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Korean adoption system must not be allowed to be profit-driven

This article is the fifth in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children who were sent away via adoption would return as adults demanding answers to questions. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity.

Dr. Kyung-eun Lee

By Dr. Kyung-eun Lee

Privatization has been one of the most powerful and worst legacies of the Korean adoption system, continuing to affect the lives of adoptees in the present. In general, “privatization” refers to the process of moving something from the public sector to the private sector, mainly for the supposed purposes of promoting efficiency and lowering bureaucratic costs. However, not everything can be privatized. Essential government functions, such as national security, the police or firefighters are not considered to be within the realm of privatization. Child protection and adoption should also be considered in the same category as those essential public functions. In South Korea, adoption has remained in the private realm. Actually, it may be inappropriate to say that it was “privatized,” since it was a private business from the very beginning and has never been included in the public welfare system. Orphanages and transnational adoption emerged for the first time in Korean history in the aftermath of the Korean War, and were fueled by an influx of foreign aid. The concept of “child welfare” in Korea was brought to Korea by private organizations funded by foreign charities and has been left in their hands. “An adoption shall be valid only if it is granted by a judicial or administrative authority.” This statement is the first essential provision of the European Convention on the Adoption of Children, established in 1967. Thus, the fact that the concept of private adoption was prohibited was an international norm as early as the 1960s. What does the term, “private adoption,” mean? The term means an adoption that occurred without the intervention of public authorities, such as the courts. Parents should not be allowed to give up their own children for adoption to another person or to a private entity. People should not be able to give and take babies, no matter what the intention. Why? Because it is too dangerous for the life, security and safety of the concerned child. However small they may be, they are entitled to human rights and it is the state’s obligation to protect them. By allowing adoption to remain in the private realm, Korea’s adoption laws have given private agencies absolute and comprehensive power over a child once he or she is given up to the adoption agency. In my previous article, I explained the procedure of how children have become legally orphaned. Private entities have been endowed with the power to create new identities for people. Those identities can be fake or distorted. Adopted children’s identities have been switched with that of other children. Such corruption is possible because it occurred outside of the scrutiny of public authorities. If such acts were committed by individual brokers or by intermediaries in one of the countries notorious for exporting orphans, it would be criticized for laundering children or fall under suspicion of human trafficking. However, the governments of Western countries receiving the orphans, which should also bear co-responsibility in the process of transnational adoption, publicly acknowledge that they trust Korean adoption agencies’ practices as being transparent and ethical and keep on receiving babies through them. In South Korea, it is against the law to engage in the transnational adoption business without permission, and there have been only three or four agencies that acquired the authorization from the government. The same law granted the agencies to receive adoption fees from foreign adoptive parents. Their revenue structure depends on the fees. So the number of children adopted decides the amount of revenue of those agencies. Seeing the National Assembly’s Minutes of the Health and Welfare Committee in 1965, Korea decided to allow the adoption agencies to receive fees from foreign adoptive parents, by stating that, “… in the process of carrying out orphan adoption to receiving countries, we can acquire about 130 dollars per person when we send them overseas and also save (welfare) costs on housing orphans at the same time. It is like killing two birds with one stone.” Some may argue that we could not help giving up children at the time, because we were war victims and poor. Thus, we overlooked the export of babies with the excuse that it was being done to save war orphans. However, what would these same people say to the fact that the philosophy and scheme of transnational adoption has not changed even in the present day? This country is still outsourcing child welfare to private entities and evading its responsibility to protect minors. In 2014, the government of Sweden, which has adopted almost 10,000 babies from Korea for decades, conducted an on-site assessment of adoption fees. According to their report, the official fee (not including other costs and donations) that Swedish parents pay to adopt a Korean child is 221,526 Krona (about 30,000,000 won). This amount is paid to the Swedish adoption agency. The portion that goes to the Korean adoption agency is 143,816 Krona. The report said that most of the amount paid to the Korean counterpart agency is accounted for as the “child protection cost.” The report shows that this country still relies on foreign adoptive parents for the protection cost of the Korean children. It is evident that both the adoption agencies and the Swedish government are well aware that these children were under the control of private businesses, and not under the public child protection system. Since adoption procedures were privatized, adoptees’ identities have been privatized too. Adoptees’ birth records are considered the private possessions of those organizations. In order to do a search into the birth family or verify their true identity, adoptees are subjected to the so-called “post-adoption services” of private organizations. In many cases, access to adoption documents is denied or restricted by the arbitrary and inconsistent decisions of these agencies. If an adoptee chooses to disagree with the non-disclosure decision or questions the truthfulness of the files, there is no appropriate method of appealing or seeking mediation. Justice delayed is justice denied. Since justice has been delayed for so long in adoption, the right to know one’s identity is being denied. The Korean adoption system must not be allowed to be driven by profit. People’s identities should not be privatized either. If human rights violations are caused by legislation, the government has an obligation to change the law. The receiving countries, too, must undertake their co-responsibility to restore their citizens’ rights to knowing their identities. Lee Kyung-eun is the director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”

Originally published in The Korea Times.

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