Kim, & Hong, 2001). According to the World
Health Organization (2004), the South Korean drinking tradition,
which in the past consisted of drinking mild fermented beverages, has
changed to drinking strong distilled alcohol. The World Health
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Organization (2004) reports that South Korea currently ranks as
among the highest per capita in alcohol consumption in the world;
16% of men and 2% of women drink heavy amounts of alcohol (Kim,
Shin, Stewart, & Yoon, 2002). Although women had traditionally
been excluded from the drinking culture (Sharpe et al., 2001),
changes in social values and norms in recent years have resulted in
rapid increase in women's alcoholism (Kim & Kim, 2008). According
to the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs (2002), the rate
of drinking among South Korean women increased from 33.0% in
1993 to 59.5% in 2001.
A number of researchers in South Korea also report strong
association between mothers' alcohol consumption and child abuse
(Ju & Lee, 2010; Kim, 1997; Lee, 2006; Lee & Han, 2003; Nho, 2002).
Studies have found that alcoholic mothers were signiﬁcantly more
likely to maltreat their children than non-alcoholic parents (Kim,
1997; Lee & Han, 2003). The study cited earlier on 17 child abuse
reporting centers (Nho, 2002) found that children's language
development and behavioral problems, and the perpetrators' (moth-
er) alcohol use were associated with physical abuse; the perpetrators'
gender, alcohol use, temperament, and experiences in domestic
violence were signiﬁcant factors for emotional abuse. In addition,
children's intellectual development and the perpetrators' alcohol use
were signiﬁcantly associated with neglect.
Although mothers' alcoholism is an identiﬁed risk factor in
maltreatment, it has not been recognized as a serious social problem.
Cho and Faulkner (1993) concurred by arguing that South Korean
attitudes concerning alcoholism are viewed as nothing more than
collective “denial;”South Koreans underestimate the objective
evidence of their alcoholism. Moreover, people who drink excessively
have not been admonished, which suggests that parents' alcohol use is
often overlooked in maltreatment cases.
3.4.2. Corporal punishment
Studies in South Korea also report that mothers' attitude towards
corporal punishment, commonly referred to as “cane of love”(sarang
ui mae) signiﬁcantly undermine their parenting practices and the
parent–child relationship, which increase the risk of child physical
abuse and neglect (Choi, 1989; Hong, Ahn, & Kim, 2004; Kim & Yoon,
2002; Lee, Jang, & Malley-Morrison, 2008). Corporal punishment in
South Korea is a type of physical violence, which typically involves
hitting with a hand or with an object, such as a belt or a cane.
According to Hahm and Guterman (2001), the “cane of love”implies
that “because I love you, I must whip you when you don't behave”(p.
176). The authors cite a survey conducted by the South Korean
Criminal Justice Department, which found that South Koreans oppose
the act of violence in theory; however, these behaviors are condoned
when inﬂicted against children for disciplinary measures.
Recognizing the ambiguity in the deﬁnition of child maltreatment
in South Korea, an earlier study by Choi (1989) investigated changes
in attitude among parents and children regarding corporal punish-
ment from a sample of 170 mothers and 173 children from an
elementary school in Busan. A questionnaire was administered to the
children in school and sent home to parents. The parental version
contained questions about parental income, occupation, education,
and age of mothers, as well as gender and academic performance of
children. The results from this study indicate that about 60% of
children were physically punished when they misbehaved.
Although the majority of children felt that their parents had the
right to use corporal punishment and that the parent–child
relationship was positive, they also expressed preference for parents
using alternative methods of punishment. As for the mothers, 90% felt
that corporal punishment was an acceptable method for disciplining
their children; however, 84% expressed feelings of regret after
physically disciplining their children, and 80% wanted to learn
alternative methods of punishment. Only about 43% of mothers felt
that corporal punishment was not a form of child maltreatment. In
sum, the study found that parents' attitudes toward corporal
punishment have been changing in South Korean society.
