Despite S. Korea’s low birth rate, babies are still being sent overseas for adoption

22 January 2024

SEOUL: Born as Yoon-hwa in South Korea in 1974, she became Petra Zwart of the Netherlands at the age of one.

Her adoptive Dutch family provided a warm and welcoming home to both Zwart and her biological brother, who was adopted at the age of five.

Even so, Zwart recalls finding it difficult to fit in as a child, due to her East Asian appearance being different, “like an ugly duckling”.

She and her brother are among the nearly 170,000 babies that South Korea has sent overseas for adoption since 1953.


Despite much criticism of transnational adoption from Korea, it has not stopped. In 2022, some 142 Korean babies were sent abroad.

Upon hearing the latest adoption figures, Zwart could not help but ask: “Why is this still happening?

“Now that South Korea has become a prosperous country, and we all know a lot more about the consequences of transracial adoption, knowing it is not always in the best interest of the child, isn’t it time to take another approach?”

South Korea, according to one study, ranked fifth globally in terms of the number of children sent abroad for international adoption in 2021.

The history of the country’s international adoptions traces back to 1953 when an estimated 100,000 children were orphaned and homeless in the wake of the Korean War. In exceptional circumstances like that, or in the case of a major disaster, it is not uncommon for a large number of overseas adoptions to occur in a short period of time.

However, overseas adoption did not subside in South Korea after stability returned. On the contrary, adoptions boomed in the following decades. At its peak in 1985, 8,837 babies were sent overseas, equivalent to 1.35 per cent of babies born in the country that year.

Even today, although the figures are not as high as before, the country still gives up a large number of its children for international adoption. In 2022, 142 babies were sent away for adoption, down from 755 babies in 2012.

According to a study by Dr Peter Selman from Newcastle University in the UK, between 2004 and 2021, South Korea was among the top seven nations that placed children up for transnational adoption, with 16,051 children sent away over that period. In 2021, it ranked fifth, after Colombia, India, Ukraine and Thailand.

Of all children who were given new homes through adoption, international match-ups accounted for some 40 per cent to 44 per cent, with the share remaining more or less stable despite the overall decline in total adoptions worldwide.

Experts assert that while there are clear incentives for private adoption agencies to arrange international adoptions, the government has been inactive about improving child welfare and the broader social situation that leads to babies being given up for adoption.

They say that this reality has resulted in the bitter irony of South Korea continuing to send babies abroad despite its cripplingly low birth rate.

Four agencies handle international adoptions: Holt Children’s Services, the Korea Social Service, Korea Welfare Services and the Eastern Social Welfare Society.

Between 2018 and 2022, the four agencies sent a combined 1,183 children overseas and received a total of 22.1 billion won (US$1.65 million) in commission fees, according to the office of Representative Choi Yeon-sook from the People Power Party, citing information from the Welfare Ministry. On average, the fees received by agencies amounted to 18.7 million won per child.

Those fees were on top of the 2.7 million won the agencies received from the government for each adoption arranged. This amount is the same for domestic and international cases.

Soongsil University social welfare professor Noh Hye-ryun, who worked at Holt in 1981, said overseas adoptions are clearly preferred by South Korea’s agencies.

“Compared with domestic adoption, overseas adoption brings in over 10 times the money with much less work. Adoption agencies also don’t have to deal with post-adoption matters because the children are taken care of by cooperating agencies in the country where they are adopted,” Professor Noh said.

Post-adoption management includes overseeing the well-being of adoptees in new homes.

Neglecting this responsibility can have severe social repercussions, as demonstrated by the tragic death of Jeong-in, a victim of child abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother, in October 2020.

Holt had arranged the child’s placement, and following the child’s death and subsequent public outrage, the chairperson of the agency resigned.

Another mother of two adopted daughters, who wished to disclose only her surname Chang, told The Korea Herald that she had sought to adopt her second child after the incident.

However, she was told by all four adoption agencies that there were “no available babies”, and she had to wait for 2½ years before finally being able to adopt her second daughter.

Prof Noh said that with the lack of government oversight, the four adoption agencies had been allowed to profit from baby brokering.

“Korean babies, who were healthy and young, were sent overseas at the highest prices,” she said, citing her own analysis of the agencies’ adoption paperwork in April 2023.

The adoption of Korean babies required the highest commission fees, compared with other leading child-sending countries, which included China, Colombia and India. The Korean babies sent abroad for adoption were also much younger.

While other countries would adopt children aged between one and 16 years old with commission fees of below US$10,000, South Korea would send away babies aged between 12 and 16 months, with fees as high as US$26,500 per infant, Prof Noh said, citing documents she had reviewed.

