Time to shake off image of `child exporter'
On May 11 the nation marks Adoption Day to improve public awareness about adoption and guarantee more rights for adopted children. Still, the inconvenient truth is that South Korea is one of major countries sending children to foster families abroad.
According to a 2009 report by the U.S. State Department, the country was listed as the fourth largest sender of children for adoption in America, after China, Ethiopia and Russia. Last year alone, 1,077 Korean children were adopted by Americans.
More than 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since 1950 ― about 90 percent of them were sent to the United States. The adoption history dates back to the Korean War that left a large number of children without families.
Regrettably, the country has yet to shake off its shameful image as a ``child exporter.'' It can be said that overseas adoptions were inevitable due to the aftermath of the fratricidal war between the South and the North as well as extreme poverty in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But how can we justify the stigma in the 1980s, 90s and even 2000s?
The underlying cause of the problem has been attributed to a growing number of unwed mothers who cannot afford to raise their own children due mainly to financial difficulties in the past decades. This has been a structural problem because ``Confucian society'' has tended to stigmatize unwed single moms as those who had committed moral sins.
Prejudice and discrimination against single mothers still persists nowadays even though the situation has improved much. Confucian culture has also made it difficult for people to adopt orphans, thus forcing the nation to resort to overseas adoptions.
But the things have begun to change little by little. One of some hopeful signs is that the number of domestic adoptions has surpassed that of overseas adoptions since 2007. Last year, 1,314 children were adopted by Korean families, marking a 16 percent rise from 1,564 in 2003. On the other hand, the number of overseas adoptees more than halved from 2,287 in 2003 to 1,125 in 2009.
Now, the authorities are encouraging local families to adopt more abandoned children, while trying hard to regulate overseas adoptions. The overall number of adoptions is on the steady decline amid a fall in marriages and childbirths. But, policymakers must work out more fundamental measures to help unwed single mothers raise their children by themselves. No doubt the best way is to prevent children from being sent to adoption agencies.
For this, the government should set up better social welfare programs to support single moms, especially in their teens, 20s and 30s. Then, it must work together with civil organizations and members of our society to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against unwed mothers as well as adoption itself.
It is also important to strengthen legal frameworks to provide more state aid for those raising adoptees, while discouraging overseas adoptions. The nation should no longer delay joining the Hague Adoption Convention to better protect children and prevent the abuse of inter-country adoption.