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“Baby Exporter”: Taking a Closer Look at Korean Adoption


By Caryn Fisher

Although South Korea has been sending children overseas for adoption since 1953, it wasn’t until a 1988 article by Matthew Rothschild, entitled “Babies for Sale: Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them,” that the South Korean government and citizens began to second-guess their adoption policies and system. The system itself, which began as a way to provide homes and families for children from a post-war South Korea, is now responsible for nearly 200,000 children to date that have been adopted overseas, with 736 South Korean adoptions in the U.S. last year. As of 2008, there were 23 adoption agencies in South Korea, with hundreds of other adoptions being agreed upon under civil law.

Gaming the System

In Matthew Rothschild’s article, one of his main criticisms of the international adoption system in South Korea was the propensity of the country to be seen as a “baby exporter” and the revenues that each agency receives per adoption. According to Rothschild, a Korean adoption agency received $5,000 in fees per child internationally adopted in 1988, a figure that increased to approximately $10,000 by 2000. That figure has continued to increase, with some agencies now accruing around $11,000-$16,000 per child, despite the Ministry of Health and Welfare setting a maximum fee limit of approximately $8,603.38* for international adoptions and $1,759.68* for domestic adoptions. The revenues they collect may also continue past the adoptee’s infant years if the child decides to return to South Korea as part of a motherland tour or perform a birth parent search, both of which also incur fees from the agencies. As of 2011, South Korea generates approximately $35 million annually from adoptions.

In addition to the adoption agencies reaping revenue for each adoption, the agencies themselves also help to coerce the birth mothers to relinquish their babies. In a 1989 report by the Korea Herald, it is stated that Holt, one of the largest adoption agencies in Korea, paid up to approximately $200 in gratitude, per child, to each welfare facility and hospital in which children were relinquished. Additionally, adoption agencies used their connections to facilitate the continuation of adoption through the running of 13 out of the 27 unwed mother homes in South Korea, where social workers withhold information on raising a child as a single parent and instead urge the mothers towards adoption; and through their connections to hospitals, of which Holt alone uses 27, where the social workers arrive shortly after birth to take away the baby so that the birth mother cannot change her mind about adoption.

Social Issues and Acceptance

The large number of international adoptions, versus domestic adoptions, is largely due to the fact that many of South Korea’s values are the same as they were in the post-war period 50 years ago. One of the largest issues which facilitates adoption in South Korea is the discrimination against unwed mothers in society, resulting in young unwed mothers accounting for over 90 percent of total adoptions in 2008. Another issue is that there are many Koreans who still believe in Confucian values, particularly ones regarding blood ties, and do not want to raise another person’s child.

There are also factors that push the South Korean adoption system to be more reliant on international adoption, despite the fact that the government has, in the past five years, increased the promotion of domestic adoption. The fact of the matter is that adoptive parents in Korea are more likely to choose a female baby for adoption, and now also check the background and education levels of biological parents. This leaves many male children, as well as disabled children, and older children, stuck in the system of orphanages, particularly since the creation of the quota system for international adoptions in 2007, which limits the amount of adoptees that can be sent abroad per year.

Uneven Numbers

Despite the good intentions of the South Korean government to end international adoption, the system’s bias of domestic adoption over international adoption leaves many children in need of state care, as the social issues at the root of the problem have not been addressed. Instead, it is increasing both the number of children in orphanages and the age in which children are adopted. In 2008, the Ministry of Health and Welfare reported statistics that more than 9,000 children were in need of state care, with almost 5,000 in institutional care. Although the quota system was created to boost domestic adoption, the domestic adoption rate has not yet increased at a rate significant enough to balance out the decrease in international adoptions, in which the total annual international adoption limit is decreased by 10 percent per year.

The aforementioned problems also lead to developmental problems for the children who grow older in the orphanages. They not only have a harder time in trying to be placed in a permanent home, but also have a hard time adjusting once they get there.

Recent Reforms

Adoption policy and support for adoptive and birth families has taken a positive turn within the past decade. The South Korean government provides financial support to families who have domestically adopted children, with a greater monetary amount going to families who adopt disabled children. It also provides support to unwed mothers, including education vouchers to earn a high school diploma, child care and medical support, and deposit support for renting a group home.

