Returnees Organizing Korea Out of the Intercountry Adoption Industry

By Kristin R. Pak

The intercountry adoption (ICA) market is driven by demand from rich countries and commodifies the most vulnerable people. It’s unsustainable as child welfare, and does great harm wherever the market emerges.  Realpolitik policies that trade in humans for leverage are unconscionable, but dress them in fateful red thread narratives and a savior aura, and they are  not just palatable, but seem magnanimous and altruistic. The marketing and branding of poor children as orphans with no past and no hope for the future started here in South Korea, and has been replicated again and again throughout the (former) second and third worlds. The justifications for UN-regulated human trafficking range from discrimination to poverty to evangelism. Ignored is how little ICA does to address the systemic problems that created poverty, the legal and institutionalized discrimination that force people to the margins of society, and the failed government programs that restrict families to one child. Furthermore, the continuing interference that the west (particularly the United States) perpetrates in the developing world, disrupts traditional communities and livelihoods.

South Korea is still among the top suppliers of children for the ICA industry. SOURCE: http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/adoptionstatsintl.html

Babies and children are traded in return for money– profits for adoption agencies, hard currency for poor countries, fees for lawyers, revenue for hospitals, and “donation” income for orphanages while at the same time releasing a bit of pressure that these rather-be-forgotten troubles put on a society. Poor families, biracial babies, unwed mothers, addicts and mentally ill patients all should be hidden or gotten rid of in the speediest, most profitable way possible, but only a limited amount can be sent away.  We can’t be kept out. Thousands of us are returning every year, demanding the truth. We’re joining in solidarity with others who have stayed to change laws, provide services, and reform society.

Why have some of the 200,000 of us who were sent away to be adopted returning?* Why do we come to visit South Korea in the thousands every year? Why are we in solidarity with unwed and single mothers and families who have lost their children to adoption? We don’t (necessarily) come back to South Korea because our childhoods were bad (although many were horrendous). We come back to learn the truth about what Korea is in a way that only a visit can. We come to find our families and the truth because the adoption agencies constantly lie to us. We choose to live here for extended times to reclaim our mother tongue. We settle here to change Korean society so no more children are separated from their mothers, fathers, histories and personal truths.

And we organize. Adoption Solidarity Korea (ASK), Truth and Reconciliation Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), and Global Overseas Adoptee Link (GOA’L) were founded by adoptees living in Korea so the thousands who come back every year have a community and support to find their way in Korea and their place in history. We work in solidarity with unwed mothers so families can stay together, despite unjust policies driven by stigmas against the women and their children. We identify as migrants who were forced away from Korea and perhaps compelled to return again as economic refugees or deported Americans, along with the other new face of Korea which is multilingual, multicultural, and more diverse. We hope to transform Korea, and we have the right to do so as Koreans.

Back in the late 1990s the government tried to use us as bridges between our adoptive countries and South Korea. Although I disagree with the assumption that we would automatically feel any obligation to do so, it was clear from the First Lady’s address to us in 1999 that the Blue House was including us in the great Korean diaspora. In our quasi-Korean/foreigner hybridity, we learned tolerance was the least a society owes to its most maligned, even if the right to equality is ignored. We are claiming our birthright as born ROK citizens and making statements about justice and human rights here. Our experiences as foreigners in our adoptive countries and the racism and discrimination that goes along with it has equipped us to fight as citizens even if we have foreigner status on our ARCs.

We had to change laws to get those, too. Although we’re now eligible for F4 visas, which allow us to live in Korea and work (as long as it’s not as a laborer), we had to convince Immigration that we were also overseas Koreans because there was no category for us. You see, we weren’t supposed to return. The marketing worked so well that it became the Truth: we were saved from growing up in a poor country, in poor families. That was the story from the end of the war and continues until 2014. South Korea is now a highly developed country economically, thanks in part to the hard currency we brought in. We were supposed to be fully assimilated into white Christian families and forget we were Korean, grateful for all the West would give to us. Instead, we commit political acts just by living in Korea, by making waves and demanding a change in the laws.

