South Korean Adoptions: Canary in the International Adoption Mine?

Dawn Davenport


Korean adoptions

South Korea is the birth place of modern international adoption, but the country is trying to phase out intercountry adoptions. Is this the future of all international adoptions?

“South Korea Ending Child Export Shame” read headlines this summer when South Korea passed new adoption legislation further limiting international adoption.  Other headlines were more subtle, but the gist was the same—proud capable countries should not send children abroad for international adoption.  Kim Dong-won, head of adoptions at the Korean Ministry of Health, summed up the sentiment in a 2008 interview “South Korea is the world’s 12th largest economy …, so we would like to rid ourselves of the international stigma or disgrace of being a baby-exporting country. It’s embarrassing.”   South Korea, the birth place of modern international adoption having sent 164,000 children abroad since 1958, once again is leading the way with international adoptions, and many countries and families are watching with interest to see if South Korea will phase them out completely.

International Adoptions in Decline

International adoptions from South Korea peaked in the mid 1980s and have been declining since due to governmental limits on the number of children eligible for adoption abroad.

The chart ends at 2001, but international adoptions have steadily declined even further. (2007- 938; 2008-1,064; 2009-1,079; 2010-865).  Phasing out all international adoptions has been Korea’s stated goal since 1976, but the Korean reluctance to adopt and disapproval of single motherhood has not made this an easy task.

“The #1 Baby Exporter”

South Korea has struggled over the years with the label koasuch´ulguk or “orphan exporter”.  A general feeling exists inside South Korea, and many other countries as well, that international adoption is “a shameful admission to the world of the government’s inability to care for its own, the loss of a vital national asset, and … the ultimate example of exploitation by rich nations of the poor nations of the world.”  South Korea’s position has been made all the harder when starting in the 1970s, North Korea used international adoption in its public rhetoric against South Korea.  Here is a taste of what was reported in the North Korean newspaper, the Pyongyang Times:  “The traitors of South Korea, old hands at treacheries, are selling thousands, tens of thousands of children going ragged and hungry to foreign marauders under the name of ‘adopted children.”

The History of Phasing Out International Adoptions

Starting in 1976, Korea has had the stated policy to phase out international adoptions by limiting the number of children available for international adoptions (except for children with special needs or of mixed race) and increasing the number of domestic adoptions.  Each of these plans was discontinued when domestic adoptions did not increase sufficiently to provide homes for the children in need.

Year The Plan International Adoption Phase Out Date Plan Discontinued Due to Lagging Domestic Adoptions
1976 Reduce international adoptions by 1000 per year 1981 1980
1989 International adoptions limited to cases where birth mother relinquished child to 1 of the 4 Korean adoption agencies with international adoption program. Tax incentives for domestic adoption. 1996 1994
1994 Annual quota system to limit international adoptions. Increased efforts to encourage domestic adoption. 2015 2007? (not officially discontinued)
2007 Added significant benefits to encourage domestic adoption including lessening restrictions on Korean adopted parents, increasing subsidies to single mothers and adoptive families, tax incentives, publicizing celebrity adoption, etc. 2012

New Korean Adoption Law 2011

On June 29, 2011 the Korean National Assembly revised their adoption law once again.  From my interviews and what has been reported, it appears that the new law is written in fairly general terms, with the details to be worked out during implementation. Starting in 2012:

  • Birth mothers will have 7 days after relinquishment to change their minds.
  • Adult adoptees will have the right to access their adoption records.
  • More effort will be made to support single mothers and encourage them to parent their children rather than place them for adoption.
  • Continued emphasis will be placed on increasing domestic adoptions.

Although there has been much discussion that this new law will completely phase out international adoptions in July 2012, I do not think that is specified in the law.  In the past Korea has opted to continue international adoptions rather than place these children in child welfare institutions, and I believe they will do that again if domestic adoptions do not increase significantly.  It does appear that Korea will continue to reduce the children eligible for international adoption by lowering the quotas each year.

Domestic Adoption in Korea

Increasing domestic adoptions has been at the heart of every plan to reduce foreign adoptions, but the Korean culture, with its Confucian emphasis on familial blood lines, has historically been resistant.  The Korean government has been attempting to change this attitude in the last 30 years.  In 2007 they stepped up their efforts by providing financial incentives to adoptive parents; lessening Korean adoptive parent qualifications; easing restrictions on parental age, marital status, and family size; requiring children to wait 5 months for a domestic adoption before being placed for international adoption; advertising; and publicizing celebrity adoptions.  Despite optimistic governmental pronouncements, the hard reality is that domestic adoptions have been a hard sell.  Since the domestic adoption incentives were instituted in 2007, domestic adoption rates have remained roughly the same.

Year Domestic Adoptions
2006 1,332
2007 1,388
2008 1,306
2009 1,314
2010 1,462

Changing long held cultural attitudes will not be easy or quick.  A recent survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs cited the top reasons given by Koreans for not wanting to adopt:

  • Difficulty in raising and loving adopted children as if they were birth children (32.1%)
  • Family systems should be created with strong blood ties (29.5%)
  • Financial burden (11.9%)
  • Prejudice against adoption (11.4 %).

Anecdotally, I have also heard that the old prejudices are still very much alive in modern Korea.  In 2009 I spoke at an adoption conference that was held at a Korean church to encourage Korean Americans to adopt from Korea.  In my presentation, I mentioned that some progress was being made in Korean acceptance of adoption.  Only after I saw a noticeable stir in the audience did I realize my hubris.  I stopped and admitted that my information had come from governmental press releases and asked what they were seeing and hearing from their families and friends in Korea.  Quite a discussion ensued, but the bottom line was that “the older generation” was still strongly opposed to adoption.  Most believed that the younger generation, while not as judgmental of others who adopted, would never consider this option for their family.  They also acknowledged the continued prevalence of discrimination against adopted persons.  For example, their families in Korea would oppose anyone in the family marrying someone who had been adopted. This is supported by evidence that many orphans in Korea marry fellow orphans because of the strong bias against marrying someone from an unknown bloodline.

Due to the societal disapproval of adoption and the discrimination against adopted persons, the vast majority of Koreans who adopt hide the fact that the child was adopted often by faking a pregnancy and altering the birth certificate.  For example, in 2005, over 98% of domestically adopted children were entered into the national family registry as the biological child of their adopted family.

Single Motherhood in Korea

Between 80-90 percent of all babies born to unmarried women in South Korea are placed for adoption, as compared to 1% in the US.  The 2007 Adoption Plan made it easier for single women to parent their children by providing monthly financial support.  These support payments will increase under the new adoption law.  Monthly subsidies, however, do not address the social stigma in Korean society against unwed pregnancy and single motherhood.  Most single mothers who place their children for adoption come from middle-class backgrounds where pregnancy before marriage, to say nothing of single motherhood, reduces the woman’s chance of marriage and negatively affects the social status of both the woman and her extended family.

The Hidden Children of Korea

Adoption, both domestic and international, is an option for very few children without parents in Korea.  Koreans have a strong preference when adopting for young (95% are under 3 months), healthy (virtually all have no special needs), females (70%).  International adoption is an option only for infants that are relinquished by their birth mothers to one of four adoption agencies in Korea (Holt International Children’s Services, Eastern Social Welfare Society, Korean Social Services, and Social Welfare Society).  Government statistics show that of the 8,590 abandoned and relinquished babies and children in 2010, 1,462 were adopted domestically and 1,013 were adopted abroad.  What happened to the remaining 6,115 babies and children?  The sad truth is that most will spend their childhoods in one of the large child welfare institutions throughout Korea, aging out at 18 to a society deeply prejudiced against them with limited job and social opportunities.

Korean orphans at child welfare institution

According to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, in 2005 there were 19,151 Korean children living in child welfare institutions.  Ninety-five percent of these institutions housed more than 60 children, and one-fifth house over 120 children.   An additional 10,198 children were in foster care.  Children born to single mothers and children abandoned (presumably many born out of wedlock) make up the majority of children in these institutions.

Number of Children Needing Protection by Reason 1990-2000

Year Abandoned Out of Wedlock Total
1998 18% 44% 62%
1999 19% 40% 59%
2000 16% 38% 54%

The conditions in the Korean orphanages vary.  The United Nations has found that the institutions are substandard due to a lack of funding and under-staffing, and called on South Korea to reform its care systems for waiting children. The majority of children enter these orphanages at a young age and stay until they age out around age 18.

What is Best for the Children?

What is best for the children should be our guiding principle in adoption.  One quote, used repeatedly in the Korean press this summer when discussing the reasons for the new Korean adoption law and the need to phase out international adoptions, captured my attention –“Children adopted abroad are more likely to experience identity crisis and a sense of loss. Due to various conflicts coming from the feelings, they could have difficulty adapting themselves to their adopted family, friends and community.”  There may be many good reasons to phase out international adoption from Korea, but the mental health of Korean adoptees is not one of them.

When making macro level policy decisions, it is important to base these decisions on research supported data on the whole population of adopted Koreans.  While the research on the emotional, physical, and behavioral development of this population, especially long term research, is not extensive, most studies have found that the majority of children, adolescents and adults are doing well.