As of June 29, 2011, the National Assembly revised the law governing international adoptions, renaming it “The Special Act Relating to Adoption.” The revision of this law, which takes South Korea a step closer to the ratification of the Hague Adoption Convention, was the first time that children’s right advocates, women’s organizations, adoptees, researchers, and adoptee organizations were able to voice their opinions on the matter. The bill, which encourages the adoption of children domestically and the preservation of the original family, lists several changes that will help to reduce some of the social issues previously mentioned.

First, one week must now pass between the birth of the child and the signing of an MOU relinquishing parental rights. The bill also mandates that counseling and information on parenting must be provided to the expectant birth parents. The bill also requires that children may only be adopted internationally if no home is found for them in South Korea and requires that the adoptive parents travel to Korea to receive their child.

Furthermore, adoptions will now go through the South Korean court system with a central information authority created to protect adoptee identity and medical information. This will be a dramatic change from the current system where individuals only need to obtain written permission from the biological parents to adopt and children in orphanages can be adopted without consent. Additionally, an integrated database will also be created so that adoptees can apply to find their birth families. The bill will also give the right to adoptees to obtain medical information without birth parent permission.

The bill will most likely go into effect in fall of 2012.

Future Reforms

Despite the recent changes that have affected both domestic and international adoption, there are still many issues that will need to be addressed by the South Korean government in the future. In addition to the low domestic adoption rates and the social norms limiting adoption within the country, there are also problems surrounding monthly adoption subsidies that don’t cover the real cost of taking care of a disabled child, the restrictions on support that single mothers receive from the government, the lack of proper sex education in schools, the lack of background and criminal checks for domestic adoptive parents, and the lack of budget allocated by the government to social welfare and the support of the country’s children.

This aside, the policies surrounding adoption have changed greatly since the 1950s and are continuing to develop positively for the future.

* All the monetary values in this blog have been converted from Korean won into U.S. dollars at the exchange rate of 1 U.S. dollar = 1,117.70 South Korean Won.

Caryn Fisher is the Executive Assistant to the President at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from the United Nations Photo photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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3 Responses to ““Baby Exporter”: Taking a Closer Look at Korean Adoption”

  1. jt says:

    one thing to note on South Korea’s domestic adoption numbers is that there is a loophole in korean birth registration laws that allows for families to covertly adopt (since adoption itself is not seen as favorable practice). essentially, registering births is voluntary and can be done by “parents” themselves by filling out forms at city hall. even if the baby was born in a hospital, the parent does not have to use the official hospital-issued birth record to register the birth (they can fill out a separate form at city hall). what is common, is that instead of going through a formal adoption process (especially in the case of kinship adoption), they simply register the “adoptive” parents as the biological parents on the birth registration form. so, the “abysmal” domestic adoption numbers are skewed (no one is certain how much) by this legal loophole.

  2. JT says:

    a few other things to note about the way that south korea is “promoting domestic adoption”:

    1) the incentives given to families to adopt are breeding corruption in the domestic adoption system. families are adopting for reasons other than “for the good of the child” but for the incentives themselves. this is becoming more and more common.

    2) the “support” that the government gives to unwed mothers is usually capped to unwed mothers of a certain age. the problem is now, that the growing majority are unwed mothers in their late 30s who were often engaged or in serious relationships when they got pregnant. unwed mothers’ homes and incentives do not apply to them as they are seen as having been old enough to know better. this is outrageous.

    3) there also has to be some acknowledgement of the demographics of the children in the system. although yes, unwed mothers are the “source” of 90 percent of the adoptions, this is also a skewed view of the kids in the system because the majority of adoptions are of babies. the older a child is in the system, the less likely they are to get adopted. the majority of kids in the system (not babies) are not of unwed mothers, but are more and more the children of divorce.

    the reality is that adoption cannot be treated simply as a “child” problem, but has to be seen in a larger context of gender issues as well including educational policies, labor policies and practices, parental rights, single parent tax breaks and such, in order to promote more family-friendly work and living envirornments to help families of all conceptions stay together.

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