Lee, Guterman, and Lee (2008), Lee, Jang, & Malley-Morrison, 2008
study examined White, Korean American, and South Korean parents'
perceptions of child maltreatment in a sample of 150 university
students in the U.S. and South Korea. They report that Korean
Americans and Whites were more likely than South Koreans to
support corporal punishment. However, South Korean parents in
general were more likely than Korean American and White parents to
support less excessive forms of physical discipline. South Koreans on
the other hand stressed neglect more often than the other two ethnic
groups. Interestingly, South Koreans appeared to be more tolerant of
parents hitting their children and less tolerant of parents' beating
their children than their Korean American and White counterparts. In
addition, the study found that in terms of ‘moderate’forms of abuse,
such as spanking without any objects, Korean Americans mostly
identiﬁed fathers as perpetrators whereas Whites most frequently
identiﬁed mothers. Not a single South Korean identiﬁed mothers as
perpetrators of moderate forms of abuse.
Kim and Yoon (2002) examined the relationship between
mothers' attitudes toward corporal punishment and how they
perceive child maltreatment using a sample of 400 mothers with
children ages three to ﬁve in 23 public and private preschools located
in North Chungcheong province. They found that mothers with
children ﬁve-years-old or younger were more permissive (i.e., less
likely to employ physical punishment for children's misconduct) than
mothers of older children. Mothers with young children were more
likely to believe that child maltreatment is a serious problem. They
also report that mothers who support corporal punishment are less
likely to perceive child maltreatment as a serious social problem. This
is consistent with Straus (2000) who theorized that corporal
punishment is a prevalent risk factor for child abuse.
Confucianism was ﬁrst introduced during the Joseon Dynasty
(1392–1910) and stresses hierarchal social structure, patriarchal
authority, and family cohesiveness. Even today, Confucianism has
remained a major cultural inﬂuence in South Korean parenting
practices. Under the principles of Confucianism, children have been
perceived as possessions of their parents and children's obedience are
regarded as essential to maintaining family and social harmony (Yang,
2009). This cultural support has meant that child maltreatment was
not a major issue in South Korea—until recently.
Hierarchal subordination in the family, which emphasizes social
order, has been associated with child abuse. As Hahm and Guterman
(2001) suggest, factors that support maltreatment may result from
Confucianism include emphasis on ﬁlial piety and the family, parents'
strong desire for success of their children, belief that sons should be
raised in a “masculine”way and daughters should be raised in a
“feminine”way, and belief in corporal punishment. What may be
regarded as child abuse in Western societies has been supported by
traditional social norm in South Korea. For example, using objects,
such as a belt or a cane for disciplinary purposes is a common practice
in South Korea.
Yang (2009) examined South Korean parents' attitudes toward
corporal punishment and Western inﬂuence on childrearing and child
abuse on parenting practices. Due to privacy concerns, she utilized
purposive sampling strategies, selecting a sample of seventeen
married couples with one or more children. The author conducted
semi-structured interviews and used vignettes to elicit responses on
issues related to child development and parental conﬂicts. She found
that Confucianism strongly impacts parenting practices in South
Korea, where parent–child relationships are hierarchal and children
are expected to obey parents' rules. The study also found that the
majority of the parents employed corporal punishment, which was
attributed to a lack of knowledge about alternative discipline
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techniques. However, the author failed to examine how South Korean
parents' attitudes toward corporal punishment are inﬂuenced by
Western conceptions of child abuse.
The ﬁnal level of Bronfenbrenner's (1994) ecological systems theory,
the chrono-system includes consistency or change (e.g., historical
events) of the individual and the environment over the life course. The
passage of time has been regarded as synonymous with chronological
age in past studies of human development. The Asian economic crisis is a
salient chrono-system level factor for child maltreatment in South Korea.
Several Asian countries were beset with a major economic crisis in 1997.
South Korea was among the countries severely affected by corruption
and weak corporate governance, which resulted in ﬁnancial crisis, that of
the devaluation of local currency, layoffs, and rising prices (Radelet,
Sachs, Cooper, & Bosworth, 1998). Many South Korean families
experienced diminished economic status, and resulting income dispa-
rities and a major breakdown of the social fabric (Kang, 2004). As a
consequence, weakening of family ties, problems in functioning and
increased social problems such as child maltreatment intensiﬁed in South
Korea (Kang, 2004). Despite the evidence, which indicate that child
maltreatment was a serious problem during the Asian economic crisis,
we were unable to locate empirical research that focused speciﬁcally on
the association between economic crisis and maltreatment.