  • Development and Well-Being of Korean Adoptees. University of Minnesota International Adoption Project. Dr. Richard Lee.  One of the largest adoption studies on Korean adoptees’ development, well-being, and mental health has found that children adopted from Korea compare favorably to non-adopted children in the US.
  • International Adoption: A Case Review of Korean Children“. Child Psychiatry and Human Development v 25, n 3: 141-54. Korean adoptees have done well and seem to be doing better than adoptees of other ethnic groups. Abstract available here.
  • Mental Health in International Adoptees as Teenagers and Young Adults.” Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry v 40, n 8 1239-48.   The adoptees’ mental health was comparable to the good mental health outcomes of the non-adopted comparison group.  Many of the children studied had been adopted from Korea. Abstract available here.

While research in no way should be used to negate the struggles of individual adoptees that may have a different experience, it is the only way to get a pulse on the majority, and it is the majority that should be considered when making changes to the law.

If South Korea is making decisions on international adoption based on what is best for the children, then the most meaningful data for making this decision is a comparison of the mental health outcomes for children in the four options available for babies and children relinquished and abandoned in Korea– domestic adoption (17%), international adoption (12%), foster care (25%), and large child welfare institutions (46%).  We know from a multitude of long term research that orphanages are detrimental to the physical and psychological development of children.  Recent research specific to children in child welfare institutions in Korea found that institutionalized children had significantly greater mental health problems than children adopted internationally, and those children younger than age 2 when relinquished to orphanages fared the worst.

Little research has been done on Korean children raised in domestic adoptive homes or foster homes.  One ongoing study, Behavioral Development of Korean Children Placed in Foster Care, Domestic Adoptive Families, and International Adoptive Families, is being conducted jointly by the University of Minnesota and two universities in South Korea.  Researchers are finding that children who were adopted, either domestically in South Korea or internationally to the United States, had better behavioral outcomes than children placed in foster care in South Korea.  Interestingly, internationally adopted children fared better than domestically adopted children.

research comparing mental health of Korean orphans adopted domestically and internationally

No explanation was given to explain this discrepancy, but I wonder if this is due in part to the secrecy that shrouds adoption and the societal and familial discrimination against adoption in Korea. I am not sharing this research to suggest that South Korea should not continue to strongly encourage domestic adoption.  The best solution for children in Korea is for them to ultimately be raised by their birth families or by Korean adopted families.  Attitudes change slowly, but they change not at all unless pushed.

What Happens From Here

The question of what to do from here is not ours to make.  I do not envy South Korea this decision.  No country wants the label of baby exporter; every country wants to take care of their own.  (Americans should keep in mind that we have 115,000 children in our foster care system in need of adoptive families.)  Korea faces an entrenched cultural prejudice against adoption and single motherhood along with many babies and young children in need of homes.

International treaties, national laws, and common decency dictate that adults and governments make decisions for children based on what is in their best interest–not what is good for us or less embarrassing for us, but what is best for the kids that have been entrusted to our care.  I suspect that domestic adoptions will slowly increase in part through governmental efforts, but also because of increasing infertility as the Koreans follow the pattern of postponing child bearing until careers are well established common in developed countries.  Acceptance and support of single motherhood will also likely increase as the country develops and women are able to support themselves and their children.  Artificially limiting international adoptions before domestic adoptions and acceptance of single motherhood has caught up with the demand is not in the best interest of children.

I appreciate that it is a balancing act—if international adoptions are too readily available to handle the demand there is little need for Koreans to overcome their distrust of adoption.  On the other hand, their current system results in the majority of children without parents growing up in orphanage, and those that are “lucky” enough to be relinquished to an agency with an international adoption program must wait in foster homes for the next years quota to roll around.  This system is not good for children.

In an ideal world every child would be raised by his family or extended family or by a permanent adoptive family in his country of birth.  The world we live in is far from ideal.  Take all the steps necessary to assure this ideal future, but in the meantime, it is cruel to prevent children from achieving their mental and physical health potential.  Birth culture should not trump family.

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Partial Listing of Resources Consulted:

Image credit: hojusaram

13/09/2011 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility Blog | 69 Comments

69 Responses to South Korean Adoptions: Canary in the International Adoption Mine?

  1. Avatar Crap says:

    This is a useless article with a link to any relevant adoption agencies.

  2. Pingback: Calling all Korean Adoptees and Adoptive Families | Adoption Social Work, New York

  3. Avatar Tobias Hübinette says:

    von Borczyskowski, Annika, Anders Hjern, Frank Lindblad & Bo Vinnerljung. 2006. ”Suicidal behaviour in national and international adult adoptees”. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 41 (2): 95-102.

    Hjern, Anders & Peter Allebeck. 2002. “Suicide in first- and second-generation immigrants in Sweden. A comparative study”. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 37 (9): 423-429.

    Hjern, Anders, Frank Lindblad & Bo Vinnerljung. 2002. “Suicide, psychiatric illness, and social maladjustment in intercountry adoptees in Sweden: A cohort study”. The Lancet 360 (9331): 443-448.

    Lindblad, Frank, Anders Hjern & Bo Vinnerljung. 2003. “Intercountry adopted children as young adults – A Swedish cohort study”. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 73 (2): 190-202.

    Rooth, Dan-Olof. 2002. ”Adopted children in the labour market – discrimination or unobserved characteristics?”. International Migration 40 (1): 71-98.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tobias, thank you for these links. I wonder if Dr. Lee has included Swedish adoptees in his research comparing children in orphanages in Korea to children adopted internationally?

  4. Avatar Tobias Hübinette says:

    Just a short notice: It is not entirely true that foreign-born adoptees and adopted Koreans in the West fare well, or at least not in all Western countries. There is a hypothesis claiming that adoptees of color fare better in a multicultural and postcolonial society like the US, or in Australia, than in European countries, but this is not clarified as there is a lack of quantitative studies similar to the ones in Scandinavia in the US.

    Scandinavian quantitative research has concluded that many adult adoptees have a lower psychic health compared to the white majority population when it comes to psychiatric illnesses, alcohol and drug abuse, and criminality, self-destructive behavior and suicide as well as higher mortality rates. In fact, in Sweden no other group in Sweden has a higher suicide rate than foreign-born adoptees including Korean adoptees, as accomplished suicide is up to 4-5 times higher among the group than among the Swedish majority population. Adoption research in Scandinavia has also found that many adult adoptees have problems to reproduce their adoptive parents’ high socioeconomic status, when it comes to for example achieving a higher education, establishing themselves on the labor market and gaining jobs with a higher income. This means that many adult foreign-born adoptees in Scandinavia including adopted Koreans are struggling with mental health issues caused by the consequences and the results of isolation, loneliness, racism and discrimination, and have problems to get a more advanced employment just like many other ethnic and racial minorities.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Thank you Tobias for this information. I have loved and appreciated your research from afar and am so happy that you chimed in. I have heard the hypothesis that multicultural societies better incorporate adoptees of different races and ethnicities and it makes sense. Research doesn’t show that all foreign adoptees do as well as the norm even in multicultural societies, but the assumption is that these adoptees struggles are at least in part due to early life experiences prior to adoption (abuse, neglect, malnutrition, prenatal exposures), older age at adoption, and multiple placements prior to adoption. One of the strengths of the Korean adoption program from this perspective is that the children were young at placement with good foster care prior to placement. I realize that part of the discussion we are having now in these comments is that this strength when viewed from the perspective of the first moms is also a weakness.

      For the rest of you reading this comment, I can not recommend more highly Tobias Hübinette’s “Korean Adoption History”.

      Tobias, can you send me the links (if online) to the Scandinavia research or to the abstract. Does it break out Korean adoptees from general adoptees? I would assume if it is looking at foreign born adoptees, that the majority would be Korean, especially if it longitudinal research. If it is not online, can you send the publication information, please. Thanks.

  5. Avatar Kevin Ost-Vollmers says:

    Thanks for the question, Dawn. First of all, I think you’ve made the assumption that I actually want to see Korean adoptions end right now. I haven’t said that anywhere. Folks make similar conclusions whenever an adoptee questions the practice. Second, my thoughts on this question mirrors the comments made by Jennifer: “Anyone who is interested in helping the children of unwed mothers should provide support to these families and urge the government to develop stronger welfare policies that benefit all mothers, not just mothers who are 25 years and younger and who are comprise the minority. Frankly, the coalition bill does not go far enough to support the moms and their families nor does the recently passed single parent law, but both are a start to shift Korea’s political landscape toward valuing family diversity and a mother’s right to her own child. The larger matter therefore is to listen to and to get behind the mothers who are leading the charge to change Korean culture and policy. The mothers don’t want adoption. They want their children. Their children are not at home in the U.S. with paying strangers, but rather with their mothers in Korea. Creating support services that can move children out of foster care/institutions and back into their Korean families costs money, but it’s the right thing to do and an investment in Korea.”