157,796 Adopted Koreans

Although 200,000 is now the generally accepted number of Koreans who were sent out of the country to be adopted, this graph shows a lower number perhaps due to rounding, adoptions that were done outside the established system, and the age of the source data. SOURCE: http://jjtrenka.wordpress.com/2007/06/27/fifty-years-of-korean-adoption-is-enough/

Perhaps because of the returnees like me, Korea will create a template for closing its intercountry adoption program like it has repeatedly promised to do since it was shamed1 as a baby-exporting country. I hope it does, because intercountry adoption is a demand driven industry that hurts Korea. It has retarded the growth of an adequate social welfare state, a major characteristic of a developed society. (We still have childcare facilities, because adoption does not solve child welfare problems.) ICA makes Korea complicit in human trafficking for hard currency it no longer needs. Just as the rest of the world followed Korea’s example into selling away its children, Korea can lead the way out of the ICA industry.


*I use the passive voice here deliberately because the people who were sent for adoption were not the protagonists, but the object of the action.

1”The year 1988 was a turning point in South Korea’s adoption history. The Seoul International Olympics attracted the attention of journalists worldwide about many aspects of Korean culture, and much of thisattention focused on Korea’s primary export: its babies. Journalists like Bryant Gumbel of NBC commented that Korea’s primary export commodity was its babies, and articles like “Babies for Export” (The New York Times) and “Babies for Sale: South Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them” (The Progressive), embarrassed the South Korean government. North Korea also criticized South Korea’s adoption program, pointing out that selling its children to Western countries was the ultimate form of capitalism. As a result, the South Korean government delayed the scheduled departure of adopted children before and during the Olympics. And the number of Korean children adopted by American families began to decrease, from over 6,200 in 1986 to just over 1,700 in 1993. http://www.pbs.org/pov/firstpersonplural/history_southkorea.php

Adoption: what are we really buying into?

By Taryn Assaf

As a non-adopted person, I’ve never given adoption much critical thought. Having never intimately known anyone adopted, I have always imagined it like this: the adoptee, I thought, must have been born into the unfortunate reality of poverty or an otherwise dismal future. Parentless and alone, they would have grown up in the dreadful care of the institution, aggrieved and bewildered by their lack of opportunity compared to their country brethren who had the fortune of being raised in a family. They were, I believed, better off in the charity and good will of the adopter family or individual craving madly to raise them. There would be, probably, some confusion and wonder throughout their lives, especially if raised by a family of a different race. But, I concluded, this would and could be resolved by a simple search for their birth family, whose records (since the world is a right and just place and bureaucracy is only sometimes inefficient) would be sparkling in the heavenly glow of accessibility. A meeting would be held, questions answered and a relationship established: the adoptee realizing that despite the pain of not knowing their birth family, they were better off having been raised in a place that offered them so many more opportunities than in their country of birth – a conclusion the birth mother must have similarly come to when she relinquished her child in the first place.

Does this narrative sound familiar? Probably. It is the dominant narrative available in both rich and poor societies that glorify inter-country adoption (ICA). I have always positioned adoption within this unilateral framework, rather than in a multilateral framework that locates adoption as a phenomenon affected by and affecting many different groups in society. Of course, there are many overseas adoptees, some with multiple associations and identities, who subscribe to this narrative or some version of it and are grateful to have been adopted. I am not asserting that they are wrong in thinking that. However, I am in solidarity with the suggestion that we must question these dominant narratives precisely because they silence and displace so many other adoptees and their birth families. To broaden the scope of this narrative requires situating adoption within the broader framework of social justice. Doing so allows space for conversation about the implications of adoption for families and adoptees alike. What is adoption within a social justice framework?

Adoption is:

A women’s rights issue: Adoption is allowed to continue as long as there exist patriarchal societies that position men as the normal and natural head of the household, without whom a family can not be counted as complete. Many children are born into non-traditional (that is, non father present, non-nuclear) families, and adopted children are almost always born to unwed or single mothers[1]: 90% of the over 200,000 children adopted out of South Korea were born to this demographic. Severe social stigma and discrimination toward unwed mothers also contribute to adoption. In South Korea, for instance, assumptions about, and need to control, women’s bodies and behaviors bolsters discrimination against women. “Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous.”[2] This statement, made in 2011 to an audience of single mothers, adoptees and social welfare workers by the chairman of the Korea’s second largest adoption agency, reflects the assumption that the bodies and behaviors of single mothers need monitoring if we ever hope to see an end to adoption. The implied suggestion of this statement does not nor will it ever solve adoption and only perpetuates the already present bigotry toward single unwed mothers. This level of social discrimination varies across nations and within cultures. However, one thing remains consistent: poverty is feminized and the increase in single mother households paired with lack of access to resources and a likelihood of social stigma causes mothers to turn to adoption instead of raising their children. In Korea, most single mothers live at or near the poverty line, without any social, financial or emotional support. Adoption is not the best choice; it’s the only choice.

