The Korean Zodiac Killer: Lee Choon-Jae and the Hwaseong Serial Murders
by Joe Turner
January 31, 2020
You might not have heard the name Lee Choon-jae, or the Hwaseong serial murders - especially if you’re from the Western world. However, Lee Choon-jae is a name that should be spoken alongside Richard Ramirez, BTK and the Golden State Killer. Here's why:
Lee Choon-jae spent five years raping and murdering throughout the city of Hwaseong, South Korea, eventually becoming one of the most infamous serial killers in Asia. His story is equal parts fascinating as it is tragic, and only recently (October 2019) did the full extent of his crimes become known.
Here’s everything you need to know about Lee Choon-jae and the Hwaseong serial murders.
One of the most prolific Korean serial killers
Lee Chun-jae is often referred to as the Korean Zodiac due to their crimes sharing similarities. However, Lee was actually responsible for more atrocities than the Zodiac by a large margin. For five years between 1986 and 1991, he held the city of Hwaseong, South Korea gripped with fear as more and more women fell victim to his attacks.
The killings actually sparked the largest manhunt in the history of South Korea, with a total of over 2 million man-days spent researching, investigating and interviewing people of interest. By the end of the investigation, police said they'd actually interviewed over 21,000 people – a record which still remains in 2020. To this day, the case remains one of the worst cases of multiple homicide in South Korea.
He was responsible for the murder of at least ten women
Beginning in September, 1986, Lee targeted women who he deemed vulnerable. He would often lurk in the shadows, watching his victims, following them home and waiting for the right moment to strike.
Strangely, Lee had no particular victim type providing they were female. They ranged between the ages of 13-71, killing victims in their twenties, fifties and sixties. It is believed that Lee targeted women of these particular ages because he was more likely able to overpower them.
Lee’s first victim was a 71 year old woman who he blitz-attacked in a field then strangled her with his bare hands. He killed a total of 10 women in the same manner, usually in public areas and by strangling them with either his hands or an item of their clothing.
His eighth victim, Park Sang-hee, was a 14-year-old schoolgirl who Lee killed while she slept. It was a slight deviation from his usual MO, and it went on to play an important part in Lee’s story.
He also raped over thirty women
Not only did Lee rape the majority of his victims before he killed them, but he was also responsible for three times as many attempted rapes between 1986 and 1991.
The most probable belief is that rape was Lee’s primary goal. As far as records show, the only one of his victims he didn’t rape (that we know of) was his first, the 71-year-old. With every subsequent victim, semen was discovered at the crime scene.
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But not only that, Lee also confessed to further assaults after being caught. By his own admission, he committed anywhere between an additional 30-45 attempted rapes. It’s unclear how many people escaped and how many he was able to subdue.
He was apprehended – but for robbery charges
In September 1989, less than two weeks after his first murder, Lee was caught invading a home. He was armed with weapons (although he never used weapons during his murders) and may have been planning on attacking and killing the homeowner.
However, Lee was caught by the owner and fought off. Lee was taken in by police and eventually sentenced to 2 years of probation.
The murders were unsolved for years
Lee’s similarities with the Zodiac go deeper than simple murder. Much like the Zodiac, the Hwaseong serial killings went unsolved for over three decades. For 33 years, in fact.
But forensic DNA tests carried out in 2019 linked Lee with nine of the murders. It was indisputable evidence, however, Lee protested his innocence, claiming no involvement with the killings.
Perhaps they would have remained unsolved had Lee not confessed. Unfortunately for Lee, tracking him down wasn’t an issue, as he had already been apprehended due to another crime and was serving a life sentence in Busan Prison.
He inspired a copycat
As mentioned, Lee’s eighth murder – that of 14-year-old Park Sang-hee – is a notable part of his legacy.
In 1989, police bought in 22-year-old Yoon Sang-Yeo under suspicion of murdering the young girl. Authorities had discovered pubic hair at the scene which were a partial match for Yoon’s, and most incredibly of all, Yoon actually confessed to the murder.
Details of Yoon’s criminal past are scarce, so it’s unclear whether or not Yoon had a history of violent behavior. His confession was believed to have been coerced out of him by investigating officers through methods of torture.
Yoon was sentenced to life imprisonment, despite being an innocent man. It wasn’t until Lee’s confession in 2019 that authorities were forced to review the decision. Yoon eventually served 19 years and 6 months in jail before being released on parole in 2009.
