South Korea’s First Serial Killer Was Caught After 33 Years While He Was Already In Jail

He said he was surprised he wasn’t caught sooner.

Content Warning

This article includes descriptions of sexual assault and violence that may disturb some readers.

Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Alphabet Murderer are notorious serial killers known for their gruesome crimes and ability never to get caught. These cruel people have inspired countless movies and books despite their sinister stories. For some reason, people are drawn to these unspeakable acts of violence. Acclaimed director Bong Joon Ho was similarly inspired by the man known as the Korean Zodiac Killer to make his 2003 film, Memories of Murder.

Poster for Memories of Murder | The Criterion Collection

The movie is considered one of the greatest South Korean films of all time, but the events that inspired it are no less tragic. Song Kang Ho, a relatively unknown international actor at the time, played the detective in charge of cracking crimes based on the real-life unsolved Hwaseong serial murders. Memories of Murder ends with the detective failing to find the killer and staring intently into the camera as if he were trying to see him in the audience.

The movie’s ending is even eerier knowing that the actual Korean Zodiac Killer responsible for those deaths has seen Memories of Murder, and he was finally caught in 2019.

Song Kang Ho in the Memories of Murder final scene | NEON/YouTube

Yoon Sung Yeo‘s mother died in a car crash when he was only in the 3rd grade. His father was a gambling addict who wasted all their insurance money and gave away their home. As a teenager, he needed to find work to survive. In 1990, he was arrested for the murder and rape of a 13-year-old girl because of a forced confession made after 3 days of torture and starvation from corrupt police officers. He would spend the next 19 years in prison before being released on parole in 2009. He would live the next decade in fear, ostracized for a crime he did not commit.

Finally, in 2019, a man named Lee Choon Jae, who had been in prison since 1994 for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, began to confess to even more heinous crimes, which included 14 murders and over 30 attempted sexual assaults. Among these was the very same case in which Yoon Sung Yeo was falsely imprisoned for more than 30 years ago. Yoon Sung Yeo hesitantly filed for a retrial, afraid to hope for anything.

Against all odds, late in 2020, Yoon Sung Yeo was finally acquitted of all charges and received a formal apology from a provincial police chief and district court judge. Yoon Sung Yeo lived less than a block away from Lee Choon Jae growing up, and the latter’s brother was his best friend. This explained how Yoon Sung Yeo was in such close proximity to the murders.

When the verdict was announced, his supporters deservedly exploded into applause. He also said that most of all, he’s glad he can tell his mother “That her son is blameless.”

Yoon Sung Yeo | The Korea Herald

Lee Choon Jae continues to serve his life sentence even though he could not be prosecuted for the murders he admitted to because the statute of limitations on all the crimes had expired. He was indifferent to parole and release, fearing the inevitable public condemnation.

Lee Choon Jae’s high school graduation photo | Yonhap News Agency

Yoon Sung Yeo is set to receive around ₩1.70 billion KRW (about $1.27 million USD) in damages but rightfully claims, “No amount of money can bring back all the years and the life I lost.” He also said he had forgiven Lee Choon Jae, but if possible, he would ask him why he did it.

Source: The Korea Herald, The Korea Herald, The Korea Herald, IndieWire and The New York Times