During the 1980s, at the peak of the overseas adoption boom in South Korea, employees at Holt were earning an average monthly salary of around 250,000 won while commission fees for each overseas adoption were three million won – a huge amount at the time.

None of the four adoption agencies responded to The Herald’s request for interviews.

A major change to the current adoption system is expected in July 2025, when the revised Special Act on Domestic Adoption is set to take effect. The government’s role in adoption will be reinforced, and agencies that receive commissions for adoptions will face penalties. Receiving commissions from parents hoping to adopt a baby is already illegal, but there is no provision for punishment.

Additionally, by July 2025, the South Korean government intends to ratify the Hague Adoption Convention, which serves to safeguard the rights of children adopted internationally.

South Korea signed the global convention in 2013 but has yet to ratify it due to issues such as local adoption law not aligning with the standards outlined in the convention.

The key principle of the convention is that a child should be raised within their biological family, allowing overseas adoption only when a nation cannot find a family domestically that is capable of protecting the child. The agencies responsible for overseas adoption under the convention must operate as non-profit organisations.

Choi said: “In order to comply with the Hague Convention signed by 104 countries, including Korea, to protect children’s human rights in adoption and to prevent kidnapping and human trafficking, adoption-related Bills were passed in the National Assembly in July (2023).”

She stressed that the government should not waste time and allow the current problems to go unchallenged, as it is still two years before the law is supposed to take effect.

In addition to efforts to curb overseas adoptions, the government should devise comprehensive local adoption programmes and strategies to better protect babies in need of care, experts say.

Such efforts could include the expansion of foster care systems and the provision of support to single mothers to help alleviate their financial or child-rearing burdens.

Sejong University social welfare professor Park Hyun-sun said: “In Korea, there is a prevalent perception that foster care is only temporary protection, and there is still a low awareness of its need as a form of permanent care.”

In 2022, the number of children who needed protection stood at 1,881. Out of them, 802 were in family fostering, while 567 were in childcare facilities such as orphanages.

Professor Park said children need a continuous relationship with a stable foster family, as well as individual attention.

“This can only be possible within a family environment. It is necessary to expand the importance of foster parents,” she said.

She emphasised that the government should extend support for foster parents, such as granting them legal guardian status. This would allow foster parents to take the child to a hospital or on a trip, and make foster parents eligible for parental benefits.

The fact that most of the babies sent overseas were born to single mothers shows where the government’s focus should lie.

Experts say greater social and institutional efforts are needed to support single mothers in order to enable biological parents to raise their own children.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, the percentage of unmarried mothers among children sent overseas for adoption reached 99.7 per cent in 2018, 100 per cent in 2019, 99.6 per cent in 2020, and 99.5 per cent in 2021.

Adoption Solidarity Forum’s former chief Shin Phil-sik said: “Although government support has increased for single mothers, their economic burden is still very large. Many single mothers are experiencing difficulties due to social prejudice and economic problems during pregnancy and childbirth.”

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which involved 1,247 single mothers, 41.8 per cent of respondents cited “financial difficulties” as the most challenging aspect during pregnancy.

In another study by Korean National Police University professor Kim Seong-hee, which analysed 46 first-trial judgments of cases indicted for infanticide between 2013 and 2020, 45 of the defendants were single, and only one was confirmed to be married.

When examining the motives for the infanticides, it was found that 40 cases involved the murders driven by the “fear of being pregnant outside marriage and this fact becoming known to those around them”.

Bastiaan Flikweert, a member of the Netherlands Korean Rights Group, said South Korea still harbours deep-seated distrust and indifference towards single mothers.

“While there may be various policy measures to enhance domestic adoption, it’s crucial to initially address why, in the first place, babies cannot be raised within their own families by single mothers in Korean society,” said Flikweert, whose parents were both adopted from South Korea to the Netherlands.

“Babies available for adoption don’t simply exist automatically. They are not a constant presence,” he said.

“Rather than solely focusing on promoting adoption, the government should fundamentally consider how babies can be raised within their biological families.”

Thirty years after Zwart was sent to the Netherlands, she returned to South Korea for the first time in 2005 and was reunited with her biological family. It turned out that she had a lot in common with her older Korean sister, and she recognised so much of her sister in herself. However, Zwart felt sad that she was not able to communicate with her biological family due to the language barrier.

When she first met her biological mother, the reunion was emotionally charged. She felt that her mother seemed cold and distant.

Later, Zwart came to understand that her biological mother felt ashamed about having put her up for adoption, a revelation which broke her heart.

“Despite my feelings for her, I could relate because I was a mum too, aware that all a mother wants for her child is the best, and giving me up must have been an incredibly difficult decision for her to make.” - The Korea Herald/ANN