    If adoption professionals and experts like you and adoptive parents truly want to make a difference, the next move on all of your parts should be thinking about how you can work with Korean women in keeping their children.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Kevin, no no, I made no assumption. That’s why I asked the question. You highlighted that statement in your first comment, but left unsaid what your opinion was. So, I asked. I do hear what you are saying about people (read: adoptive parents and professionals) automatically jumping to conclusion and trying to make adoptees feel guilty for questioning anything about adoption. I wrote a blog that touched on that a few months ago titled “I Love My Mom, But…: Loyalty, Gratitude & Adoption” (

      If I hear you correctly, you would prefer your and our emphasis to be on supporting single mothers in being able to keep their children. I asked about this at the 2009 conference I mentioned in the article with the audience of Koreans and Korean Americans. The general consensus of those who spoke up was that it would be a long time before many woman would want to be a single parent. They brought up the shame that this decision would bring on the family and that she would have little prospect for marriage and that it would hurt her families standing. I haven’t seen any statistics on this, but would love to see some research or stats. As I said, I suspect this attitude will change. How fast is the question. The publicity brought by the birth mother group will only help speed up the process.

  6. Avatar Kevin Ost-Vollmers says:

    Wow. There’s quite the discussion happening here. I didn’t want to chime in anymore, but I have two questions for Beacon House Adoption.

    Beacon House Adoption, you’re the only adoption agency that has chimed in. I have to say that you’re short, blanket statement is odd, especially since most of your work involves Russia. Most folks expect substance from their experts. So, would you mind elaborating or do you want to continue pushing the idea that international adoption is the best option in all cases? As you know, Russia and South Korea are completely different countries with different circumstances. Additionally, beyond placing children, what else do you do in Russia so that international adoptions is no longer necessary? That is your goal, right? As a former agency person, I know one of the favorite agency lines is, “We want to work ourselves out a job.”

    Thanks in advance — Kevin Ost-Vollmers/Land of Gazillion Adoptees

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Kevin, glad you’re enjoying the sharing of opinions as much as I am. Now, I have a question for you. What is your opinion on my conclusion that artificially limiting international adoptions before domestic adoptions and acceptance of single motherhood has caught up with the demand is not in the best interest of children? I believe we all agree that Korea is taking steps to increase both single motherhood support and acceptance and domestic adoption and these steps should continue and should increase. My question is the one I ponder often–but what about in the meantime? I ask this especially in the context that only 12% of the relinquished babies are being adopted internationally and 17% to domestic adoption. The remaining children that enter state care are going into long term foster care (25%) and large child welfare institutions (46%). The majority of kids in the child welfare institutions were relinquished or abandoned by single mothers. I realize you don’t speak for the universe of Korean adoptees, but I would really appreciate entering into a discussion of what is best for these kids. As I said before, I don’t think artificially limiting international adoption is the solution, but somehow, it doesn’t seem that allowing all of them for int’l adoption is best either.

  7. Avatar Dawn says:

    Icallbullshit, I’ve been thinking about your comment ever since I read it. It got under my skin and I now realize that I erred in exactly the way I was trying to avoid. When I said that the statement that “Korean adoptees were having emotional and identity problems” was a falsehood, I became the uppity know-it-all. As I think about it, it must feel lousy when someone says that the experience you are living is false. Of course, it is not. I did say in the article that research results should not be used to negate the individual experiences of adoptees that might differ, but that hardly takes away the sting out of the word “falsehood”. I will take that part out. I’m not sure you’ll still approve of the blog, but at least I won’t be guilty of quite so much insensitivity. Thanks for calling me on it.

  8. Avatar Dawn says:

    Jennifer, we agree more than we disagree and you raise some great points. I fully support Korean’s fledgling efforts to support single moms and family diversity. The current poliicies are just a beginning, but at least they’ve begun.

    The US foster care system is not as analogous to this situation as is our birth mother relinquishment adoption program. In foster care, virtually all the children of all ages are removed from abusive or neglectful homes. The goal of our foster care system is family reunification. In 2010, 51% returned home after their parents complied with the plan devised by social workers (e.g. stay sober, go to AA, take parenting classes). Another 8% went to live with extended family and 21% were adopted. (The remaining children were aged out of the system, lived with guardians, etc.) In theory, parents are given 2 years to get their act together. If they are not capable of parenting after 2 years, the state terminates parental rights, and the children become available for adoption. As of 2010, we had 115,000 children awaiting adoption, most over the age of 6.

    The situation in Korea is more like the US infant adoption system, although huge differences exist. In some ways Korea is more like our system 50 years ago. An expectant woman who thinks it is best for the child that she not be his parent selects a family to parent her child using either an adoption agency or attorney. After birth she can legally sign papers to relinquish her rights. Each US state has a different amount of time that she can change her mind ranging from hours to weeks. Most are less than a week. Although open adoptions are the norm where she will continue to have some form of contact with the adoptive family and her child, she is not the legal parent and after the revocation period can’t come back for her child because we believe it is best for children to have stability in their lives. Our system is not perfect and some birth mothers feel afterwards that they could have and would have parented if they had more emotional and financial support. Some feel like the glories of open adoption were overplayed and in reality didn’t live up to the hype. Many birth moms leave feeling devastated, but believing they made the best decision they could for their child given where they were in their lives at that time.

    Korea is different in that many women are abandoning or relinquish their children to child welfare institutions where adoption is not an option. I don’t know what the policy is for mothers to come back for their children, but I do know that the statistics show that very few do. Most of the children live their lives in these facilities.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Korea developing policies to ensure that families can come together again. I am very glad that Korea now gives moms one week to decide if relinquishing their child is really what they want. I don’t know what period of time is fair, but I do believe some period of time should be provided. I would hope that the next step would be to counsel the mother on how she might be able to parent—connect her with single mother mentors who are doing it and social services that can help. I doubt much of that is happening yet, but that would be another suggestion for improvement. However, there must be a date certain that the mom has to decide. It is not fair for a child to wait and grow older in institutions and foster homes while the mother keeps the dream alive of someday becoming his parent.

  9. Avatar Bert Ballard says:

    Wow! What a great conversation going on here! I really appreciate Dawn’s perspective and her willingness to model an intelligent approach to understanding the problems plaguing international adoption in South Korea (and everywhere). And thanks to Kevin’s comments (a good blog, by the way – I highly recommend!) for pointing out some differences and areas to consider. I know both folks and think highly of both of them, and respect both of their positions and perspectives.

    I think the issues here raise bigger and broader concerns about international adoption, however. International adoption does not exist in isolation – it is socially, culturally, and economically contextualized. Dawn has hit on some of the cultural stigmas, Kevin has countered with some of the social problems that plague adoptions in South Korea. But it takes both. And honestly, as much as I’m an advocate for adoption, international adoption is only part of the answer to South Korea or any country of origin’s struggles.

    On one hand, international adoption is an answer for many of the children in institutions in South Korea (or elsewhere). On the other hand, international adoption needs to be one of many options, with the other options being domestic adoption (in some cases), better institutional care (in some cases), kinship adoption (in some cases) or foster care (in some cases).

    But more broadly speaking, we might borrow from both Dawn’s and Kevin’s points on the best interests of the child. I know both Dawn and Kevin have this in mind, but I think instead of US debating that question, I wonder if we need to ask the South Korean government that question. I can’t help but wonder if those that supported the recent bill were trying to ask the South Korean government that question, but became overly singular due to political processes.

    Instead of getting sidetracked into political labels of “exporters of children,” which is rhetorical flourish to some extent anyway (couched in a political context of wanting to “win”) or tacitly offering support for the government, let’s ask and see whether or not their culture, government, etc. really does have the best interests of the child and family in mind.

    I have been critical of this bill as well for different reasons ). But I am also not ready to suggest that international adoption is the only answer. It may be one of multiple responses.

    But that’s the rub. There are multiple responses. We need to engage in many of them from a more unified perspective, where agencies are about the best interests of children and not about adoption because it makes money, where prospective parents have a family for a child in mind and not because it is about OUR family (I’m an adoptive parent, I understand this), and where adult adoptees are about the best interests of today’s children and not about fixing our own pains or struggles (I’m an adult adoptee too).

    We always say adoption is about loss, but we say it from the perspective of loss of the child or birth family: culture, birth family connections, racial similarity. I think we might need to start saying that adoption is about injustice too: families can’t get jobs to provide for their children (like possibly the case of our adopted son), single moms are outcast because they are single, institutions and orphanages cannot gain public funding because governments would rather wage war, children cannot get enough food or water is contaminated because of unequal distribution of resources, wars tear apart families because of ideological differences that could be solved with civility. International adoption exists here (and in many other instances I haven’t listed): let’s talk about these too in relation to any country or any adoption consideration and not only address the symptom, but also the broader disease, which seems to say that we really don’t have children’s best interests in mind.

    Bert Ballard
    Assistant Professor, Communication Division
    Pepperdine University

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Bert, WOW. That may be the single best and articulate summary I’ve seen on this very complex issue. International adoption is such a complex subject that has been shrouded for too long in rhetoric and myopic viewing from all sides. I feel so thankful right now for this dialog.

      There are so many points in your response that I’d like to stand up and applaud, but I will highlight just 2 paragraphs that I think are stellar:
      “[A]s much as I’m an advocate for adoption, international adoption is only part of the answer to South Korea or any country of origin’s struggles. … On one hand, international adoption is an answer for many of the children in institutions in South Korea (or elsewhere). On the other hand, international adoption needs to be one of many options, with the other options being domestic adoption (in some cases), better institutional care (in some cases), kinship adoption (in some cases) or foster care (in some cases).”

      “There are multiple responses. We need to engage in many of them from a more unified perspective, where agencies are about the best interests of children and not about adoption because it makes money, where prospective parents have a family for a child in mind and not because it is about OUR family (I’m an adoptive parent, I understand this), and where adult adoptees are about the best interests of today’s children and not about fixing our own pains or struggles (I’m an adult adoptee too).”

