True Crime: Who was the Cyanide Killer?

In the mid-1980s, people were randomly collapsing and dying around Seoul. Or was it random? 

On this week’s podcast, we recount one of the lesser known mass murder episodes in Korea. It’s a sad story, and the killer’s identity will shock you.

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Notes

Series of strange deaths between 1986 and 1988

  • Halloween, 1986: Kim Gye-won went to a public bath in Shindang, Seoul
  • At the bath: Gye-won clutched her chest, complained of laboured breathing
  • Gye-won’s symptoms worsened; she fell into a fetal position
  • She was rushed to a nearby ER; she died there
    • Doctors determined Gye-won died from unspecified poisoning
  • Police investigated, interrogating everyone at the public bath
    • Nothing suspicious was uncovered
    • Suicide was ruled out
  • Gye-won’s family noted nothing strange; Gye-won went to the bath with her neighbour as usual
    • They did note that Gye-won seemed to be missing a pearl necklace and gold rings
  • Investigation continued with no leads



  •  April 4, 1987: near Yongsan Station, passengers on a bus witnessed a woman, Jeon Soon-ja, fall from her seat
  • Soon-ja convulsed violently
  • The bus stopped and a passenger carried Soon-ja to a nearby hospital; she died in his arms
  • Yongsan Police Station investigated; they spoke only with the bus driver and passengers, who noticed nothing strange before Soon-ja’s convulsions 
  • No further evidence



  • March 27, 1988: Kim Jong-choon, an elderly man, went to a relative’s birthday party in Icheon
  • On the intercity bus home, Jong-choon collapsed, suffered convulsions and vomiting
  • He was rushed to hospital; he died 
  • His death was deemed a heart attack



  • April 29, 1988: Kim Munja on bus near Children’s Grand Park
  • She was rushed to hospital; died
  • Death was ruled a heart attack
  • The medical staff who observed both Jong-choon and the woman had no access to forensics



  • July 8, 1988: Sohn Siwon was on a bus in the Yongsan district
  • Siwon collapsed on the bus and later died
  • Siwon was given an autopsy
    • Death was determined to be cyanide poisoning
  • During the investigation, determined Siwon had met with cousin Kim Seonja
    • Further investigation then linked Seonja to all the other victims



  • Neighbour Kim Gye-won went to public bath with was Seonja; she stole jewelry
  • Jeon Soon-ja was a creditor who arranged a loan of 7 million won for Seonja
  • Kim Jong-choon was Seonja’s father; she stole money, bankbooks, etc.
  • Kim Munja was Seonja’s younger sister; she stole money, bankbooks, etc
  • Sohn Siwon was Seonja’s sister-in-law from whom she had borrowed 4.4 million won
  • Seonja’s was considered a person-of-interest after Jeon Soon-ja’s death, but there was not enough evidence
  • It was discovered that on February 10, 1988 (after Jeon Soon-ja’s murder and before Kim Jong-choon’s murder), met creditor Kim Soon-ja; Seon-ja had borrowed and still owed 1.2 million won; Seon-ja accompanied Soon-ja to meet a debtor in Eunpyeong; upon returning in a taxi, Soon-ja felt ill and vomited; Seon-ja offered a medicinal drink; Soon-ja rejected it and went straight home
    • Seon-ja later went to Soon-ja’s house to check on her and repay the debt

 

  • Money was the motive – loans and theft
    • Investigation uncovered a ton of jewelry, bankbooks, and other valuable items in Seon-ja’s house
  • Cyanide was found in Seon-ja’s house
    • Investigator found a clump the size of a chestnut in the bathroom (while taking a shit)
    • More conclusive evidence was needed
    • Investigators wanted to run autopsies on victims; victim’s were exhumed
      • This was difficult; families weren’t receptive to exhuming 
      • Cyanide was discovered in the remains; Kim Jong-choong was cremated, so no autopsy was given
    • Discovered that Seon-ja’s relative worked in chemical plant with access to cyanide
      • Seon-ja asked relative to sell her some to kill pheasants 




  • How does cyanide kill? (source: Johns Hopkins University) 
    • Highly lethal – has been used in warfare for millenia
      • Nero used Laurel water (a hydrogen cyanide solution) to poison water supplies of enemies 
    • Cyanide inhibits the body from deriving energy from oxygen
    • Central nervous system and cardiovascular system are chiefly affected
    • Symptoms are: (CNS) headache, anxiety, agitation, confusion, lethargy, seizures, and coma; (cardio) hypotension and pulmonary edema; (other) acute lung damage, nausea, vomiting, and skin discolouration
      • Survivors may subsequently suffer Parkinson’s disease, neurological disorders, among others
    • Kills quickly



  • Who was Kim Seon-ja?
    • Little is known outside of her crimes
    • Born in 1939
    • Married, with three sons; husband made living as a painter (sole family income)
    • In her late 40s during murders
      • No known prior convictions
    • Gambling addiction 
      • Apparently also spent a lot of time in clubs

 

  • Arrest, trial, and execution
    • September 2, 1988: Seon-ja is arrested, charged with three counts of murder and robbery; she denied all charges
      • The total known amount she stole was 8.5 million won and 600,000 won in jewelry (uncertain) – more than 28,000,000 won today
    • Trial began: concluded in 1989; was sentenced to death
    • Continually denied the charges while on death row
      • ‘I’m going home without guilt.’
    • Some insisted the death penalty was unfair
      • Subject of an episode of SBS’s I Want to Know (그것이 알고 싶다)
        • The show appeared to sympathize with Seon-ja’ some believed her resentment justified removing death penalty
      • Former (at the time) Justice Minister Bae Myeong-in was inspired by the show; allegedly requested retrial; apparently denied
    • December 30, 1997: Kim Seon-ja was executed 

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