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The unrestrained expansion of ‘child exports’ during 1980s authoritarian period

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

This article is the 16th 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

Shortly after the assassination of Park Chung-hee in 1979, Chun Doo-hwan led a successful military coup that would see Korea’s authoritarian leadership period continue until 1992. The tumultuous political change that has come to define this period also influenced the politics of intercountry adoption. Throughout Chun’s rule, the number of children sent for adoption experienced dramatic annual fluctuations, as seen in the graph.

Since the dominant narrative of adoption has been populated by stereotypes and myths about so-called “outcast” children, little attention has been paid to fully contemplating the sheer number of children these statistics represent. When these figures shift by the thousands, it’s easy to forget the human lives behind the data. Moreover, we should not forget that transferring a single child across a national border requires navigating a complex set of administrative immigration procedures. In the 1980s, these travel processes were further complicated by the restrictions that the authoritarian government placed on people’s overseas travel. Before 1989, few Koreans were granted passports to travel abroad. Those who were among the limited number of Koreans who were granted a passport stand in stark contrast to the outflow of Korean children for adoption. In 1985, when the rate of intercountry adoption peaked, more than 8,800 children were sent abroad. This figure represents 1.3 percent of the total births, which was around 650,000, in Korea that year. Thus, despite the difficulty that Koreans had in traveling internationally, the rate of children transnationally adopted during the Chun Regime exceeded 74,000, which comprises nearly half (45 percent) of the total number of Korean intercountry adoptions. This expansion was part of a larger trend in the 1980s, which witnessed a global surge in intercountry adoption. As much as 73 percent of the total intercountry adoptions involved children from Asian countries, and Korea played a central role constituting the largest majority of Asian intercountry adoptions at 75-77 percent. Globally, Korean intercountry adoptions accounted for 60 percent of the world total throughout the 1980s. The graph reflects Korea’s intercountry adoption rates. In spite of the popular belief that these adoptions were guided by welfare measures, political decisions dictated the steep rise. The Chun regime on the one hand pursued repressive policies against civil liberties and democracy, while on the other hand maintained a highly liberalized approach toward its economic and foreign policies. Although eager to portray itself as open and democratic to the international community, the government exploited Western countries’ desire for adoptable babies by “liberating” the export of Korean children through the deregulation and further privatization of intercountry adoption agencies. Rather than serving as a child protection measure, the country’s intercountry adoption policies aligned and functioned as an extension of the government’s national policies at the time. Consequently, the government pursued an open-door foreign policy that exported adoptable babies as a form of diplomacy with Western countries. As the legislative foundation and legal infrastructure of intercountry adoption had already been established during the 1970s, increasing the rate of children sent abroad was relatively easy once the government had made the political decision to do so. The proportion of intercountry adoption within the total emigration figure from Korea represented a significant portion. In 1985, the peak year of intercountry adoption, the total emigration figure was 27,793, and 8,837 of that was comprised of intercountry adoptions. In other words, intercountry adoption accounted for over 30 percent of Korea’s total emigration that year. Most of the general emigration, which one can also refer to as non-intercountry adoption emigration, was to the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The destinations for the remaining 6,021 Korean emigrants were classified as “other regions,” which presumably pertained to countries in Latin America and Europe. Seeing as European countries received 2,413 Korean children for adoption, one can safely assume that a large proportion of the Korean emigration population to Europe consisted of Korean intercountry adoptees. These high rates did not go unnoticed. A U.S. Embassy consular officer in Seoul charged with issuing visas for intercountry adoption commented to the media that 500 kids per month represented an incredibly high number that could not be explained by humanitarian needs. He added that the institutionalization of intercountry adoption in Korea permitted the attainment of such numbers. Why hadn’t these numbers been achieved earlier? In the late 1970s, poor management and internal conflicts marked the operations of the adoption agencies. Corruption prevailed to such an extent that law enforcement arrested the head of an agency for embezzlement. In line with its national economic and foreign policy agenda, the Chun Regime may have intervened to promote the performance of the agencies. Such intervention is evidenced in a 1981 adoption agency yearbook that mentions the newly established government appointed a new executive director for the agency “with a mission to lead welfare reform.” Trained by the military, this new director eventually expanded the agency’s business by securing government support to promote intercountry adoption. He would later serve as a member of the 1988 Olympic Committee and the National Assembly, as well as a Minister of Government Administration. The prominent positions occupied by this figure and his role in the adoption agency demonstrate how terms such as “privatized” and “quasi-government,” while contradictory, simultaneously characterize the status of adoption agencies. Unlike in the 1970s, the new adoption agency came to operate with efficiency and discipline. Under its new leadership, the agency underwent a restructuring that affected all elements of its operations, from personnel to resource allocation. These reforms enhanced the agency’s capacity to gather adoptable children from a variety of sources nationwide, including orphanages, birth clinics, hospitals and unwed mothers. Each of these sources was overseen by specially dedicated divisions inside the agency. The agency established a special processing division to expedite immigration administration and recruited specialized staff. For instance, a former staff member of the processing division said that those proficient in English received better treatment, since such language skills were rare at the time but highly sought after. Despite the better conditions for these staff members, the fee for a single intercountry adoption could cover their entire annual salary, which gives perspective to the amount of money involved at the time. This inflow of money cannot be overlooked, as it reveals the true motivations behind the upsurge in adoptions. In the 1980s, the level of fees collected from adoptive parents by Korean adoption agencies was known to be twice the per capita GDP of Korea. In sum, contrary to the belief that the high rates of intercountry adoption out of Korea in the 1980s were due to poverty or a growing orphan population, the swift upsurge may be attributed to the regime’s political will and the reforms it undertook to realize this will by improving the efficiency through which the agencies performed. This article is the first of two that covers the rise and decline of intercountry adoptions in the 1980s. The next article will discuss the reasons behind the downturn in intercountry adoptions in 1986 as featured in the graph. 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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