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[Newsmaker] Government neglect of single moms sends babies abroad despite S. Korea's low birth rate

In 2022, 142 Korean babies were sent away for overseas adoption

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 21, 2024 - 21:03

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A baby holds the hand of a caregiver at a shelter operated by Eastern Social Welfare Society in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul in 2017. (Newsis) A baby holds the hand of a caregiver at a shelter operated by Eastern Social Welfare Society in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul in 2017. (Newsis)

Born as Yoon-hwa in South Korea in 1974, she became Petra Zwart of the Netherlands at the age of 1.

Her adoptive Dutch family provided a warm and welcoming home to both Zwart and her biological brother, who was adopted at age 5.

Even so, Zwart recalls finding it difficult to fit in as a child, due to her East Asian appearance being different, "like an ugly duckling."

She and her brother were among the nearly 170,000 babies that Korea has sent overseas for adoption since 1953.

Despite much criticism of transnational adoption from Korea, it has not stopped. In 2022, some 142 Korean babies were sent abroad.

Upon hearing the latest adoption figures, Zwart couldn’t help but ask, “Why is this still happening?”

“Now that South Korea has become a prosperous country and we all know a lot more about the consequences of transracial adoption, knowing it is not always in the best interest of the child, isn’t it time to take another approach?” she asked.

Korea, according to one study, ranked fifth globally in terms of the number of children sent abroad for international adoption in 2021.

Petra Zwart Petra Zwart

A lucrative business

The history of Korea’s international adoptions traces back to 1953, as an estimated 100,000 children were orphaned and homeless in the wake of the Korean War. In exceptional circumstances like that, or in the case of a major disaster, it is not uncommon for a large number of overseas adoptions to occur in a short period of time.

However, overseas adoption didn’t subside in Korea after stability returned. On the contrary, adoptions boomed in the following decades. At its peak in 1985, 8,837 babies were sent overseas, equivalent to 1.35 percent of babies born in the country that year.

Even today, although the figures are not as high as before, the country still gives up a large number of its children for international adoption. In 2022, 142 babies were sent away for adoption, down from 755 babies in 2012.

According to a study by Peter Selman from Newcastle University in the UK, between 2004 and 2021, Korea was among the top seven nations that placed children up for transnational adoption, with 16,051 children sent away over that period. In 2021, Korea ranked fifth, after Colombia, India, Ukraine and Thailand.

Of all children that were given new homes through adoption, international matchups accounted for some 40-44 percent, with the share remaining more or less stable despite the overall decline in total adoptions worldwide.

Experts assert that while there are clear incentives for private adoption agencies to arrange international adoptions, the government has been inactive about improving child welfare and the broader social situation that leads to babies being given up for adoption.

They say that this reality has resulted in the bitter irony of Korea continuing to send babies abroad despite its cripplingly low birth rate.

Four agencies in South Korea handle international adoptions: Holt Children's Services, the Korea Social Service, Korea Welfare Services and the Eastern Social Welfare Society.

Between 2018 and 2022, the four agencies sent a combined 1,183 children overseas and received a total of 22.1 billion won in commission fees, according to the office of Rep. Choi Yeon-sook of the People Power Party, citing information from the Welfare Ministry. On average, the fees received by agencies amounted to 18.7 million won ($14,000) per child.

Those fees were on top of the 2.7 million won the agencies received from the Korean government for each adoption arranged. This latter amount is the same for domestic and international cases.

A group of South Korean adoptees launched a social media movement in 2021 with the hashtags #NotAThing. The graphic was made by Valerie Reilly. Petition: Kara Bos, Kevin Omans, Liat Shapiro, Cam Lee, Allison Park, Brenna McHugh and Patrick Armstrong A group of South Korean adoptees launched a social media movement in 2021 with the hashtags #NotAThing. The graphic was made by Valerie Reilly. Petition: Kara Bos, Kevin Omans, Liat Shapiro, Cam Lee, Allison Park, Brenna McHugh and Patrick Armstrong

Soongsil University social welfare professor Noh Hye-ryun, who worked at Holt in 1981, said overseas adoptions are clearly preferred by Korea's agencies.

“Compared to domestic adoption, overseas adoption brings in over 10 times the money with much less work. Adoption agencies also don’t have to deal with post-adoption matters because the children are taken care of by cooperating agencies in the country where they are adopted,” she said.

Post-adoption management includes overseeing the well-being of adoptees in new homes.

Neglecting this responsibility can have severe social repercussions, as demonstrated by the tragic death of Jeong-in, a victim of child abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother, in October 2020.

Holt had arranged the child’s placement, and following the child's death and subsequent public outrage, the chairperson of the agency resigned.

A mother of two adopted daughters, who wished to disclose only her surname, Chang, told The Korea Herald that she sought to adopt her second child after the incident.

However, she was told by all four adoption agencies that there were "no available babies," and she had to wait for 2 1/2 years before finally being able to adopt her second daughter.

Noh said that, with the lack of government oversight, the four adoption agencies had been allowed to profit from baby brokering.

"Korean babies, who were healthy and young, were sent overseas at the highest prices," she said, citing her own analysis of the agencies’ adoption paperwork in April 2023.