      I couldn’t and didn’t say it better. As for entering a dialog with anyone and everyone, including the Korean government, just name the time and place and I’ll be there. 🙂 I’m off now to read your article. I can’t wait.

  10. Avatar Kevin Ost-Vollmers says:

    Thanks for responding so thoughtfully, Dawn. I very much appreciate it. Also, you’ve obviously done your homework in regards to what’s happening in Korea.

    Rather than responding to your second paragraph in detail, I’ll encourage the adoptees who did the work in Korea to do so. In the mean time, I do have one point to make. International laws, such as the ones contained in the Hague Adoption Convention, are written by “receiving countries,” not sending countries like S. Korea. So, I want to paraphrase something you wrote in your piece. The question about what South Korea does from here and what’s best for the country: should the question be decided by receiving countries, their adoption agencies, their adoption professionals, and their adoptive parents OR do all members of these parties have another, more important role to play that can help South Korea become the “model former sending country” rather than, to use agency language, “model international adoption program”?

    Thanks again for your time — Kevin Ost-Vollmers/Land of Gazillion Adoptees

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Kevin, you raise a point I’ve wrestled with when researching and writing this piece. I don’t think the US is superior or that I am all knowing, and I didn’t want to come off as an arrogant know-it-all Westerner. I truly don’t know the best solution, nor do I think the US has found that solution either. That is one reason I so appreciate the dialog this blog is rendering.

      What seems clear to me from the research and interviews I’ve done is that there are a lot of young children and babies being relinquished and abandoned in South Korea and that domestic adoptions are not keeping up. I do believe that domestic adoption will likely increase, but all evidence is that it will be a slow change. I believe the greatest force for change will probably be increasing infertility that comes with delayed child bearing. However, if the Korean national health care covers infertility treatment, then that will undoubtedly slow the increase in adoption. I also suspect that single motherhood will become more acceptable and with the government’s help will become more financially feasible, but again I think it will be slow. I don’t believe that women are only relinquishing their children based on lies they hear during “counseling”. I am totally in favor of the 7 day period for reconsideration, honesty in counseling, and governmental support, but keep in mind that the women who are abandoning and relinquishing to the public child welfare institutions and orphanages that don’t have an international adoption program can not be making this decision based on lies of adoption since that option is not possible. So, what is best for these kids?

  11. Avatar Kevin Ost-Vollmers says:


    My name is Kevin Ost-Vollmers and I run a blog called Land of Gazillion Adoptees ( I posted perhaps one of the most bizarre pieces to date today. Midst the weird stuff I threw together, I mentioned your article and called it manipulative.

    Firstly, if you’re attempting to be objective (which I understand is always your goal), then you should offer a little more context to your data. For example, you cite well respected adoptee researcher Tobias Hübinett’s lengthy journal article when discussing single motherhood in Korea. Do your readers understand Tobias’ perspectives on adoption? Additionally, do your readers know that he was one of the individuals who helped with the passage of the Korean bill? If your readers were aware of any of this, I think they would question why you opted to use Tobias and his work.

    Additionally, in the single motherhood section, you fail to mention that there is strong evidence to show that most Korean women who place their children for adoption actually want raise kids in Korea instead. You fail to mention that most Korean women who place their children for adoption are not young teenagers. (They are women in their 20’s and 30’s.) You fail to mention that during “pregnancy counseling,” Korean women have been for years mislead and lied to by the Korean adoption agencies so that the women make “adoption plans.”

    Furthermore, in your opening paragraph where you cite the article “Ending South Korea’s Child Export Shame,” you don’t mention that the writer of the piece (Jennifer Kwon Dobbs) is a Korean adoptee. And you say nothing about the fact that the Korean bill was pushed through with the great efforts of a coalition of adoptees (Jane Trenka, Tammy Ko Robinson, Kim Stoker, Tobias Hübinett), unwed mothers, and their allies. For objectivity sakes, you could have asked the following question: why, despite evidence to show that “people adopted from Korean … are doing well,” is there a significant number of these “supposedly well adjusted” adult Korean adoptees who want to see drastic adoption reform in Korea? Why do they want reform when most of their lives have been so good?

    Secondly, I found much of what you offered in this article condescending, especially your “What Happens From Here” section. You write: “The question of what to do from here is not ours to make.” But then you continue with the following, which can only be read as your opinions/judgements.

    “International treaties, national laws, and common decency dictate that adults and governments make decisions for children based on what is in their best interest–not what is good for us or less embarrassing for us, but what is best for the kids that have been entrusted to our care… Artificially limiting international adoptions before domestic adoptions and acceptance of single motherhood has caught up with the demand is not in the best interest of children… [I]t is cruel to prevent children from achieving their mental and physical health potential.  Birth culture should not trump family.” (my emphasis)

    Dawn, in my past life I worked for two adoption agencies. For both of them, I was a part of the team that “sold” the idea of adoption to potential adoptive parents. If back then I would have come across this article, your website, your radio program, books, etc., I would have been delighted to use all of it to justify my work. This fact is problematic. Contrary to your push for objectivity, this article and your work are tools for the adoption industry, which wants nothing more than to see adoptions continue in Korea, the “model international adoption program.”

    Thanks for your time.


    Kevin Ost-Vollmers

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Kevin, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I used a couple of Tobias Hübinett’s well researched articles when researching this piece. I know and respect his work. I am aware that several adoptees and a birth mother group in Korea helped the passage of this new adoption law. I applaud their efforts. Providing adult adoptees access to their adoption records and a revocation period for first moms to process their decision and make certain that it is in their and the child’s best interest both seem to be long overdue. I also strongly support providing more financial support for single motherhood and continued emphasis on changing the attitudes on domestic adoption. In fact, I support most of the new and old adoption laws and appreciate the position Korea is in.

      I fear that all the focus on international adoption obscures the real issue–the 6,115 babies and children coming into governmental care each year who end up in orphanages. International adoption is currently an option for only about 12% of the 8,590 babies and young kids entering care. Granted some of these children are only in governmental care for a short time while their parents work things out, but what surprised me where the statistics of how few of these children ever leave the child welfare institutions, and how many of these children come in as very young children born to unmarried mothers and relinquished or abandoned. I appreciate that you want that 12% to be lower or 0%, but what solution do you see for a system that already is not handling the number of children coming into care. I come from the position that children need families–preferably birth families. That’s why I am happy to see the provisions to support single mothers. If birth families aren’t an option, then extended family. If extended family is not an option, then an adoptive family in their coutnry. And only if that is not an option, do I think international adoption should be considered. But I do think at that point that “international treaties, national laws, and common decency” calls for us to prefer international adoption to foster care or institutional care.

  12. Avatar Katie Sharp--Heart of the Matter Seminars says:

    Very, very well done. Am reposting on our blog and on our Facebook page as well.

  13. Avatar JWoo says:

    “There may be many good reasons to phase out international adoption from Korea, but the mental health of Korean adoptees is not one of them.”

    @!#@ you too buddy.

  14. Avatar barry says:

    I work in dongduchoen south korea as a contractor .right now with my wife Theresa and would like to know how we can adopt while we are here we are US citizen born and raised there. I’m retired us army of 20 years have 3 grown kid and grandkids we are christians raise baptist. I just need to know what to do

  15. Avatar Heavy Heart says:

    What is heavy on my heart is the 1.2 million abortions that occur every year in the US. These children are not even given the chance. In SK there may be a need to reform the foster care system or take leaps to soften the societal stigmas associated with single motherhood or open adoption, but from my perspective, our society (the US) needs to create a culture that places the utmost value on human life – PERIOD. When we compare numbers of how many children are passed off as biological or “given up” by their birthmothers in South Korea, we sometimes forget to acknowledge the very courageous and selfless decision that the birthmothers have made to give their children life – despite all of the hardships and unknowns. The number of abortions in the US makes me feel shameful because it shows that we, as a society, do not value human life. One letter could change the world: aBortion -> aDoption

  16. Avatar gburg61 says:

    mary graves understood this and her passing is a loss to all left unclaimed. she did indeed “love the children”

  17. Avatar gburg61 says:

    children should go where they are WANTED…country does not matter in the end and to see the above people never once citing desire to be a good parent and to love another human being as being the ONLY important issue is just sad. govt rules the day.most koreans see that two parents that want a child is the BEST criteria but a democracy will force its will no matter what.

