By Kim Do-hyun
Some years ago, during a seminar about overseas adoption from Korea, I stated that the practice is “child abuse rather than child welfare.” Some of the social workers who were working for overseas adoption agencies looked very shocked when they heard my presentation.
After the seminar, some of them came to me and made strong complaints and protested. They argued, “Why do you insult and disgrace us, while we try to find sweet homes for abandoned children through overseas adoption?”
Korea’s overseas adoption program started immediately after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Now Korea’s per capita national income is more than $20,000 and the economy ranks in the world’s top 15, yet Korea is still one of the world’s major countries sending its own children overseas for adoption.
According to government statistics, Korea has sent nearly 200,000 children overseas for adoption from 1953 to the present. Among those children, there were 5,546 mixed-race children sent from 1955 to 1973 (after which mixed-race children were no longer counted because the vast majority of adoptees were full-blooded Koreans), 98,178 children from unwed mothers, 28,823 children from broken families, 29,950 abandoned children and 37,216 disabled children.
According to these statistics, through overseas adoption, we sent away the mixed-race children, the children of unwed mothers, disabled children, and the children of broken families. That is why I define Korea’s overseas adoption as a kind of “systematic social segregation.” Of course, as a member of Korean society, I am also complicit in this massive “systematic social segregation project.”
From a micro-perspective, overseas adoption can be seen as child welfare. In view of this, certainly I am very grateful to the adoptive parents in Western countries, who have looked after the abandoned Korean children with “philanthropic love.” I also am deeply appreciative of the various social workers in adoption agencies, police stations, maternity clinics and orphanages, to name but a few, who have tried to provide a sweet home for abandoned children. However, from a macro-perspective, the overseas adoption program of Korea has been deeply related to the international social system.
First, overseas adoption is a kind of child abuse by the state. Second, the overseas adoption policy of the government was likely a part of its economic development strategy, which means the overseas adoptees have been used as part of a project to create wealth and prosperity for the rest of the South Koreans.
Overseas adoption is the forced expulsion of children from the society where they are supposed to live. In this sense, overseas adoption is a social violence against children. As humans, we exist as part of a gigantic ecosystem. The existence of the biological parents of adoptees can never be annihilated nor denied. Accordingly, while adoptees are growing up, they should be given information about their biological parents and be able to interact with them. By doing so, adoptees can form their identity with less conflict.
Overseas adoption is a forced separation of children from their natural ecosystems, as well as a way of forcing them into compulsory unity with settings different from and unnatural to their genetic and original social systems. Through this forced separation and compulsory unity, not only the adoptees, but also their biological parents, adoptive parents and their family members suffer trauma.
The overseas adoption of Korean children can be seen as child abuse since it has been interrelated with the economic development strategy of the government. How can we call the overseas adoption program of Korea “child welfare” when we create wealth and prosperity by forcefully expelling them?
According to government statistics, overseas adoptions peaked during the 1970s and ‘80s. Between 1953 and 1968, fewer than 1,000 children were sent away for overseas adoption annually. This figure rose sharply: in 1969, 1,192 children were sent; in 1970, 1,932; in 1971, 2,725; and in 1985, 8,837. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, 113,568 children were sent for overseas adoption ― more than half of all overseas adoptees in the last six decades.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, “economic development” was the national motto of our society. In view of this, “child export” was used as a tool that promoted economic development and created wealth in our country. In 1988, Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive magazine pointed out that a Korean adoption agency received $5,000 per child as a fee from abroad in return for an overseas adoption. This went up to $10,000 per child by 2000 ― what a land of economic prosperity!
Through the figure given by The Progressive, we can estimate that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Korea earned between $20 and $40 million annually from the overseas adoption business. At that time, if any Korean company exported even $1 million in goods, they were acknowledged by the government.
Incidentally, it is quite common to find letters of appreciation sent in the 1970s by Korean ambassadors to adoptive parents in Europe. Given this information, it is plausible that in the 1970s, the Korean government itself was the main driving force promoting overseas adoption as a national policy.
By sending nearly 200,000 children for overseas adoption to date, the government may have saved a considerable amount of money. In this respect, the overseas adoption policy killed two birds with one stone. On one hand, it brought in hard currency, while on the other hand, it cut welfare costs.
It is clear that the government systematically promoted overseas adoption and used children as a tool for economic development while neglecting its duty to protect children’s rights.
Pastor Kim Do-hyun is a director of KoRoot, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to Korean children who had been adopted overseas. He can be reached at: email@example.com.