Ending South Korea’s Child Export Shame

Korean babySouth Korea is on the verge of changing its reputation as the world’s leading baby exporter to a world leader in grassroots adoption reform. The first-ever birth mother, unwed mother, and adoptee co-authored bill is moving toward a National Assembly vote with government sponsorship.

Under current South Korean law, prospective adoptive parents don’t need to undergo criminal background checks. Moreover, agencies counsel unwed mothers, whose children comprise almost 90 percent of adoption placements, to sign illegal paperwork consenting to adoption even though their children are still in their wombs. The new bill proposes urgent revisions to change these realities and stipulates a court process for adoption, a cooling off period for child surrender without duress, and the documentation of identities, among other provisions.

“What makes this reform effort distinctive is that [it] is neither the result of a top-down process nor a powerful adoptive parent lobby,” says tammy ko Robinson, coalition member and professor at Hangyang University. “This bill is co-authored and informed by those of us who have been directly affected by this law.” The bill is a coalition effort that includes Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association (KUMFA), and several other groups.

“[The revision of the special adoption law] is an opportunity for South Korea to fully enter the 21st century as not just an economically developed nation, but as a socially developed one,” says ASK representative Kim Stoker. “It’s time for the government to end its outdated attitude toward international adoption and make concrete steps toward protecting the rights of its children and the mothers who give birth to them.”

The Baby Trade

With the world’s longest and oldest overseas adoption program, South Korea has sent an estimated 220,000 children to 14 receiving countries. Korean adoptees thus comprise the largest global child displacement in history, more than double the Chinese adoptee diaspora.

According to Kevin Ost-Vollmers, former staff of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota and Children’s Home Society & Family Services, “The number [of overseas adoptions] is declining; however, the fact is that many Americans adopt Korean children. The money received by the Korean agencies is significant.”

Despite promoting domestic adoption since 2005, South Korea remains a top five sending country to the United States accounting for almost 13 percent of all 2010 overseas adoptions. Adoptions from South Korea generate $35 million annually with a single overseas adoption today averaging $15,000. By contrast, the Korean government provided an unwed mother in 2009 with only 50,000 won (about $48) per month to care for her child. The money from one overseas adoption would pay an unwed mother’s family subsidy for 25 years of her child’s life.

Although the total revenue generated from an estimated 220,000 children is unknown, today’s prices suggest $3.3 billion as a rough sketch. A fuller picture would include unreported cash donations to strengthen inter-agency relationships leading to continuous child referrals, as well as the cost savings associated with exporting the children’s and their families’ social welfare needs. South Korea spends only 6.9 percent of its GDP on social welfare – the least among OECD nations. It allocated only 0.09 percent of its 2009 fiscal budget to support its children.

The Human Costs

Current law privileges expediency over mother and child rights and provides meager oversight of adoption providers. The Korean government is sometimes not even involved in adoption, and sales of children have taken place over the Internet.

Need seems to justify speed. Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea argues that there are annually thousands of homeless orphans in desperate need of families, but behind 9 out of 10 adoptions, there are unwed mothers whose families are torn apart. Caught in adoption pipeline, many of these mothers do not want to surrender their children but have little choice.

Hyong-sook Choi, a founding leader of KUMFA and mother of a four-year-old son, describes coercive agency counseling practices: “In the instance of one facility that provides support for unwed mothers’ counseling, for rearing and for raising . . . about 82 percent [of unwed mothers choose family preservation], while only 37 percent of unwed mothers who give birth in facilities run by adoption agencies decide to rear their children.”

South Korea has the world’s lowest birthrate with unwed mothers constituting only 1-1.25 percent of live births. Four out of five unwed mothers are aged 25 and over. Some of the KUMFA mothers are business owners or college graduates. As one mother mentioned to me, “[this cultural stigma] cuts off mothers’ arms and legs.”

It further reduces unwed mothers to wombs creating orphans. “Adoption agencies often say that adoption is ‘giving birth to an abandoned child through one’s heart,’” says Choi. “What kind of mother can send her child easily? Our hearts are broken when we hear that.”

Unwed mothers also tell of not being allowed to see their children because social workers arrive shortly after birth to take them away thus preventing mothers from changing their minds. When mothers attempt to get their children back, they are charged healthcare and foster care expenses— costs for which the agencies receive government subsidies. Mothers oftentimes are unable to pay this child ransom. Some birth mothers have said that agencies require fathers’ signatures in addition to theirs on documents rescinding adoption consent— a stipulation that was not needed for child surrender.

When birth mothers have asked for information about their children, agencies have refused, claiming that doing so violates the adoptive family’s privacy and telling birth mothers to wait until adoptees turn 18. However, there are no laws sealing or regulating adoption files, which are technically agency private property. The agencies could burn the records if they wanted.

Leanne Lieth, an artist and founder of Korean Adoptees for Fair Records Access, explains the challenges impeding adoptee information seeking: “Access to our Korean records is dependent upon whether the adoptee knows that there are duplicate or original records in Korea, that those records may have additional information . . . and that the adoptee has the will and tenacity to investigate across continents and languages with the often uncooperative and hostile Korean international adoption agencies. This process is arbitrary, inconsistent, and can drag out for years.”

In 1995-2005, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family reported that 78,000 adoptees initiated a birth search, but only 2.7 percent reunited.

Birth searching has revealed structural abuses such as falsified “orphan identities” as well as kidnapping by the orphanage. Parents return to claim their children only to discover that the orphanage forwarded them on to the agency. However, South Korean law disallows a third party transfer of parental rights, and before 2008, only a father could add or remove children from a family registry.

Turning a child into a paper orphan violates her/his basic right to identity as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “Let us acknowledge that each and every human being deserves to know about themselves and that their information should not be held hostage by a private interest,” says Lieth. “This is our human right. It should be our civil right.”

Counting on Now

Over the almost 60 years of South Korea’s adoption history, 220,000 adopted and forgotten children equal 220,000 birth mothers equal 220,000 families separated by deeply-rooted discrimination, not always by choice.

By making the new adoption bill law, South Korea can begin reconciling its painful adoption past by changing its current systematic placement of Korean children through the erasure of their identities and coercion of their mothers. In this way, South Korea can work to set new precedents in adoption justice.

If South Korea seizes this opportunity, it will be due to adoptees, birth mothers, and unwed mothers not giving up on South Korea despite South Korea giving up on them.

“We still have to see, but I’m hopeful that the plenary vote will indicate a collective realization,” says Professor Robinson. “During the next 50 years, why not focus on developing a model for others to emulate in how to protect its children’s rights as citizens with families?”

The future belongs to South Korea to pioneer. May it begin now to count all of its diverse families as equal and beyond price.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a Korea Policy Institute fellow, and an assistant professor of English and director of American Racial and Multicultural Studies at St. Olaf College.