  18. Avatar NanIe Yi says:

    I will add my voice as an adult adoptee who has lived the experience of being adopted and 30 yrs later reunited-

    People will automatically say/think that you had a ‘better life’ being adopted- I did not have a ‘better life’ but a different life than I would have had with my birth family. I survived physical and psychological abuse being raised by a sociopath Adoptive mom and passive Adad who sat back and let it all happen- that’s obviously not better. My sister who wasn’t shipped out for international adoption, despite being in the exact same circumstance as my brother and myself, endured a hard life while faithfully taking care of our dad until the day of his death, married a very kind man, and has 2 daughters that she has nurtured as a phenomenal mother- one speaks fluent french and has studied abroad in Paris for a year, and her other daughter is currently in university in Seoul as an accomplished violinist, with a recent orchestral trip to Hawaii. So from one adoptee’s experience,I can say that I didn’t find any of my birth family members forced to live as prostitutes,disreputable or degenerate lives in society. And knowing my sister’s life of suffering and difficulty at the beginning of her life, but now seeing a beautiful person who loves her family more than herself, and worked SO hard to give them everything she never had,proves that you have to fight to keep your family together and over length of time things will improve. I only wish I could have been there through the bad and good times with my family, because that is what family does- endures and stays together. In my situation, circumstances were beyond everyone’s control with my mother’s death, but knowing the tremendous love EVERYONE showed me when we reunited was all the proof I needed to know that they had never forgotten me in 30 yrs, but had always loved me in their hearts. I missed out on that love severed from my birth family for half a lifetime, but I am deeply thankful that I got to reunite with them and see in their eyes the tears and know that their love for me ALWAYS existed and they never forgot about me.

  19. I speak as an adoptee, who lived in an orphange in Korea for eight years before being adopted by a wonderful family in the US when I was fourteen. I am happily married with five children, in which two of them have been adopted from Korea. I am a Senior Project Engineeer at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California, and I am the founder of Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK), and I have a blog at

    To all the adoptive parents, I salute all of you for providing loving homes to so many children that needed homes. I want all of you to know that despite all the criticisms on intercountry adoption (ICA) levied by adoptees and others, I want all of you to know that there are many many more times the number of adoptees that don’t have any problem with ICA, and that the voices of the few anti-adoption adoptees don’t represent all of us who are very grateful for having been adopted.

    I think many adoptees are very naive in only looking at the issues of ICA from the point of cultural and racial separation, being uprooted from their birth country without their consent, and desiring that they were raised in Korea. What they don’t think about is the big question, “What would have been the alternatives?”

    Here is a portion of my writing from an essay I wrote last year for the Korean Quarterly magazine, and my essay was titled, “In Defense of Adoption.”

    …So what would have been the alternatives for (now adult) adoptees if they were not adopted through ICA? Orphans growing up in Korea have historically faced incredible challenges as they are subject to strong social stigma.

    Compared to ordinary children with families, orphans in Korea experience what I call “status discrimination.” I have heard and read about the experiences of racial discrimination as described by adoptees living in Europe or in the U.S. But this type of discrimination is nothing compared to the status discrimination that orphans have to endure. By status discrimination, I am referring the denial of opportunities for good education and good jobs that orphans experience, not only because they lack the financial and social support of a family, but additionally because the society discriminates against them simply because they are orphans.

    In the old days, three to five percent of orphans were able to go to college. Although educational opportunities for orphans have increased in recent years, they still fall significantly below educational opportunities of ordinary Korean children with families. By contrast, approximately 70 percent of Korean adoptees in the U.S. and Europe receive a four-year college education or above.

    The status discrimination of orphans does not end with limited educational opportunities. If a young man with an orphan background wishes to date and marry a woman with a family, often the woman’s parents reject the man even though the woman loves him. If two men (or women) of equal ability apply for the same job, and one grew up in an orphanage and the other in a normal family, the applicant who grew up in the orphanage usually loses out.

    Although the social stigma against orphans has lessened greatly over the years, it still presents a big challenge for children growing up in orphanages. Not many orphans are adopted domestically in Korea, as they are mostly older, and Korean nationals tend to prefer adopting infants, in order to keep the adoptions secret. (By “secret,” I am referring to the practice of a prospective adoptive mother going through an elaborate deception to pretend to be pregnant and/or to plan a well-timed move to another part of the country, then presenting the adopted baby as a birth child at the appropriate moment)

    Orphans in Korea must leave the orphanages when they turn 18 years old. Often these orphans are emerging from the orphanage just out of high school, with very few marketable skills. Leaving the orphanages, these young adult orphans are usually given a onetime severance allowance of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. But this meager allowance runs out very quickly.

    With no financial support or family support available, going to college would be impossible. These young adults go through extreme hardship once they leave the orphanages. A few find ways to stay with friends and/or extended families, but not all of them are that fortunate. Most wind up working in low-paying jobs at which they work long hours. Some may become successful teachers, pastors, nurses, etc., but these types of successes are very few compared to others who haven’t fared so well. In many areas of their lives, adults with orphan backgrounds must be vigilant to keep their background a secret, for fear of status discrimination.

    When I look at the educational accomplishments of some of the adoptees that are strongly against adoption, I have a hard time understanding how they could speak against the very system they have tremendously benefited from. Most of them have college degrees, some of them have Ph.D. degrees and some are college professors. Without being adopted overseas into an environment which supported them to that level of achievement, they most likely would not have received the education or the distinctions they now enjoy. By contrast, the orphans in Korea would die to have the same opportunities the adoptees have. Granted that one’s happiness is not determined by educational achievements; however, there can be no question that ICA has provided opportunities for many orphans that would not have been available had they remained in Korea….

    I support the efforts by Korea to create an environment for more single mothers to raise their own children. People speak of providing funding so they can raise their children with no economic burden. Economic reason is a small part of the concern for birthmothers. The greater problem is their ability to handle social stigma and ostrcisation by the her families and general public for having given birth out-of-wedlock. Most birthmothers choose to give up their children for these unfavorable social environment, not so much becuase they don’t have the economic means to raise their children. Becuase of these and other circumstances, there are far more birthmothers that choose to deliberately give up their children than those who choose to be bold and keep their children. I believe Korea is on its way to have more birhtmothers being able to raise their own children and we should definitely encourage this.

    While I acknowledge that there is a need for advocacy groups for birthmothers and their rights, in so doing we should not violate the rights of children. The anti-adoption factions in Korea have used the cause of birthmothers’ rights to speak against ICA, as well as against domestic adoption. Because they claim that adoption causes the separation of a child from the birthmother, they use the phrases such as “Family Preservation over Adoption Promotion” to make their points known. However, in their zeal to put an end to adoption by advocating birthmothers’ rights, they have focused more on birthmothers, not on the rights of children.

    I believe that, while birthmothers’ rights should be advocated, it is wrong to do so by trampling on children’s rights to their own homes and families. Birthmothers are adults who have voices, and they can make certain choices for themselves, whether good or bad. But the children have no voice. Many adoptees have spoken out to advocate for their own rights and the rights of birthmothers’, but very few have chosen to speak for the rights of children to have their own homes.

    So to all adoptive parents, keep on doing what you are doing, and don’t let some voices of discontent discourage you in any way. Because you have so many more adoptees who are your friends.

    • Avatar Jet Vertz says:

      Very well said, Steve Morrison. I am somewhat late responding to your comments.

      I totally agree with your position. I was adopted when I was 13 years old from Korea in 1959. I did very well, became a Vice President of a large American fortune 50 corporation and lived an American Dream. I am not sure I could have done that in Korea if I was not adopted by an American and given an opportunity to realize the American Dream.

  20. Avatar AdoptiveMom says:

    I’ve read the full article and the comments and I’m chiming in in support of Sarah’s comment. I did not care for Jennifers comment about spending $30-40,000 to help single mothers in Korea. I’m certainly support initiatives to help them, absolutely. If they need more support then a plan to help would be in their best interests. But the money I am currently spending to facilitate the adoption of a Korean child is because I want to parent that child. My husband and I, who have a biological child and a child adopted from another Asian country, see this adoption as another way to build our family. We certaintly are not ‘buying our child’ or consider ourselves ‘paying strangers’ we will be his parents. His birthmother- who has other children- made a choice that was in his best interests.

    I do not doubt that some mothers do not understand the full choices as they are presented, but I don’t think that’s only an issue in Korea. We chose Korea, after considering several countries, including foster care in the US, not because it was the best way to get a young child but because we appreciate Asian culture, and the program was a good fit for our family.

  21. Avatar Anon WP says:

    Thank you for this! The research was phenomenal and well presented. As an adult adoptee, even I learned something. I hope that things change in the future for the children being born now in Korea whose parents can’t or don’t want to parent them, but for now I am so glad that my life turned out like it did.

  22. Avatar Christine says:

    I lived in Korea for 3 1/2 years. I was appalled at how the orphans have no hope there. Korea takes care of them well, but there is nothing there for them when they age out. They just go into prostitution or work in the factories or streets. Shame.

  23. Avatar I. J. says:

    Thank you so much for this. As an adoptee that is grown up, I know how lucky I am. That may not be the pc way to say it, but it is how I feel. I am not descrimated against as the child of a struggleing single mother, I’m not looked down upon because I am adopted, and I wasn’t raised in an orphanage.

  24. Avatar Maggy says:

    I felt very sad to read Jennifer’s words of ‘children growing up with paying strangers’. I don’t know her story, but I would expect a little more gratitude to her American ‘parents’ – I’m sure they did not bring her here to make her miserable. Adoptive parents many times have a long history of loss as well, and all they want is not some vicious desire to make some ‘birth mother’ anguish over relinguising her child, but rather to offer all their best for a child who otherwise would not be loved. Adoptive parents are parents too, and deserve some consideration as well, after all the long years of caring for a child (not as a ‘paying stranger’, but as family).

  25. Avatar Moe Hong says:

    Thank you for this.

    The Korean Government talks about a very slight increase in domestic adoption as if it could ever replace foreign adoption – at the current rate, for all those kids in institutions to be adopted domestically, it would take approximately 812 years for domestic adoption to pick up the slack.

