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Intercountry adoptions 1985-92: A numbers game for Korea’s national image

Number of children sent overseas for adoption / Courtesy of Lee Kyung-eun

This article is the 17th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity. ― ED. By Lee Kyung-eun

Over a seven-year span (1985-92), the number of transnational adoptions from Korea fell by 1,000 annually, dropping to a level not seen since 1970. Despite the absence of any meaningful reforms in child welfare or legislation, this decline represented a dramatic shift that satisfied many, including Western policymakers, who assumed that the root problems of transnational adoptions had been addressed, as the country’s economy and democracy progressed. On the contrary, the plunge in intercountry adoptions represented a campaign orchestrated by the 1980-88 Chun Doo-hwan military regime to appease its critics while outwardly portraying Korea as a prosperous nation. To understand the context that led the regime to reach this reversal of its 1980 policy aims, we need to examine two of the largest sports events of the decade: the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. As discussed in my previous article, “The unrestrained expansion of child exports during 1980s authoritarian period,” published Sept. 26, the leaders of the 1980 military coup lacked governing experience, and therefore employed “child exports” as an opportunity to engage Western countries diplomatically to fulfill the military regime’s needs and to stem any condemnation over the dictatorship. The need to mollify international and domestic demands for Korea’s democratization intensified over the years. Thus, a primary concern that occupied the Chun regime was to bolster domestic support and legitimacy for military rule through economic growth and efforts to “enhance national prestige.” Consequently, it aimed to achieve these goals by hosting two enormous international sporting events that would erase any lingering memories of Korea being an isolated, war-torn nation and cement its image as a vibrant, modern country. Considering the stakes, Korea pursued its public diplomacy drive with an aggressive determination that entailed fully leveraging domestic and international propaganda to promote its suitability as a host country for the Olympics. Ironically, its efforts betrayed its expectations. By capturing international attention, any acts of repression or brutality that had come to characterize the regime would be on full display. In response, the regime exercised some restraint in dealing with pro-democracy protests. Since its attention centered on curbing ever growing calls for political change, it was unprepared when Western media unleashed a slew of articles criticizing the country for exporting its babies. The president and his administration scrambled to reduce the number of transnational adoptions, but could not resort to their usual coercive tactics without jeopardizing the country’s hosting of the Olympics. As the Chun regime wanted to preserve the image it had cultivated with the world, it employed an administrative tool that the government had long used to control the number of intercountry adoptions ― permission to exit the country. Tucked inside the 1962 Emigration Act, legislated under the previous military junta of Park Chung-hee, was a provision that prohibited Korean nationals from emigrating overseas without government permission. While the government justified this measure as a means to prevent male citizens from evading conscription and to ban “inappropriate” Koreans from moving overseas and degrading the country’s image, these reasons hid the act’s true purpose, which was to control and oppress Korean citizens. The severe human rights violation that this travel restriction imposed eventually led to its revision in 1983. Under the revised permit procedures, people underwent screenings of their qualifications to emigrate. Eventually, in 1991, the entire process, except the reporting procedure, was abolished. What does this act have to do with intercountry adoptions? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversaw this policy, was charged with issuing “permits to exit to a foreign country” to those wanting to emigrate to other countries. However, in 1977, the Ministry of Health and Welfare assumed this role from the foreign ministry for children sent for intercountry adoption. To this day, the welfare ministry maintains this practice of issuing permits, despite the original permit system being eliminated for violating people’s human rights. To be clear, I am not arguing against state intervention in the cross-border movement of children; on the contrary, such intervention is necessary for the protection and safety of children. However, the permit procedures employed by Korea were never designed for protective purposes. Instead, this system served primarily as a type of “quota” system, or a means to control the numbers of children that agencies could send abroad, without the need to satisfy any public authority’s requirements to ensure protective measures. In other words, the permit system revolved around the permit, which served as an essential document needed to apply for an immigration visa from a receiving country. No Korean permit meant no visa for a Western receiving country. Thus, these permits served as the strongest, most effective form of leverage to control adoption agencies, whose revenues relied primarily on fees paid by adoptive parents. Until the 1990s, the government welfare budget excluded support for adoption agencies. Instead, the government granted them exclusive authorization to engage in intercountry adoptions, including setting their own fee levels. As explained in my previous article, “Korean adoption system must not be allowed to be profit-driven,” published June 27, adoption agencies operated and continue to operate as private entities. Consequently, there is little knowledge of their internal operations, and most critically, the conditions and status of children under their protection or influence remain relatively unknown. The extent of this independent nature is evident in the methods employed by the government to exercise control. Rather than assuming direct management of adoption agencies, the government has relied on a web of incentives and punishments, even going so far as to appoint a regime associate to a leadership post within an agency. The tragedy surrounding the 1988 Olympics is the momentum squandered by the nation. With the world watching closely in the lead-up to the Olympics and the foreign media denouncing its wide-scale export of babies, the country had an opportunity to genuinely reflect on and address its failures in child protection. Instead, the military government used its administrative measures to set an arbitrary number of intercountry adoptions, so as to provide a superficial response that would quiet the criticisms from abroad. This choice excluded more children from mainstream welfare policies, leaving their fate at the discretion of a global cartel, which eventually treated them as commodities to transfer overseas. Nelson Mandela once said, “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Because childhood represents the most vulnerable period of a human being’s life, the treatment of these children shows the shallow depths of human rights protections that this country afforded to those who needed it the most. Lee Kyung-eun (Ph.D. in law) is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”

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