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