In this review, we applied the Bronfenbrenner's (1994) ecological
systems theory to examine the risk and protective factors for child
maltreatment in South Korea. Our analysis indicates that child abuse
stems from multiple level factors beyond the characteristics of the
victims or the perpetrators. A major advantage of the ecological
systems theory is that it can suggest multiple strategies for
assessment and intervention and it is important to address the
interplay between the direct and indirect level risk factors, which
could facilitate effective prevention and intervention strategies.
The reporting of child abuse in South Korea increased signiﬁcantly
over the years. Unfortunately, however, studies report that physicians
have been uninvolved in reporting. These ﬁndings are consistent with
studies in the U.S., which found that physicians are unlikely to be
involved in maltreatment cases although they frequently come in
contact with abused children (Sege & Flaherty, 2008). Contrary to the
U.S., there are no consequences for failure to follow through the
mandatory reporting responsibilities in South Korea, although the
current child abuse prevention law requires physicians and profes-
sionals to report incidence of maltreatment. Moreover, South Korean
researchers consistently found that lack of physicians' involvement in
maltreatment cases is attributed to the fact that these cases rarely
come to the overt attention of physicians and other professionals
(Choi et al., 2000). Although this is a pressing issue, the underlying
reasons why these victims rarely come to the attention of physicians
and other professionals is not yet fully understood. Physicians'
reluctance to report may be attributed to factors, such as ambiguity
in the existing law or ethical dilemma as to whether reporting would
result in the best interest of the child. Additional research on
physicians' reluctance to report is needed.
4.1. Ecologically-based practice, policy, and research implications
Research ﬁndings are consistent at the micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-,
and chrono-systems levels. The micro-system level analysis suggests
that positive parent–child relationship is important, not only in
healthy developmental outcomes of children (Chase-Lansdale &
Pittman, 2002), but also as a protective factor against maltreatment
(Garbarino, 1977). Likewise, mothers involved in spousal abuse are
signiﬁcantly more likely to employ corporal punishment than
mothers who were not abused by their spouses, similar to studies
in the U.S. (e.g., Casaneuva, Martin, & Runyan, 2009; Edleson, 2004;
Kelleher et al., 2008). Thus, assessment of maltreatment should
consider the quality of relationships between the parent and child, as
well as between both parents. Practitioners working with abused
children might utilize parenting skills program as well as couples
therapy program, which reinforce proper communication techni-
ques, problem solving, and conﬂict resolution within the family
Despite a major paucity of research in South Korea on the linkage
between childhood history and perpetration, the ﬁndings from one
study (Kim & Seok, 2003) indicate that experiences in maltreatment
during childhood did not increase the likelihood of perpetration
during adulthood, which is contrary to the ﬁndings in the U.S. (e.g.,
Rikhye et al., 2008). In his extensive review of research on the etiology
of child abuse in the U.S., Belsky (1993) concluded that only a fraction
of maltreated or neglected individuals will abuse their own children.
He argued that two things must be acknowledged. The ﬁrst is that a
parent who has not abused an infant might still mistreat that child at
an older age—or another child. The second is that some parents with
problematic childhood histories who contend they were not abused
may not have access to the memories required to respond accurately
to the relevant questions. He suggested considering possible psycho-
logical and behavioral mechanisms that are presumed to be
responsible for transmission when it actually occurs.
At the meso-systems level, researchers in South Korea (Kim, 2009;
Kim & Jeong, 2002; Kim & Park, 2001; Kim & Yoon, 2003; Yoon,
1997b) report that teachers in school are unlikely to be involved or
report cases of abuse, which is contrary to the ﬁndings in the U.S. Due
to the mandatory reporting laws in the U.S., which require teachers to
report suspected cases of abuse, teachers in American schools are
frequent reporters of child abuse and neglect cases. Because teachers
have the most consistent interactions with children in school, it is
necessary to assess their perceptions and attitudes concerning child
abuse and neglect. Although child maltreatment reporting is imposed
in South Korean schools, teachers may fail to report since the
reporting system may not be compatible with culture. Thus, it is
important that child maltreatment reporting protocols for teachers in
South Korea need to consider culture. For example, family violence
has been perceived as a ‘private matter’in South Korea, which poses a
barrier to report (see Hong, Kim, Yoshihama, & Byoun, 2010). Thus,
school administrators should educate teachers about the serious
consequences of maltreatment and reinforce the importance of
teachers' role in ensuring children's safety and well-being.