The adoption of Korean babies required the highest commission fees, compared to other leading child-sending countries, which included China, Colombia and India. The Korean babies sent abroad for adoption were also much younger.

While other countries would adopt children aged between 1 to 16 years old with commission fees below $10,000, Korea would send away babies aged between 12-16 months, with fees as high as $26,500 per infant, Noh said, citing the documents she reviewed.

During the 1980s at the peak of the overseas adoption boom in Korea, employees at Holt were earning an average monthly salary of around 250,000 won while commission fees for each overseas adoption were 3 million won -- a huge amount at the time.

None of the four adoption agencies responded to The Herald’s request for interviews.

Big change coming in 2025

A major change to the current adoption system is expected in July 2025, when the revised Special Act on Domestic Adoption is set to take effect. The government's role in adoption will be reinforced, and agencies that receive commissions for adoptions will face penalties. Receiving commissions from parents hoping to adopt a baby is already illegal, but there is no provision for punishment.

Additionally, by July 2025, the government intends to ratify the Hague Adoption Convention, which serves to safeguard the rights of children adopted internationally.

Korea signed the global convention in 2013 but has not yet ratified it due to issues such as local adoption law not aligning with the standards outlined in the convention.

The key principle of the convention is that a child should be raised within their biological family, allowing overseas adoption only when a nation cannot find a family domestically that is capable of protecting the child. The agencies responsible for overseas adoption under the convention must operate as non-profit organizations.

“In order to comply with the Hague Convention signed by 104 countries, including Korea, to protect children’s human rights in adoption and to prevent kidnapping and human trafficking, adoption-related bills were passed in the National Assembly in July (2023),” said Rep. Choi Yeon-sook of the People Power Party.

She stressed that the government should not waste time and allow the current problems to go unchallenged, as it is still two years before the law is supposed to take effect.

Destigmatize single mothers

In addition to efforts to curb overseas adoptions, the government should devise comprehensive local adoption programs and strategies to protect babies in need of care better, experts say.

Such efforts could include the expansion of foster care systems and the provision of support to single mothers to help alleviate their financial or child-rearing burdens.

“In Korea, there is a prevalent perception that foster care is only temporary protection, and there is still a low awareness of its need as a form of permanent care,” said Park Hyun-sun, a social welfare professor at Sejong University.

In 2022, the number of children who needed protection stood at 1,881. Out of them, 802 were in family fostering, while 567 were in child care facilities such as orphanages.

Park said children need a continuous relationship with a stable foster family, as well as individual attention.

“This can only be possible within a family environment. It is necessary to expand the importance of foster parents,” she said.

The professor emphasized that the government should extend support for foster parents, such as granting them legal guardian status. This would allow foster parents to take the child to a hospital or on a trip, and make foster parents eligible for parental benefits.

The fact that most of the babies sent overseas were born to single mothers shows where the government's focus should lie. Experts say greater social and institutional efforts are needed to support single mothers in order to enable biological parents to raise their own children.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the percentage of unmarried mothers among children overseas adopted reached 99.7 percent in 2018, 100 percent in 2019, 99.6 percent in 2020 and 99.5 percent in 2021.

“Although government support has increased for single mothers, their economic burden is still very large,” said Shin Phil-sik, former chief of the Adoption Solidarity Forum. “Many single mothers are experiencing difficulties due to social prejudice and economic problems during pregnancy and childbirth.”

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which involved 1,247 single mothers, 41.8 percent of respondents cited "financial difficulties" as the most challenging aspect during pregnancy.

In another study by Kim Seong-hee, a professor at the National Police University, which analyzed 46 first-trial judgments of cases indicted for infanticide between 2013 and 2020, 45 of the defendants were single, and only one was confirmed to be married. When examining the motives for the infanticides, it was found that 40 cases involved the murders driven by the "fear of being pregnant outside marriage and this fact becoming known to those around them."

Bastiaan Flikweert, a member of the Netherlands Korean Rights Group, said that Korea still harbors deep-seated distrust and indifference toward single mothers.

"While there may be various policy measures to enhance domestic adoption, it's crucial to initially address why, in the first place, babies cannot be raised within their own families by single mothers in Korean society," said Flikweert, whose parents were both adopted from Korea to the Netherlands.

"Babies available for adoption don't simply exist automatically. They are not a constant presence," he said. "Rather than solely focusing on promoting adoption, the government should fundamentally consider how babies can be raised within their biological families."

Thirty years after Petra Zwart was sent to the Netherlands, she returned to Korea for the first time in 2005 and was reunited with her biological family. It turned out that she had a lot in common with her older Korean sister, and she recognized so much of her sister in herself. However, Zwart felt sad she was not able to communicate with her biological family due to the language barrier.

When she first met her biological mother, the reunion was emotionally charged. She felt that her mother seemed cold and distant. Later Zwart came to understand that her biological mother felt ashamed about having put her up for adoption, a revelation which broke her heart.

“Despite my feelings for her, I could relate because I was a mom too, aware that all a mother wants for her child is the best, and giving me up must have been an incredibly difficult decision for her to make."