Volunteers take care of babies born to unwed mothers at a welfare center in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, on Jan. 8. Many of unwed mothers have to send their babies to adoption agencies because of a lack of support and difficulty with child care. / Korea Times File
By Jennifer Kwon Dobbs
In today's adoption world, South Korea is no longer the largest sending country. Yet, why does it remain the world's oldest sending country in modern adoption history?
To address this undesirable legacy, the South Korean government has attempted to promote domestic adoption with mixed results.
Though domestic adoption statistically surpassed overseas adoption in 2007, the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs has reported problems with disrupted domestic placements where adoptive parents have returned children to the system.
More significantly, domestic adoption is not a valid solution primarily because it ignores an unwed mother's human right to give birth to and to raise her child.
Surf the web in Korea for unwed mothers' assistance. The top links connect you to adoption agency sponsored sites that promise help. Yet what is the quality of this help when there's a conflict of interest?
Seventeen of South Korea's 25 unwed mothers' maternity homes are adoption agency owned and operated. As reported by Choe Sang-hun for the New York Times, ``Nearly 90 percent of the 1,250 South Korean children adopted abroad last year, most of them by American couples, were born to unmarried women."
Current adoption agency practices encourage mothers to surrender their children.
News Trace 60 Minutes (Chujeok 60), a weekly news show of the state-run KBS TV, reports that adoption agencies cover expecting mothers' medical expenses and typically bring paperwork for a mother to sign relinquishing her child while still in the hospital bed.
A hospital discharge usually occurs 72 hours after delivery. A social worker will arrive at the maternity ward during this window to take the child.
Consequently, many children are unregistered to their mothers and lack identifying paperwork, therefore preventing future attempts for family search and reunion.
In response to instances where mothers have changed their minds and wanted to keep their children, agencies have charged mothers for the cost of their hospital stays. However, agencies receive government subsidies that offset these and other operating costs.
It is also a common agency practice to bill mothers for foster care provided between a child's birth and placement in an adoptive home. Many mothers, however, cannot pay and end up surrendering their children. The children of unwed mothers are not orphans, nor are they unwanted.
In my interviews with expecting mothers at Doori Home, a maternity home operated by the Salvation Army in Seoul, I learned that each mother who intended to surrender her child did not fully know her options nor have realistic expectations even though Doori Home, which has one of the highest rates of child-rearing motherhood, had provided counseling.
Each mother had named her child. Mothers who chose overseas adoption expected that their children would learn English, become globally and economically mobile, and find and return to them.
This assumption motivated mothers to prefer overseas adoption. However, reunion is the exceptional, not the usual outcome. From 1995-2005, the ministry reported that only 2.7 percent of 78,000 overseas adoptees who initiated a birth search successfully reunited with their families.
Nor did the mothers understand that relinquishment means irrevocably terminating parental rights. When asked about this, the mothers repeatedly said that they were their children's mothers although others would provide child-rearing care because they could not.
The mothers did not realize that overseas adoption cut their children off from Korean culture. For example, they were unaware that their children, more than likely, would be unable to speak Korean with them should they be reunited in the future.
All of the mothers with whom I spoke mentioned a lack of emotional family support foremost affecting their choice to surrender or rear their children. Their own mothers as well as their partners' mothers primarily exerted pressure or threatened to take the child to the adoption agency.
The intimate cultural stigma and socioeconomic impediments these mothers face reveal the discriminatory side of South Korea's economic miracle.
South Korea's inability to imagine support for unwed mothers separate from domestic or overseas adoption shows just how deeply entrenched adoption, a once privatized postwar solution, has become in the country's welfare system.
Promoting adoption instead of protecting unwed mothers' rights to their own children shows that South Korea does not view them and their children as real families. Whether one is for or against adoption misses the point that the vast majority of children placed for adoption today have loving families that South Korea prefers to break up.
Addressing unwed mothers' human rights requires multiple approaches to end a national culture of shame and secrecy. Foremost, South Korea must build a culture that promotes mothers and must provide real opportunities for them to care for their children.
Instead of punishing unwed mothers, South Korea should value and work with them to invest in future generations that can make our country stronger and more prosperous.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is an assistant professor at the English department, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. She can be reached at www.jkwondobbs.com.