Korea's inter-country adoption and social exclusion

3 July 2023

On May 11th Korea marked the 18th anniversary of Adoption Day, intended to raise public awareness about adoption, promote a positive adoption culture, and encourage domestic adoption of children in need while safeguarding their rights and interests. For nearly two decades, the government has attempted to achieve these important goals through the enactment of new policies, but unanticipated barriers have limited their success.

With the longest-running adoption program in the world, Korea sent out more than 200,000 children between 1953 and 2022. Inter-country adoption was devised after the Korean War as a method of rescuing war orphans, but the demand for Korean children increased exponentially in the 1970s, reaching its highest point in the 1980s. In 1985 alone, 8,837 Korean children left for inter-country adoption, amounting to 1.35 percent of live births or more than one in 75 children, the highest rate anywhere in the world.

Inter-country adoptions declined in 2013 by two-thirds from their peak in 2004, due to a shortage of available children. This phenomenon became more salient during the COVID-19 pandemic because nations closed their borders for international travel. In this context, the pandemic functioned as a de facto moratorium on inter-country adoption. Nevertheless, inter-country adoption from Korea increased by nearly five percent from 2019 to 2020, becoming the third-largest source that year.

Inter-country adoption of Korean children has continued alongside alarmingly low fertility rates. According to Statistics Korea, the country's fertility rate fell to 0.78 in 2022 and is expected to keep dropping. A group of children's rights activists and the overseas Korean adoptee community ascribe the perpetuation of inter-country adoption to limited and often absent government interference, profit-driven practices, and powerful agencies influencing policies. However, some scholars (including this author) suggest that it may also stem from the country's collective wariness of differences. Those perceived as a threat to this moral order are thought as being unworthy of public assistance.

Historically, the Korean government seems to have used inter-country adoption programs as a mechanism for social exclusion. First, biracial children― those conceived of temporary relationships between Korean women and American servicemen or U.N. soldiers ― were sent abroad, because they were considered to be "racially contaminated" and thus considered unfit for Korean society. Between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, close to 4,500 biracial children were sent abroad for adoption.

Gradually, Korean children, mostly born out of wedlock, have been offered for inter-country adoption. Korea underwent rapid industrialization in the 1960s, utilizing a labor force of young single women between the ages of 15 and 25. These women moved to large cities to financially support their families back home while working for exploitative wages. However, a lack of social support, inadequate sex education that emphasized women's chastity, and the financial burden of abortion led them to become unwed mothers, many of whom gave up their babies for adoption.

Lastly, children with disabilities or health challenges are more likely to be offered for inter-country adoption than domestic adoption. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, from 2018-2020, 1,025 infants were adopted domestically, with only 103 of them having a reported health condition. In contrast, during the same period, 852 children were placed for inter-country adoption with 341 of them having health issues. Historically, disability has been viewed as a moral problem, bringing disgrace to the family. Furthermore, these differences often instigate societal fear and discomfort. Therefore, it is considered the best for them to be removed from Korean society through adoption abroad.

Inter-country adoption has persisted in Korea for 70 years. If the government truly wants to terminate inter-country adoption, it needs to identify cultural and social barriers and develop a child welfare system indigenous to and appropriate for Korean culture. The system must recognize children of all backgrounds as relevant to the country and worthy of public assistance. Without this system in place, whenever "unfit" children are born, the Korean government will continue to look for quick solutions outside the country without making substantial efforts to solve them domestically. The result will be a continued legacy of perpetual dependency on inter-country adoption.

Ma Kyung-hee (kyungheem@daum.net) is a researcher and editor specializing in mental health.