    They never mention the enormous number of kids, from infants onwards, in institutions, and the fact that only a tiny number are placed via agencies like Holt and Adopt International into private/public partnership foster family programs for eventual domestic or international adoption.

    The rate of children given over to the state has actually increased 5% in the last 5 years. If the Korean government wants to do something to assuage their shame, they need to remove the stigma of being a single mom – not just establish a welfare system (which might be impossible in the only Asian nation without any kind of social welfare net for its neediest citizens) but actually make cultural changes necessary to remove that stigma.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Moe Hong- I heard many times during my research for this blog that the actual number of abandonments had increased in the last several years, but was unable to find hard data to support this claim. Can you direct me to any place that tracks these numbers? Thanks.

  26. Avatar Hyosu says:

    Oops, I forgot to comment about the reply of ‘researcher’.
    I thought same thing what you mentioned in your reply. Measuring children in the organized, structured scales may have bias and may have validity problem although it may be reliable.

  27. Avatar Hyosu says:

    Overall, it’s a good job.
    However, I want to make some comment.

    I knew lots of children in the orphanage. They didn’t like the fact that their parents abandoned them. Actually, more than 90% of the children in the large facility have their biological parents. Some of them contact their parents regularly, although some parents just don’t want to meet their children.
    I’m Kind of familiar with the children in the orphanages. It was 17,000 in 2008 and I’m sure that more than 15,000 are not orphan. Living orphanages doesn’t mean all of them are orphans. This is the biggest problem of Korean child welfare and urgent issue to be fixed.

    As of 2008 (I didn’t follow-up the figures since I came to the U.S. for the study), Korean government spent more than $1,000 per child in orphanages. For example, they may spend $600,000 per year for the agency with 50 children. It’s not a small amount of money. It’s enough money to change their policy into any direction. They may use the money for the incentive for adoptive parents or foster parents most of whom are grand parents, siblings of parents or biological relatives, etc. What the children in orphanages lack is the love of primary caregiver, not the lack of funding. We have enough funding. Some research confirmed what I just mentioned.

    The reason why Korean think that overseas adoption a shame is that our GDP per capita is much higher than any other international adoption program countries, such as China, Vietnam, Russia, etc. When I researched the topic 3 years ago, next richest(?) country among the child sending countries was Russia (GDP $4~5,000). South Korea was making almost $20,000.

    I’m one of the researchers who are closely watching this issue. What we need is the change of policy, system, and culture. We have several options. Group home, fostercare, and adoption. This doesn’t work well until now. However, it’s growing steadily and I believe that it will establish in the near future.

    Does it make sense for you to adopt Japanese children to give them a better life? You may say ‘no’ because they are the children of the affluent country.
    Many economists predict Korea will catch Japanese GDP per capita in 10 years. Then the same reason may apply to Korean children.

    We are lightly fast changing country. When I go to the University in 1994, none of my hundreds of friends chose social work major. Actually, I never heard about the social work major. However, we are making 15,000 social workers a year even though the quality of the workers vary greatly.
    See how the result will come out. 1 or 2 discontinued plan may be added to the table of the future article, but I’m sure Korean will make it in the near future.

    Lastly, I have one suggestion for the American adoptive families. Teach your children Korean language. They may have more options and opportunies when they are grown up. It’s sad, but, being Asian has some disadvantage in the U.S. Multi-language advantage will give your children life-long financial asset as well as ethnic identity.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Hyosu, yes, the data I gave for children living in orphanages in South Korea was not limited to children where both parents were deceased. In fact, the vast majority of children in orphanages and foster homes in Korea have both parents living. Many are children born to single mothers, but the numbers of children from divorce living in child welfare institutions is increasing. Adoption, domestic and international, is likely not the appropriate solution for these children. Thank you for the additional information you gave us.

  28. Avatar lori boarman says:

    Great article! worth ready. Very interesting information. Thanks for writing it!

  29. Avatar researcher says:

    I am a psychology phd student/researcher w/ Dr. Lee and also a Korean adoptee. I have been refraining from chiming in, but do need to clarify things because I fear that the take-away message is one that I’ve heard repeated: that Korean adoptees are just not doing so well in Sweden. There are a number of studies in the US which indicate that international adoptees, including our “well-adjusted” (and really, what does this mean?) Korean adoptees may not be faring as well as previously thought. I think a major shift needs to happen in how we measure what it means for adoptees to be well-adjusted. This means moving away from survey assessments of academic & behavioral issues, esp surveys that are parent report OR surveys of children taken in adolescence or younger. How well adjusted was I on a 1 to 5 likert scale when I was 15? Very well adjusted, because, like many adoptees, I was a perfectionist.

    We need to start asking questions that require whole, long, complex answers, and stop wondering if we are hitting the checkmarks on the scale of “well-adjusted.” If you talk to adult Korean adoptees, now in their 30s, 40s, etc, I’m sure their answers on their own “adjustment” will look very different than the dichotomous categories we insist on forcing adoptees in: adjusted/non-adjusted, happy/sad, resolved issues/angry. All people are more complex than this.

    On another note, I find it interesting when adoptive parents claim that their children are well-adjusted. We know from research that parent and child reports are generally very, very different. Children do not tell parents things if they think they will not understand or if it may hurt them.

    I would write more, but I need to work on my dissertation. Thanks for this engaging conversation.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Researcher, I’m glad you chimed in. I loved your comment about what do we really mean by well adjusted. I think back over my life and at times, no doubt others might have questioned the wellness of my adjustment–including me. 🙂 To me, the most meaningful comparison is to compare large numbers of adolescent and adult adoptees to large numbers on non adopted persons on any of the standard scales for mental health. I like the idea of a more in depth questionnaire, but those tend to have much fewer subjects. In truth, we need more of all type of research.

  30. Avatar MamaBev says:

    As an adoptive parent to older children (not from Korea) I feel for the children “sentenced” to life in an orphanage. My 4 spent 7 years in one I condsider quite good in compparison to the norm, but all they wanted was their mom to come for them and not to drink anymore! But, they have adjusted very well here in USA and now thank me for choosing to be their mother.
    My own mother was the daughter of an unwed mother who would not give up her parental rights. Therefore, my mother was bounced between orphanage when her mother got tired of taking care of her, her grandparents who would “rescue” her from the orphanage and her mother who would take her back just to spite the grandparents! She often said there was NO way her children would be bounced around like that! And, we weren’t. We lived with Grandpa and Grandma until they passed away and My sister now lives in the old farm house. I never experienced first hand the uncertianity of no family, but through a miracle I became an adoptive parent (international) 6 years ago! According to my oldest adoptive daughter (I do have 3 bio children-all grown), It is wonderful to have a home and a room and a chance at a future that never existed for them as orphans in their native country. Of course, it is difficult for them with the language change at their mid to late teens, but they will perservere. If I had the space, I would find the love to parent a couple of more, but the house is full! My life is full and my children have a chance at a better future. That is what all adoptive parents want-for all the children.
    Financially supporting unwed mothers is a risky business as can be seen by the welfare state that exists in America. Working to prevent pregnancies might be a better idea. Babies are not born to be deserted, adbandoned or adopted-they are born entitled to love by the woman who bore them. But, it that is not possible, love by a different “parent” is to be preferred to growning up in a de-personalization environment of an orphange! God bless everyone who wants to help these precious angels in any way!

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Bev, you raise a point we haven’t talked about and which I don’t have much information on–availability, attitude towards, and use of birth control in Korea. You are right that in an ideal world no woman becomes pregnant until she is ready to be a parent. Does anyone know much about this issue? I do know that Korea has a rapidly declining birth rate, which might indicate that birth control is well accepted.

  31. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Sarah, adoption agencies in Korea are exploiting and entrenching the stigma against unwed mothers, so giving money to agencies rather than to unwed mothers makes little sense to me. I and other volunteer allies are currently working with the KUMFA to develop an overseas donation mechanism. More details are forthcoming. However in the meantime, you can make a donation to the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network at