He murdered his sister-in-law
In 1993, Lee’s wife filed for divorce. Their separation wasn’t a mutual decision.
Yearning for revenge in any way possible, a month later, Lee invited his wife’s 18-year-old sister (whose name has never been released) over to his house. He drugged her, raped her, then strangled her in the same way he had done his previous victims. At this point, Lee hadn’t indulged his murderous impulses for three years, and if he hadn’t have killed his sister-in-law, he may have evaded justice forever.
However, this killing would be his undoing. It was his last ever murder.
He helped ‘search’ for his missing sister-in-law
Many serial killers can’t help but inject themselves into ongoing investigations of their crimes. Lee was no different.
While some murderers do it for egotistical purposes, some do it to alleviate suspicion of their involvement. Lee was likely the latter.
Along with his father-in-law, Lee went to the police and reported that the missing sister-in-law may have been abducted. He also offered to join the search for her.
Lee was found guilty of her murder
But Lee’s performance wasn’t enough to convince police of his innocence. They were aware of Lee’s sketchy history, and only five days later, he was arrested.
Lee may have incriminated himself during questioning when he asked: “how many years do you serve in prison for rape and murder?”
No one had mentioned rape and murder in conjunction with the sister-in-law’s disappearance, so this raised police suspicions even further.
They eventually coaxed a full confession out of Lee, although he later retracted it, claiming he’d been forced into confessing by police. Regardless, he was sentenced by the court for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. The punishment was a death sentence but later reduced to life in prison.
25 years later- a shocking confession
South Korean officials still investigated the killings right up until the present day, and in September 2019, they made an incredible discovery.
DNA samples from a piece of underwear recovered from one of crime scenes matched Lee’s. Then, further inquiry linked Lee to other Hwaseong murders too.
When questioned in prison, Lee initially denied the claims that he was indeed the person behind these infamous crimes. But on October 2nd, 2019, it was officially announced that South Korean police had found the man responsible for the serial murders.
But there was more to his crimes than police knew
All ten of the Hwaseong murders were officially attributed to Lee, with him reportedly having confessed to all of them willingly. This included the significant eighth murder, the one which someone else had already taken the blame for.
But more chillingly, Lee confessed to an additional five killings, three of which took place in Hwaseong like the others, but two occurred in Cheongju, the capital city of the North Chungcheong Province.
Details of these victims are unknown to the public as the investigation is still ongoing.
His confession highlighted police incompetence
The revelation that Lee was the Hwaseong murderer did not paint South Korean police in a good light. Firstly, there was the issue that the person responsible was right in front of them the whole time. They had ten bodies to work with, and Lee’s DNA samples were already on police systems, so it seems odd that they weren’t able to make a match for 25 years.
Secondly, there was the fact that there were five additional killings that went under the police’s nose, presumably ones baring the same MO and committed in the same location.
And most importantly, there was the matter of the false confession, allegedly encouraged by investigating officers. Authorities stated that Lee ‘elaborately and coherently' explained the murder in detail, therefore extinguishing any doubt that he wasn’t responsible.
Lee won’t face any additional prosecution
Although it’s since been confirmed that Lee is indeed the Korean serial killer responsible, due to the number of years which has passed since the murders occurred, no additional time will be added to his sentence.
The statute of limitations at the time of the Lee's killings that a person won’t be held responsible for first-degree murder if legal proceedings were not initiated within 25 years. Although this law was abolished in 2015, it was not retroactively applied to the Hwaseong murder case.
Why he confessed is still unclear
There has been speculation as to why Lee confessed at all, since Lee’s life sentence includes the possibility of parole after twenty years. Furthermore, Lee was reportedly a model prisoner inside Busan jail. He was as a grade-1 inmate, meaning he was calm and respectful to everyone he interacted with.
Although the discovery won’t add any additional years to his sentence, authorities can possibly use them as justification to refuse parole to Lee.
His story has been adapted numerous times
As Lee’s story is one of the most infamous in Korean history, his crimes have been adapted to film and TV on numerous occasions. The most famous adaptation is the 2003 film Memories of Murder.
While it’s not a direct adaptation of Lee’s case in full, it uses the Hwaseong murders as the framework to the story.
Is Lee Choon-jae the most prolific Korean serial killer? Let us know what you think in the comments below!