An economic injustice: The capital and literal flow of children usually always runs from the Global South to the Global North[3]. Children born in Haiti, Guatemala, India, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Russia, and Korea[4] (among many others) are exported to countries in Western Europe and North America, with the United States being the single largest recipient of international children. As such, mothers in the global south believe that their children will have better lives if adopted by “rich” adopters. Economic prosperity is positioned in opposition to the woman’s right to raise her child and is understood as the best choice for the child. Social welfare programs to aid single mothers, should they choose to raise their children, are also lacking. The South Korean government, for instance, saves billions of dollars a year by not providing social welfare programs that would help single, unwed mothers and lower class families raise their children. This is in part made possible by adoption agencies, which make millions per year placing Korean children with overseas families.[5] The adoption industry is profit driven, so much so that sometimes agents encourage single mothers to give up their babies; agents have been known to convince women to sign over their children before they are born. Adoption has essentially replaced social welfare, and as such, it is the only alternative, however unsustainable it may be. Women and their families deserve options that encourage and support them to keep their families together. Until South Korean society ceases to prioritize adoption over family preservation, poor, unwed, single women will continue to have limited welfare options and will continue to lose their children to adoption.

Everybody has the right to a family, even those seeking to adopt. However, the very first beneficiary of that right must be the parent and the child. According to the Hague Convention, inter country adoption should be the last resort, yet it is often the first. Adoption is so much more complicated than the typical narratives we are familiar with. It is political – women and children deserve protection of their rights as a family and the support of their government in keeping their family together; it is economic – the adoption industry discriminates against the poor in order to continue profiting; it is a women’s rights issue – adoption is a viable option in societies that ostracize unwed, single women and in which the nuclear family model is the only socially acceptable family structure. That is why the work of organizations like ASK – Adoptee Solidarity Korea – is so important. They are an organization made up of Korean adoptees who work to challenge and critique adoption politics and seek to end ICA. They have made real strides in changing the way people approach the topic of adoption and have even influenced the revision of the Korean Adoption Act, a law designed to protect the rights of single mothers and prioritize family preservation.[6] Without the continued work of ASK and other groups, an alternative discourse on adoption would not be possible.

It is important for us all to enter into this discourse if we hope to see full rights for women, children, and families everywhere. It is also important for adopters and adoptees to challenge the system that brought them together. In the words of Laura Klunder, “adoptees can be critical of the adoption industry while being loving and proud members of their adoptive families. Similarly, adopters can also critique the systemic issues with adoption, which privileges them while targeting their adopted son or daughter, and be proud adoptive parents.”[7] To be critical of adoption means being critical of the policies and practices that deny certain groups their rights; it means knowing exactly what you are buying into when you purchase a child. As for Korea, it’s about time that the world’s 13th largest economy stops buying into the same old adoption narrative and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over economic prosperity. It’s about time Korea enters into the new language of adoption politics written and spoken by its very own adoptees.

[1] Single mothers in Korea are defined as women who have been divorced or widowed, as opposed to unwed single mothers who have never been married.

[2] See The Adoption Scapegoats: single moms, (2011), by Jenny Na

[3] However, the United States, Canada and Mexico are both sender and receiver nations of adoptees

[4] Although South Korea is no longer considered a third-world nation, its child export policies began in the 1950’s as a consequence of the poverty caused by the Korean War. This has resulted in over 200,000 inter-country adoptions from South Korea since the 1950s, making it the fourth largest exporter of children after China, Russia and Guatemala.

[5] As of 2011, three Korean children per day were being sent overseas for adoption at a cost of approximately 20,000 USD per child

[6] ASK, in cooperation with their many allies, including other adoptee groups and organizations representing single mothers, succeeded in revising the law.

[7] Laura Klunder, “White Parent Ally”, gazillionvoices.com