At the exo-systems level, a great deal of research in the U.S. reports
that maltreatment is positively associated with stress experienced by
the perpetrators (e.g., Egeland, Breitenbucher, & Rosenbery, 1980;
Straus, 1980). Earlier work of Bronfenbrenner (1974) also theorized
that child abuse was frequent when human ecology provided
inadequate support and stress was great (Chan, 1994). At the exo-
systems level, ﬁndings from one study in South Korea (Lee, 2006)
indicate that mother's employment-related stress can affect parent–
child attachment, which exacerbates negative parenting practices
such as abuse. Thus, it is important that practitioners assess the
association between parents' employment and their parenting
behaviors in the home (Hong & Eamon, 2009). Practitioners working
with the perpetrators need to locate resources and support that can
mitigate work-related stress in order to facilitate appropriate
In addition to mothers' employment-related stress, family poverty
has been found to be positively correlated with child abuse –
particularly neglect –in several studies in the U.S. (Albert & Barth,
1996; Coulton, Korin, Su, & Chow, 1995; Drake & Pandey, 1996).
Likewise, researchers in South Korea also report that parents of low
SES are signiﬁcantly more likely to maltreat their children than
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parents of higher SES. Of note, these researchers have not established
whether the developmental outcomes of abused low SES children
are inﬂuenced by poverty or maltreatment. As noted by Trickett,
Aber, Carlson, and Cicchetti (1991), it is difﬁcult to differentiate
between the effects of poverty and the effects of maltreatment
among low SES families.
Macro-systems level factors, such as mothers' alcohol consump-
tion, parents' positive attitudes toward corporal punishment, and
Confucian-based family hierarchy are all signiﬁcantly associated with
maltreatment in South Korea. These ﬁndings can be explained by the
fact that culturally and socially constructed attitudes and role
expectations can inﬂuence parenting and disciplinary practices, as
researchers have long argued (see Ogbu, 1981). Assessment must be
consistent with cultural attitudes and beliefs of the family (see Eamon,
2001). As difﬁcult as cultural values and practices are to change,
serious action to prevent and intervene in maltreatment is unlikely to
occur if such values and practices condone this behavior. Providing
education to parents on the harmful effects of abuse on children might
be an appropriate intervention strategy.
And ﬁnally, research studies examining child maltreatment at the
chrono-systems level indicate that parent–child interactions and
parenting behaviors appear to be vulnerable to changes in life course
or historical events, such as the Asian economic crisis in 1997.
Practitioners have little direct inﬂuence over historical or life events
that can cause problems. However, social workers and practitioners
can advocate for sufﬁcient social services and resources on behalf of
families at risk in coping with events that create problems within
family (Hong & Eamon, 2009).
Research studies on child maltreatment in South Korea are not
without any limitations. First, many studies have not considered the
deﬁnitions of ‘maltreatment’or the difference between ‘corporal
punishment’and ‘maltreatment’. The strategy employed by South
Korean researchers (and non-South Korean researchers on child
maltreatment in South Korea) reﬂects the U.S. policy and general
beliefs about child maltreatment; that child maltreatment derives
from individual deﬁcits of parents and children. Moreover, imposing
Western deﬁnitions in South Korea does not take into account cultural
beliefs that support deference to elders, Confucianism, and beliefs in
the beneﬁts of corporal punishment. As a likely consequence, the little
research on teachers' and physicians' involvement in reporting and
amelioration of child maltreatment shows the lack thereof. A better
direction for research would bestudiesthatbeginwiththe
examination of macro-level factors, such as cultural beliefs that
legitimizes violence against children.
The etiology of child maltreatment in South Korea is complex,
which requires an ecological assessment of the individual and the
environment in which the individual is embedded. This review adds
to the body of knowledge concerning child abuse and neglect from
cross-cultural and cross-national perspectives. This is evident,
considering that there have been increasing demands for culturally
appropriate prevention and intervention strategies in many Western
societies, such as the United States. In sum, practitioners working with
maltreated South Korean children need to be aware of the
complexities surrounding the family dynamics and systematically
explore the risk and protective factors for maltreatment.
Our ecological analysis also suggests that if researchers and
practitioners are to effectively address the issue of child maltreatment
in South Korea, they must ﬁrst examine cultural beliefs and public
attitudes that endorse the use of physical violence against children.
We expect this article to assist researchers and practitioners in
developing and evaluating more comprehensive prevention and
intervention programs on behalf of abused South Korean children.
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