Say: Bye bye Korea, until later, when I have grown up
4 April 2003

Say: Bye bye Korea, until later, when I have grown up

Eun-mi Postma - 04/04/03, 00:00

About four thousand South Korean children have been adopted over the last 35 years by Dutch couples, but last week the last batch adoptive babies left for Schiphol. Although South Korea is prosperous now, because of the rigid social conventions still many children are available for adoption. And South Korea would rather invest in the recovery of 'Overseas Koreans' than in social services that counteract that women give up their children for adoption.

Two boys and two girls. All four babies are about six months old and look very healthy. The girls in their red suits look sleepy, while the boys with their black eyes curiously followed all movements around them.

In the nursery at the South Korean Incheon airport they get one last bottle and a diaper just before the flight. Already early in their life awaits them a long journey that will change their life forever. These are almost certainly the last children from South Korea who are adopted by Dutch couples

With this comes after 35 years to end the '”adoptive relationship" between the two countries. During that time, about four thousand children through World Children Association [Wereldkinderen], the largest adoption agency in the Netherlands, have found a new home on Dutch soil. After eighteen years of laborious negotiations with the South Korean orphanage Korean Social Service, no agreement was reached on continued cooperation. World Children then closed the adoption channel South Korea, though the negotiations, according to the organization are not completely dead.

'We thought it was no longer responsible to leave prospective parents who wanted to adopt a child from South Korea in uncertainty,'' said Anneke Döbken, head of World Children Asia. As the demand for adoptive children is still increasing and the relationship with Korea has always been good, the agency does not like to see this stream dry up. But it wants to do business on the basis of equality and transparency, and that was not possible. ,, We want to understand the financial situation, but after much insistence, the orphanage still does not come over the bridge with the appropriate financial information, "says Döbken.

And that’s why the last four children, after 35 years of cooperation, lie in the arms of Trudy van der Mannen, who as a volunteer for World Children escorts baby's to the Netherlands. She regrets that the adoption program stops. If I would be sure that the children would end up elsewhere, or that the situation in South Korea would be better for unwed mothers, I would have peace with it, but I'm not so sure,'' she says.

Van der Mannen knows what she are talks about. She has two girls adopted from South Korea, both of whom have been abandoned because of social pressure in the South Korean society itself. ,The mother of my eldest daughter was not married and the parents of my youngest daughter were separated.''

In recent years, not much has changed, because according to Kim Chun Hee, the social worker from the children's home where the four babies come from, unwanted pregnancies and divorces are still the most common reasons why children are abandoned. This also applies to children who are waiting at Incheon for their flight.

It is at least remarkable that such a prosperous and modern country like South Korea, which has a strong economy and where per capita income is approximately equal to that of countries such as Spain and Portugal, still run an adoption program. With annually 2400 children who cross the border, the program is still running at full speed. In total, since the Korean War (1950-53) 130000 children left the country for adoption. South Korea is thus, to put it bluntly, one of the largest suppliers of adopted children in Asia. The poverty that appeared in the sixties and seventies, a main reason for adoption, has largely disappeared over the past decade. You would expect such a proud country like South Korea would do everything possible to keep their children on board.

But according to the South Korean journalist Kim Yong Chang, a specialist in the field of adoption, is not that simple. ,I regret the fact that we do not seem to be able to take care of these children. In Seoul there is a shelter for single mothers. But the social services are too limited.''

Under the new President Roh Moo-hyun there might be change. He is a liberal, progressive leader who, in his inauguration speech in February spoke of equal opportunities for all. Yet Changyong does not believe that the South Korea adoption program will stop short-term, the number of children offered for adoption has in recent years significantly decreased, but as long as South Korea is a conservative country, and the South Koreans stick to the Confucian entrenched values, for which own pure blood family is the highest good, children will continue to leave overseas rather than be adopted domestically. To take other blood into your family is a taboo, to give up your blood is a shame for the whole family. These norms and social conventions do not change from one day to another.''

Still, there are definitely noticeable changes. Feminism is in the rise and increasing numbers of women choose to work after their study instead of getting married immediately. In a male-dominated society, this is a new phenomenon that spreads remarkably fast. The self-awareness of Korean women seems to become stronger. What was held previously for impossible is happening piecemeal: single mothers, often against the pressure of the family, decide to keep their child and raise it alone.

In the approach to adult adoptees returning to Korea, s a few things changed. Kim Chang Yong has taken up the fate of these adoptees and set up three years ago a program for children who want to get to know their country of birth. They can without charge follow Korean language and culture lessons at the Inje University in exchange for teaching English lessons.

At the moment, nine adoptees from Europe and America, the four months program, including Jennie Walld\en (27) who was six years when she moved to Sweden. Although she with her long black hair looks not much different from her fellow students on campus, you'll see that she is different. Her way of talking and moving is more expressive than the modest South Korean students. So Wallden breaks out in tears in the classroom when she recognizes a children song that her South Korean mother used to sing to her.

Her biological mother, she has in the meantime met. ,, I do not blame my mother that she has relinquished me. My parents lived together and were not married. The parents of my father did not agree to a marriage. And with an illegitimate child my mother would be watched by everyone with the neck. After she gave up, I went to study English. I'm lucky that I have no language barrier with her,'' said Wallden laughing. She follows the course to understand the culture of her mother and life in South Korea.

The project was a success, according to Chang Yong. Meanwhile, 36 adoptees from seven countries went through the program and Changyong has ambitious plans to set up similar projects in different universities. And that while the South Korean government already has several 'Homecoming Programs’ on offer.

Jennie Wallden dismisses the suggestion that the government would better spend its money on better social services that would make adoption less necessary, than to give to spend it on programs as palliative. You can not turn back history. There are just a lot of children adopted from South Korea and they are happy with such programs. Of course, a lot more needs to change, but this is a step in the right direction.''

South Korea receives the adoptees with open arms. They can count on special treatment of the Korean Immigration Service. Since a year adoptees fall under the category 'Overseas Koreans "and for that reason they can quite easily obtain a work visa without a work contract. This contrasts sharply with the fact that with adoption all official ties are severed and adoptive children are deleted from all records.

The warm welcome seems undisguised based on the fact that South Korea sees economic potential in the western educated adoptees. The country is in strong need of "foreigners" who want to teach English to the Koreans.

For the kids at the airport in Incheon the door will be open too, later. The clock in the nursery at the departure hall points one thirty. In an hour the plane ascends to the Netherlands. ,Say: Bye bye South Korea, until later when you have grown up,'' whispers Trudy van der Mannen against the baby she carries on her belly. Sleepy she lifts her head up. Then they disappear behind the sliding glass doors through passport control for the last adoption flight from South Korea.

Meanwhile, the babies are since a week with their new parents. If the blood is indeed thicker than water, as a Korean proverb says, they will likely return one day.