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Political decisions behind Korea’s adoption curve

This is the 12th article in an adoption series. So far, this series has covered the right to origin of adoptees from Korea. The second phase of the series will discuss the historical development of the politics surrounding inter-country adoption with an aim to move beyond those sad stories of the past often depicted in the media. Instead, the next set of articles will illustrate how the system of inter-country adoption that led to such stories remains to this day and continues to govern the politics of adoption.

By Dr. Kyung-eun Lee

History is the sum of the choices that we, as a nation, have made thus far. This graph shows the number of children who were born in this country but left shortly after birth (more than 90 percent were under the age of one) to become the sons and daughters of families in Western countries. Each dot on the graph represents human beings cast out of the protection of this nation. While more than 80 countries throughout the world have sent their children overseas for adoption, Korea’s experience remains noteworthy. It began as the birthplace of inter-country “orphan” adoption in 1953 and has persisted in engaging in the practice. This nearly seven-decade-long history of exporting children is not found anywhere else in the world and has led people both inside and outside the country to ask, “Why can’t this country stop this practice despite its economic achievements and progress?” The most frequent reply is that Korean inter-country adoption is a product of the Korean War and the stigmatization of unwed mothers. However, when we look at the graph, the period in which Korea sent the most children abroad was not in the aftermath of the Korean War, but during a time of prosperity when it recorded two-digit annual economic growth. This leaves the excuse of discrimination against unwed mothers, which allows Korea to hide behind vulnerable women while simultaneously using society’s disapproval as justification for sending children away. Instead of confronting such intolerance, blame continues to be cast on these mothers as the “shame of the family and the nation.” Taking a closer look at the graph, the small boxes containing different years capture major regime changes throughout Korean history, while the shaded areas from 1960 to 1993 depict periods of military authoritarian regimes. The unshaded section after democratization in 1993 represents the current system in which presidents serve five-year terms. A noticeable pattern in the shaded areas is that the curve dramatically shifts while making smaller incremental changes in the 90s. One may surmise from this trend that the graph reveals that the dictators were the villains of adoption politics; however, the truth is that every leader has participated in the systematic movement of children for inter-country adoption by making choices based on their interests. In other words, each turn of the curve represents a political decision based on each regimes’ economic interests rather than a determination of special protection for children. Research by British scholar Peter Selman helps provide an objective understanding. His work has demonstrated that in 2003, the global number of inter-country adoptions peaked. At the time, Korea ranked fourth in the top five states of origin, alongside China, Russia and Guatemala, with an adoption rate of 7.9 per 10,000 head of population under the age of 5. Additionally, when examining Korea’s per 1,000 live births, we can find that babies at a rate of 4.1 were sent out of the country. While these figures may not have drawn much attention within Korea, the country’s practices have been conspicuous enough to attract international scholars’ scrutiny. Turning our attention to the U.S. State Department’s annual inter-country adoption statistics, we can see that in 2016, families in the U.S. adopted 5,372 children from 91 countries. Among those countries, only 12 sent more than 100 children to the U.S. Six of these countries have ratified the Hague Inter-country Adoption Convention, which provides a minimum set of international standards for the safety and protection of children. Of the six that haven’t ratified it, Korea ranked third in terms of inter-country adoptions, having sent 260 children to the U.S. that year. Scholars tend to attribute poverty and high birthrates as prominent factors in whether a country chooses to practice inter-country adoption. However, closer examination of the actual data does not support such claims. Major sending countries are not as poor as often portrayed. South Korea is perhaps the most evident example with a GDP that rivals some of the European receiving countries. In terms of birthrate, the rates of the top five sending countries do not exceed those of the top five receiving countries. In particular, Korea continues to record the world’s lowest birthrate. Today, matters surrounding inter-country adoption extend beyond the practices of sending children abroad and underpin core issues around the safety and protection of all children born in this country. Moreover, the threats and vulnerability that force families to give up their children to private agencies also harm the soil of society in which we raise our children. Therefore, it is time to begin asking the right question: What is the real reason this country cannot protect its own children? The heart of the answer lies within our own history, and we must confront this to reconcile our present and future for the coming generations. Accordingly, this series aims to explore the past with adoptees and readers. The former may find the truth in this journey to explore their origins, while the latter may gain a better understanding of this global phenomenon of inter-country adoption that spans across 100 countries.

Originally published in The Korea Times.

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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