South Korea Adoptions
An update on the adoption laws in South Korea. Have they created unintended consequences?

One of the things that strikes me over and over in the areas of adoption and infertility is the vast expanse of gray. I’m a person who by nature sees life in varying shades of gray, so I suppose on one level my aversion to the blacks and whites of life makes me well suited to think and write about both adoption and infertility. On the other hand, I sometimes am left with the feeling of being stuck without a lot of forward movement.

As some of you may recall, a year ago I wrote an extensive post (tome?)  about the history of adoptions in South Korea and the new Korean adoption law. In some ways Korea has been seen as leading the way in international adoptions, so I thought it helpful for everyone to consider what is happening in Korean adoptions regardless what country they are adopting from. A year has passed, and I wondered what has happened under the new law.

Increased Waits, Older Kids in Korean Adoption

I hasten to add that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. The new adoption law passed the Korean National Assembly on June 29, 2011 did not take full effect until August 2012. The trend with adoptions from Korea is longer wait, older kids, and fewer “healthy” children referred. This was the trend, however, before the new adoption law took effect. Although it varies by agency, the following generally applies:

  • Average timeframe from home study approval to travel is approximately 14-18 months.
  • Majority of children are now18-24 months when they arrive home.
  • Majority have some health issues or special needs, although these are often minor and may have been treated in Korea before the child arrives home.

More Babies Being Abandoned in Korea

While it is too early to tell whether the new adoption law will increase the wait for children before they are placed in a permanent home, there is some evidence that the new law has had one unintended consequence. The new adoption law requires that expectant women wanting to relinquish their babies for adoption must first legally register the newborns under their Family Register. The intent is to make it easier for adopted persons to find their birth family if they choose to search later in life. This makes sense because the address on the Register is considered that person’s permanent address, even when he moves during adulthood. Many Koreans have both a permanent address and a present address; the permanent one where his birth records were established and the present one where he currently lives.

At the risk of understatement, the Family Register is a big darn deal in Korean society. In Confucian tradition, the family is the most important part of Korean life, and the Family Register is the historical record of the family. In many cases the Register can trace a family’s history for over 500 years. Family welfare is viewed as much more important than the needs of the individual, and members of the family are tied to each other because the actions of one family member reflect on the rest of the family. Listing a child born out of wedlock on the mother’s family registry is like a permanent scarlet letter “A” that will follow the woman, the child, and her family throughout life and beyond.

For some women, this may not matter much. Attitudes may be changing, and there are groups actively working to improve acceptance of single motherhood and reduce the shame attached. But for other women, the shame is too great. The unintended consequence of this requirement in a society where shame still reigns supreme for out of wedlock births may well be abandonment. And abandoned infants in South Korea are not eligible for domestic or international adoption, thus will be raised until age 18 in an orphanage.

Three years ago, Pastor Lee Jong-rak set up a “baby box” built into the wall of his church in Nangok, a tough working-class neighborhood in Seoul. The baby box was created to offer a safe place for a mother to abandon her infant. (Although creating a baby box might in itself encourage abandonment rather than legal relinquishment, that is a topic for another blog.) Until the new adoption law took effect in August, he averaged five infants a month. In August of this year he received 10 babies, and in September he received 14.

The evidence is not strong yet, and perhaps will not hold water in the long run, but it may point to a disturbing trend. Steve Morrison, over at Mission to Promote Adoptions in Korea (MPAK), will be in Korea this month and will try to get more updated numbers on abandonment. (I’ll share those with you, so sign up for our weekly e-newsletter at the top left of this page. ) I challenge you to watch this video of Pastor Lee’s ministry without uttering a sad sigh.

I stand by my conclusion in my blog last year on the status of Korean adoptions.

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.


Image credit: Ivodman