Adoptees say local adoption system not free from irregularities

14 May 2008

By Kim Young-gyo

SEOUL, May 14 (Yonhap) -- Following recent allegations of irregularities in international adoptions from Vietnam, Korean adoptees said Wednesday South Korea's adoption system has also had serious problems.

"Earlier signals about trafficking from Vietnam ... has significant comparisons with those of South Korea in earlier 1970s and 1980s," said a Dutch activist, who was adopted from South Korea, in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

Hilbrand Westra has been actively involved in international adoption, working as a chairman of the Netherlands-based United Adoptees International, the first independent and international foundation by adoptees, since 2006 with a political and social aim to address problems involving adoption.

"In the seventies and eighties, many children disappeared from streets in Seoul and Busan. Many older Koreans in these cities have been confirming that they knew or heard about this. Still, no one ever asked for a thorough investigation in South Korea," Westra said.

Last month, the U.S. embassy in Vietnam released a report, describing cases in which children had allegedly been sold and families pressured to give up their babies. The report also said adoption facilitators were engaging in fraudulent operations to conceal the identity of the birth parents.

Dismissing the accusations, the Vietnamese government said it would end an adoption agreement with the United States after July 1.

"Since adoption exists, child trafficking is a booming mechanism behind it. But since child trafficking is not called abduction and is used for adoption it is internationally not forbidden. In other words, stealing children for adoption is allowed as long as you keep the child safe and healthy afterwards," Westra said.

He argued that South Korea has not ratified international agreements on adoption, leaving possible corruption in the adoption system uncontrolled.

"It is not very surprising that South Korea still does not want to ratify the Hague Convention of Adoption if you understand that the country belongs to the 11 biggest economic societies in the world and still let children go for intercountry adoption, instead of investing in good and controlled child," he said.

Han Boon-young, a Korean adoptee who was adopted to Denmark, agreed in general with what Westra said.

"South Korea is without doubt the 'mother' of modern adoption and brings much legitimacy to the adoption practice. Therefore, when cases as in Vietnam surface, I wish people in general know that similar concerns have been raised about South Korea," said Han.

Adoptions of Koreans overseas began in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War, peaking in the mid-1980s when over 8,000 children a year were sent abroad, mostly to the United States. Since the 1990s, many of the adoptees have been children of single mothers.

In recent years, South Korea, which was labeled as a "baby-exporting" country by western media around the time that it hosted the 1988 Olympics, has been making efforts to encourage domestic adoptions.

There were 1,264 children adopted overseas from South Korea last year.

However, along with China, Russia and Ethiopia, it is still one of major "sending" countries in terms of U.S. adoptions, according to the annual U.S. State Department report on "orphan" visas.

"David Smolin, an American professor of law and advocate for international adoption reform, has once argued that not only does the legal systems allow these most questionable cases to happen, it actually incentives the practices of 'child-laundering.' In the Korean context for example, it is important to understand that the country has yet to ratify the Hague Convention," said Han, who teaches at an alternative school called Jeonin Yongnam School, located near Ulsan, South Gyeongsang Province.

The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a multilateral treaty, was approved by 66 nations in 1993 at the Hague. The convention covers adoptions among countries that become parties to it and sets out for such adoptions certain internationally agreed-upon minimum norms and procedures. The goal of the convention is to protect children, their birth parents and adoptive parents involved in intercountry adoptions and to prevent abuses.

Han also criticized the South Korean government for exempting itself from Article 21 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which ensures that individuals and private organizations do not influence the adoption process extensively, but rather adoptions be handled by a central independent authority.

"The idea of adoption itself is not to blame for these cases of abuse, but rather does the current inadequate legislation allow for such a practice," she said.

"The international standards are not perfect, but South Korea must start living up to international standards and go further from there. Even if South Korea is trying to reduce the international adoption, it still needs to commit to protecting those fewer children it is sending overseas."

The South Korean government has recorded about 158,000 foreign adoptions in Korea's over 50 years of foreign adoption history. According to government statistics, 13,068 overseas adoptees made efforts to locate their biological families in 2005, but only 316 -- about 2 percent -- were reunited.

Some of the foreign adoptees claim that they found out in the process of searching for their biological parents that their adoption documents were switched.

Molly Holt, head of South Korea's largest adoption agency Holt Children's Services, admitted last week that some child placement agencies in the past used fraudulent documents in order to get children adopted overseas.

"Though people would sign their parents were dead, but they were not. We didn't know that," she said. "Some of their adoptees had their names changed."