Kim Sun Ja was one of the last people in South Korea to receive capital punishment before the country became a de facto abolitionist state during the presidency of Kim Dae Jung. But how did a regular housewife like her turn into one of the most notorious criminals in the country? Stories say her greed was at the root of it all.
Born in 1939, Kim Sun Ja led an ordinary life as a wife and a mother of three. Her husband was the family’s sole breadwinner, but his modest income as a painter was hardly enough to satisfy her. According to people who knew Kim Sun Ja, she was addicted to gambling and loved to visit cabarets. So, she took it upon herself to bridge the vast gap between her financial reality and fancy desires.
Between 1986 and 1988, Kim Sun Ja killed five people, all in public places, and didn’t get caught until a month after her last strike. Her first victim was a friend of hers, named Kim Gye Hwan. The two had gone to the bathhouse together on October 31, 1986. In the women’s locker room, Ms. Sun Ja handed her friend a health drink, which Kim Gye Hwan took without thinking much of it. Soon after, her stomach started cramping and she had difficulty breathing. After she collapsed, she was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.
At that time, autopsies were taboo in Korean society, since people believed that it is a form of killing the dead once again. So, the cause of Kim Gye Hwan’s death remained a mystery. The police noticed that her jewelry was missing but didn’t find any incriminating evidence against any suspects.
In April of 1987, Kim Sun Ja asked another friend, Jeon Soon Ja, to accompany her to Yeongdeungpo. She told Jeon Soon Ja that a borrower was supposed to meet her there to return some money. She assured her that once she gets her money back, she will repay Jeon Soon Ja whatever amount she owed her for a previous loan. On their way to the destination, Kim Sun Ja handed her friend a medicinal drink on the bus. Soon after drinking it, Jeon Soon Ja was heard complaining that there is something in her drink. She collapsed from her seat and was taken to the hospital, only to be pronounced dead.
In 1988, Kim Sun Ja went to another friend of hers, Kim Soon Ja, to whom she owed money, and asked her to go to a coffee shop with her. She repeated the same story, that she was supposed to meet a debtor there who is going to pay back a loan, and as soon as she gets the money, she will also repay the ₩1.20 million KRW (about $871 USD) she had borrowed from this friend. Ms. Soon Ja agreed, but when they arrived at the place, the debtor didn’t show up. On their way back home, Kim Sun Ja offered her friend a drink. She only took a few sips before she started vomiting. Kim Sun Ja suggested that she drink some more of it to feel better but her friend got suspicious and decided to head home alone. Soon after, Kim Sun Ja visited her house to enquire about her wellbeing and even repaid the debt. So, any suspicion her friend had about her dissipated quickly.
In the same year, on March 27, Kim Sun Ja accompanied her 73-year-old father on his intercity bus ride back home after he had visited some relatives. On the bus, she handed him a beverage, which he drank and collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, the doctors were unable to save him. After her father’s death, Kim Sun Ja requested to cremate her father immediately and there was no investigation whatsoever.
A month later, she was waiting at the Hwayangdong bus station with her younger sister, when she handed her a drink. Like most of her previous victims, Kim Sun Ja also owed money to her sister. The younger sister drank the beverage and collapsed on the bus. While she was being carried off the bus, Kim Sun Ja took the chance to flee with her sister’s handbag and jewelry.
Her last victim was another family member — a cousin named Son Si Won from whom she had borrowed ₩434 million KRW (about $315,000 USD), for the supposed deposit money for a house she planned to buy. When the two met on August 8, 1988, Kim Sun Ja offered her cousin a beverage, which ended up killing her the same way as the previous victims.
This time, however, the family members of Son Si Won agreed to an autopsy, and it was found that she had died of cyanide poisoning. The police then autopsied all of the previous victims and found out that they had all died the same way. This was evidence enough to arrest Kim Sun Ja for questioning, but they had to look for more concrete proof to build a case against the suspect. When authorities searched Kim Sun Ja’s house, they found the stolen jewelry and cash. When one officer went to use the restroom at her house, she noticed that there was a crack opening behind the toilet. When she stuck her finger inside, she found a clump of cyanide wrapped in some newspaper.
The police had collected enough evidence to prove that Kim Sun Ja was behind all of these suspicious deaths and that she killed her victims by lacing their drinks with cyanide. Even though she kept denying all the charges, the Supreme Court sentenced her to death in 1989. She was executed in the Daejon prison in October 1997. She was one of the 23 violent criminals who were executed that day around the country, as part of the last executions carried out in South Korea.