  32. Avatar Jennifer says:

    You’re right that poverty is not the main reason anymore for unwed mothers surrendering their children for adoption. It along with other structural factors such as gender discrimination, domestic abuse, and social stigma due to marital status create a terrible barrier to unwed mother family support. Moreover during the 80s, this issue of “unwed motherhood” became more present in the Korean media as a huge welfare issue, but that was overblown due to the small percentage of unwed women who actually gave birth. Still, this stigma of “welfare unwed mother queen” leads Korean policymakers to prefer to fund institutions rather than individual families. But the problem is that these institutions all too often counsel mothers to give up their babies. Run by adoption agencies, the mothers have described these institutions as “baby farms.” What the studies don’t say yet because the research is moving to catch up (and I include myself here as a researcher/allied advocate with KUMFA. In fact, I am speaking right now from my research that I’ve conducted since 2009 in the interest of resisting misinformation.) is the realities of the mothers’ experiences in such institutions. As an ally, I am floored by the arrogance of foreigners who have a sense of ownership over Korea’s children who are unwed mothers’ children. They ARE NOT YOUR CHILDREN. Speaking in the child’s “best interests” has too often become a segue to speaking about the children as if they belong with foreigners. What are children’s rights? The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that children have rights to their identities and families of origin. There can be no derogation. The coalition bill was developed by Korean nationals first and foremost with the input of adoptee advocacy and unwed/birth mother organizations, and it was passed unanimously (with only 3 abstentions) by the National Assembly. Some of the comments in this thread show a lack of knowledge about current Korean society and a naivete that, when combined with *foreigner knows best,* leads to policies that put unwed mothers in the backseat and foreigners at the wheel. Adoption agencies in Korea for almost 60 years have operated with little oversight, and agencies in the U.S. and overseas look the other way because they want/need referrals. And Korea has been the go-to nation for infants. Now that this supply is shutting down, of course there’s deep concern among foreigners that infants will no longer be available and that older children will languish. It’s interesting how most foreigners, who claim to truly care about Korea’s children, don’t want to adopt these older children. They argue that infants should be made available to prevent them from growing up into children who mostly no one — including the foreigners, themselves — might want. Sadly, older children are not by and large as desirable to prospective adopters. They want babies whose identities and attachments they can form and mold into their own. Yet what of older children’s needs? What your article has not covered is the research that counters the claim that institutions are always bad for children. I won’t comment on my colleague’s research, but let me say instead that there is work out there that shows how SOS Children’s Villages, children’s communities, among other alternative care models are highly effective. What do we mean when we say institution? Why do we have a 19th C view as if such institutions are all filthy and abusive? I know you’ve cited research about the insufficiency of Korea’s welfare system, but it’s chicken and egg matter in many ways. These institutions are designed for short-term care to feed the adoption supply. A Ministry Audit in 2010 showed the vast network of orphanages tied to agencies revealing the extensive adoption pipeline laid throughout the country. But that being said, not all institutions are bad. I’ve visited some of them. I’ve seen children who are thriving and who don’t want to leave their community. Most foreigners have visited institutions run by adoption agencies and are asked to donate to them, but that’s not the entire alternative care picture in Korea. Moreover, we need to take a harder look at Korean adoption’s institutionalized injustices against its own children (e.g. identity fraud, breaking their civil rights to their own families, among other violations). We assume that it’s not possible for these injustices to have existed for almost 60 years, but they have because demand drove supply and looked the other way as long as infants continued to arrive. In this age of global information, it’s difficult to look the other way or even to conceal truths that are coming to light. Korea is not a canary in a coal mine — as if overseas adoption is a dark tunnel that’s about to collapse. Let’s look at the flickering at the end of the tunnel instead. Korea is a hopeful story of how a country can turn itself around after 3 generations of child displacement and begin to empower unwed mothers’ families. It’s an exciting and positive moment that will continue.

  33. Avatar Sarah says:

    Thank you, Dawn, for posting links about what APs (and other allies) can do to support unwed mothers in Korea. Anyone else know of resources for this? How are our efforts best spent? Sending money? Contacting advocacy groups/politicians in Korea? To the commenter that suggested PAPs donate money to unwed mothers rather than adopt – PAPs are willing to spend so much money because they want to parent, they are not looking to be charitable. However, because there will be an immediate need for homes until Korean culture catches up with the needs of its children, I don’t think there are necessarily competing interests. We can adopt/parent while also advocating for more support for unwed mothers and domestic adoptions.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Sarah, thank you for requesting more links to non profit organizations that have been “vetted” by folks involved with these movements. I too would appreciate them. Can anyone help us out?

  34. Avatar From a grown-up Korea-American Adoptee says:

    I wish there was an easy answer, but I fear it’s so complicated. The most important thing is what will BEST benefit the children. They are the innocents that have NO VOICE in all of this…

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Grown-Up Korean-American Adoptee, I agree whole heartedly with you that there is no easy answer, and any solution that is found is sure to displease someone. There are so many competing goals, as the comments thus far have shown-first mother rights, Korea’s desire to take care of their own, changing Korean’s attitude about domestic adoption, etc. All these goals are valid and important. And although this article/blog has focused primarily on what is happening inside Korea, we can’t ignore the competing, or at least perceived competing, goals from the adoption industry and prospective adoptive parents. The reason I wrote this article is because my bottom line is the same as yours–the ultimate goal we should all be seeking is what is in the best interest of the children that have no voice. What is hard is that the solution to that one goal is so darn complex and unclear.

  35. Avatar Michelle says:

    Thanks, Dawn, for the great article – and thanks to everyone who has commented for the interesting perspectives. I absolutely agree with the goals of reducing the need for (any) adoption in the first place. That said, it is alarming to me to read about the large number of children who are ending up institutionalized, rather than adopted out internationally. Given the studies Dawn cites as well as other research I am familiar with about attachment and child development, I find it very difficult to understand how being brought up in an orphanage in-country could possibly be seen as a better solution than being brought up in a loving family out-of-country. Yes, I understand the complexity of identity development for transracial adoptees – and yes, the best case scenario would be to find a loving family or support system in Korea – but if that’s not happening often enough, and the alternative is being raised in an orphanage, how can this type of institutional child-rearing be justified?

    I also wanted to mention something my husband suggested upon reading this article – if the Korean government is concerned about a potential identity crisis among children adopted abroad, perhaps they could consider offering 1 or more free (or at least largely subsidized) homeland visits for those children and ideally their families, too? (Similar to the free Birthright trips to Israel now offered to young Jewish adults.) I’d LOVE to take my 2-year-old son back to Korea as often as possible to help him stay connected to his birth country, and we are already planning ahead to figure out how we can make that happen. But realistically, the expenses involved with such a trip mean that it’s unlikely for us to get there more than once or twice during his childhood/teen years.

    If the Korean government wants what’s best for children – at least in the interim until single mothers are better supported, domestic adoption is more widely accepted, and/or long-term foster placements are available for any child in need – I think a commitment to better supporting those children adopted internationally, and helping them cope with potential identity development issues, would be the best solution.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Michelle, one of the problems the Korean government might have with continuing the status quo until single motherhood and domestic adoption are more widely accepted is that i believe this is a long process since it requires a change in attitude and values. I have been impressed with the concrete steps the Korean government has taken to increase domestic adoptions. Plenty of countries give lip service to this need, but Korea is putting their money where their mouth is. From what I can see, which I realize is somewhat limited, they are just now starting to make progress in single motherhood acceptance. I would love to hear from others any specific suggestions of what would be effective at increasing acceptance of domestic adoption and single motherhood. (Jennifer has suggested some for making it more practical for single women to parent.) And Michelle, I love your idea of making it more feasible for adoptive families to bring their children back to Korea or even providing scholarships for college aged Korean adoptees to return. I know some of these exist now, but can someone provide the links to these resources.

  36. Avatar Ashley Stern says:

    After reading comments I want to add a couple of thoughts on domestic solutions: Foster Care is the best model yet to deal with orphans, and of course even better kinship or domestic adoptions. BUT the best option is to prevent abandonment and serious health issues in bio parents. Of course, these are wonderful options, but I’ve sat in a thousand bus rides in China talking to people about where I was headed (orphanage) and reminding them that they too could make a difference by adopting or fostering…but the middle class Chinese ARE NOT adopting. It’s not happening in Korea either. This is a thought, and though Korea is wildly modern, more modern than most American cities and China has progressed at break neck speeds from a feudalistic, agrarian society to a modern, wireless society thought moves much much slower and people still think it is okay to switch children due to gender, abandon due to imperfections and abuse those who are ugly. The bloodline is of utmost importance and an orphan whether adopted or not often carries a stigma. Of course, these things were not long ago a part of our society too, so I do not speak out of arrogance or condemnation but these are the bare facts. I’ve known people to buy babies through friends of friends rather than to adopt through the welfare system b/c they mistrust the system. Infant abandonment is not markedly decreasing in these countries…these are the sad, sad facts. Adoption out of a culture may be difficult, but leaving a child in an institution is like death to hope, opportunity and a future, if not actual death.

  37. Avatar Jennifer says:


    There is no policy for mothers to come back for their children, and in fact, the mothers who do are oftentimes told that it’s too late– their children are overseas. However, that’s not true, as we know. Those children are in foster care awaiting domestic or overseas adoption. But mothers actually have the legal right to demand their children’s return because the memo of understanding (oftentimes signed while their babies are inside their wombs) is an illegal document. That’s a fact that came out during the hearings on the revision to the adoption law and that has been discussed in other symposia related to single mother experiences of the adoption system. Adoption agencies are benefiting from the mothers’ shame and lack of knowledge, and even encouraging both as a way to ensure a steady supply of children– the very orphan crisis that you’re asking us to consider. How many of these mothers would return to the orphanages and reclaim their children if they were given subsidized housing, job security, and support for food and medical necessities? Let’s find out! 🙂 In fact, let’s spend $30,000-40,000 per each overseas adoption instead on each unwed mother and her child’s reunion and security.

  38. Avatar Ashley Stern says:

    Very excellent article covering the social and cultural thoughts as well as the actual figures. I already see this happen in China, an ideologically sensitive country that may be even prouder than Korea. China wants to appear to the world to “take care of their own”. Very few Chinese children are adopted domestically, very few adopted internationally, lots abandoned. Possibly less of a stigma in China for orphans than in Korea (I’ve lived in both countries for 6 and 5 years respectively) because Korea tends to be more traditional and homogeneous, while China already touts 56 minorities and Han who vary so much culturally from north to south, east to west. But still, you’re absolutely right, it’s the children who suffer. Yikes. But in so many ways the pride of a government always causes the most vulnerable, the worst pain…
    Again, SO impressed with the astuteness of this article. A must read!

  39. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Dawn, I appreciate your thoughtful response and the spirited dialogue that your article has inspired. I want respectfully to disagree with two key claims: “The foster care system is not analogous to this situation as is our birth mother relinquishment adoption program” and “The situation in Korea is more like the U.S. infant adoption system.” Korean mothers are not surrendering their children with the understanding that their kinship is permanently severed, and in fact, it is not severed due to Korea’s registration system, which does not require immediate registration at birth. So adoptees who reunite can be registered as their Korean parents’ children (and some are, in fact). The orphanage has historically been used by families as short-term fostering, not necessarily long-term abandonment with parents returning to pick up their children, some of whom are in the adoption pipeline without their parents’ knowledge or consent. That’s why orphan switching such as in the well-known case of Deann Borshay Liem (First Person Plural) occurred. This orphan template persists in the form of the orphan identity — a falsified identity — that every single adoptee has via the orphan hojuk. We need to understand this Korean context on its own terms rather than make misleading comparisons such as “In some ways Korea is more like our system 50 years ago…” that blindside us from social injustices that persist to this day and that prevent us from moving beyond adoption. Fast-tracking adoptions, which is good for foreigners who want infants who assimilate faster than older children, is not good for unwed mothers who want their children back and who have no due process (because adoptions do not go through the court, but rather through the Ministry of Health and Welfare) through which to do so. It’s unjust that an unwed mother’s shame is used against her as justification to perpetuate a system that has exploited and profited from her shame for decades. Rather than throwing up our hands because of this shame, why don’t we become allies to the unwed mothers who are speaking out as community leaders? How fast the moms are in their efforts is not the question. How slow are we to become the moms’ allies? Why aren’t we make the full transition to talking about supporting their families? Rather than give money to adoption agencies either in the form of a donation or to process an adoption, how about giving money to support unwed mothers’ self-determination? Perhaps we are slow to do this because we can’t even properly identify or speak about the mothers outside of dominant adoption language. The Korean mothers who are speaking out — namely Ms. Mok and Ms. Choi of the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association with which I work as a researcher — are not “birth mothers.” They are unwed, child-rearing mothers. But first and foremost, they are mothers. Asking a roomful of Korean Americans and Koreans about these mothers’ lives is not a substitute for asking the mothers, themselves, about what they want and need to resist and to thrive.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Jennifer, your point is well taken—trying to compare the Korean system to either the foster care system or the infant adoption system in the US is not all that helpful since too many differences exist. I too had thought that the Korean orphanages had been used primarily as short-term fostering, not necessarily long-term abandonment with parents returning to pick up their children. In fact, this is not the case. In Residential care of children: Comparative Perspectives, by Mark E. Courtney and Dorota Iwaniec (2009,) they cite that 70% of the children in these institutions have been there over 5 years and one-third have been there over 10 years. They conclude that the norm is that children in the Korean orphanages enter at a young age and remain until they age out as older adolescents. (p. 135). They also say that by 2000, both out of wedlock and runaway children increased as the cause of children in need of protection. No longer is poverty the main reason. In a different study, The behavioral development of Korean children in institutional care and international adoptive families, Dr. Richard Lee found that “[r]elinquished children institutionalized before age 2 fared the poorest across groups studied.”

      I hear your concern over “fast-tracking” adoptions being unfair to unwed mothers and think the new law that allows a period of time for the woman to change her mind is humane and long overdue. However, you say this this “is good for foreigners who want infants who assimilate faster than older children”, but early adoption is also good for children. Somehow we need to balance a reasonable period of time to think through her decision with the psychological needs of the children. I’m up for suggestions of what is a reasonable period of time. The seven days allowed under the new law seems appropriate, but up to a couple of weeks would be acceptable for me since these children will likely not be adopted immediately anyway since they are only eligible for domestic adoption for the first 5 months.

      I love your suggestion that we become allies to the unwed mothers. To that end, here are some links people might want to follow: (in Korean)

  40. Great article, as you said, the most important factor is the well being of the children and we all know that “orphanages, regardless of quality of care are not good places for children. “

  41. Avatar Lori Ingber says:

    This is a wonderful summary of Korean adoptions, Dawn. My husband and I have four children, two of whom were adopted from Korea in the past 5 years.

    In any society we wish for the adoption rate to be 0% because we also wish the rate of unwanted pregnancy to also be 0. It is unrealistic not only in Korean society but in any society. The fact is that babies remain in orphanages and they deserve loving homes, no matter the way in which they got there. We could boycott the process and not adopt, we could wait for Koreans to adopt domestically at much higher rates than they currently are, or we can adopt. We chose to adopt. I now have two happy and healthy, well-adjusted children who are Korean.

  42. Avatar Icallbullshit says:

    Good article until I read this, “One quote, used repeatedly in the Korean press this summer when discussing the reasons for the new Korean adoption law and the need to phase out international adoptions, captured my attention –”Children adopted abroad are more likely to experience identity crisis and a sense of loss. Due to various conflicts coming from the feelings, they could have difficulty adapting themselves to their adopted family, friends and community.” Statements can take on the aura of truth simply from being repeated, and this topic is too important to let this falsehood go unchallenged. There may be many good reasons to phase out international adoption from Korea, but the mental health of Korean adoptees is not one of them.”

    An aura of truth just by being repeated? Really? Maam you have no idea what it’s like to be adopted into another “race”. Please don’t ever speak for the adopted community like this. Terrible statement.

  43. Avatar Icallbullshit says:

    One quote, used repeatedly in the Korean press this summer when discussing the reasons for the new Korean adoption law and the need to phase out international adoptions, captured my attention –”Children adopted abroad are more likely to experience identity crisis and a sense of loss. Due to various conflicts coming from the feelings, they could have difficulty adapting themselves to their adopted family, friends and community.” Statements can take on the aura of truth simply from being repeated, and this topic is too important to let this falsehood go unchallenged. There may be many good reasons to phase out international adoption from Korea, but the mental health of Korean adoptees is not one of them.

    Dawn, you should visit some of the FB pages adoptess started that I belong to. Korean adoptees have some serious identity issues. To call this a “falsehood” is wrong. Great article until I came across this “point”. How do you know how we feel anyway?

    A Korean adoptee with a few identity issues.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Icallbullshit, you are right that I don’t know how you feel. I too visit some of the Facebook pages and blogs of Korean and other adult adoptees. I have also interviewed many, but you are right that I don’t have a clue how it really feels. I suspect that no one knows how all Korean adoptees feel because adopted people, as all people, are unique, and their feelings are far from homogeneous.

      When trying to see on the whole how people adopted abroad from Korea are doing i could rely on my interviews and what I read, but that is limited to only those I know about. It is also limited because those that are more vocal are not necessarily reflective of the whole. They may just be the more articulate, or the more tech savy, or whatever. The only way I know to get a feel for the whole is to look at research, particularly large scale, long term research. The problem with research is that what you find is somewhat dependent on what you are looking for and not all research is designed well. For example, one of the problems with research is how you find the people who participate. In the words, do you advertise for participants and if so where do you advertise. The other problem is finding research that just included adoptees from one country. But even with these problems, research is still the only way I know to even approach getting a feel for the whole.

      I do however appreciate that the way I phrased that statement came off arrogant and I’m sorry for that.

  44. Avatar Carrie says:

    Thank you for the update! We adopted our daughter in 2010 from Korea and are waiting for our son to come home from Korea. We are caught in the Emigration Permit quota this time, so our son is directly affected by these changes in the laws. We now have to wait at least 5 more months for him to come home than we expected, and his adjustment may be much harder than our daughter’s. I have a great respect for Korean culture but this makes no sense to me.

    It makes me so sad that children will grow up in orphanages when there are so many parents that desperately want to parent these children.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Children spending extra months in foster care just because the quota has been filled for this year, is NOT in their best interest. One of the reasons Korean adoptees have such good outcomes is because of the way Koreans used to process adoptions–the children were young and in foster care prior to adoption. That is likely not the only reason, but it is a factor.

  45. Avatar miriam says:

    Wonderfully written! Best I have read so far! We adopted our daughter from Korea in 2010 and have been blessed beyond words. Thank you for this. I too may print this for her to read.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Miriam, I think that’s a cool idea. It’s interesting to think about what the status of international adoptions in general will be when she is old enough to read this.

  46. Avatar Sarah says:

    This is a great compilation of the history of Korean adoption, and an informative summary of recent reforms. We adopted from Korea and this is one of the more comprehensive write ups I’ve seen; I may print it out and file away for my daughter! I’m not sure there will be any one “model” for tapering off international adoptions, though, as cultural and economic reasons that lead to them really vary by country.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Sarah, you’re right that there are so many variations in culture, reasons children are placed for adoption, acceptance of adoption, etc. The one universal seems to be the shame and embarrassment felt by sending countries.

  47. Avatar Karen says:

    Thank you, Dawn, for a very thoughtful and informative article.

  48. Avatar Carrie says:

    Dawn, I couldn’t agree more! It makes no sense to make children wait longer and longer times to come home. If children are to be adopted internationally, just let them come home. Making them wait doesn’t help anyone!

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