South Korea: Why Are So Many Korean Children Adopted Abroad?

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Two hundred thousand South Koreans adopted abroad since 1953. An embarrassing world record for a small country now with 52 million inhabitants. How can one explain that for several decades, the majority of children adopted abroad came from South Korea? The tenth largest economy in the world is struggling to come to terms with a painful past. Examination.

From our correspondent in Seoul

Bertha and Harry Holt. The origin of adoption in South Korea has an American ring to it. In 1955, this couple had a law amended in the United States Congress to adopt eight orphaned children from the Korean War (1950-1953). As more than 100,000 South Koreans stand without parents at the end of the civil war dividing the peninsula, images of these children are making their way home across the Atlantic. The Holt was established in 1956 and South Koreans were gradually sent abroad above this adoption agency. At the time, the country was devastated by war and pervasive poverty, and the North Korean economy was thriving better than the South. However, 30 years later, in the 1980s, intercountry adoption in South Korea peaked.

One child per hour

In 1986, nearly 9,000 South Korean children were being sent abroad, or one every hour. An impressive figure with various explanations. At that time, only abandoned or orphaned children were eligible for international adoption. In a South Korea with a booming economy and conservative ethics, many children are abandoned. Due to a lack of funds for some and social pressure for others: Amerasian children (born to American soldiers and Korean women) are frowned upon, as are those born out of wedlock or from a single mother. A cultural peculiarity that is far from alone explaining the magnitude of the phenomenon. ” I can’t believe that in the 1980’s dozens of children were abandoned by their parents every day says Lee Kyung-eun, an international law researcher and specialist in the field. In recent years, many adoptees believe that they were adopted against the will of their birth parents.

Such is the case of Kim Yooree. This quarantine was accepted at the age of eleven in France, she then found her biological parents. ” In 1994 my father told me that he never left me and my mother told me the same thing but I didn’t believe them. And then this winter I went to City Hall to consult my father’s family book. There I saw that officially I was still his daughter, with a Korean ID number, there was no record of my adoption. »

A case that is unfortunately anything but an isolated case, according to Han Boonyoung, who was adopted in Denmark herself and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on the subject at the National University of Seoul. ” Not all adoptees were orphans, South Korea’s adoption system orphaned children so they could go abroad Han explains. « The key problem is that until 2011 the entire administrative adoption process was managed by the agencies. Holt East and the other agencies collected the children from orphanages, hospitals, or police stations, and then handled the administrative procedures with little or no government oversight.

« In the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea was not yet such a developed country, and the Holt addressed the problems of disadvantaged childhoods in South Korea. And the South Korean state was happy with this deal sums up Yves Dénéchère, professor of contemporary history at the University of Angers and specialist in international adoptions. Back then, Chun Doo-hwan ruled South Korea with an iron fist. Their priority is cleaning the streets of poverty as the country prepares to host two major sporting events: the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics. And any means is good. This policy of “social cleansing” has increased the use of wellness centers, veritable concentration camps, where the marginalized of South Korean society were crammed. Children who are found or who are too poor are sent abroad.

« In 1976, the South Korean government announced the decision to end intercountry adoption by 1985. However, this decision was overturned by the will of the military government to encourage adoption from 1981 onwards For his part, explains Kim Ji-yeon, director of the Department of Child Welfare at the Ministry of Health. As for the adoption agencies, we have accepted this government strategy. ” Back then, intercountry adoption was considered humanitarian action and the question was: which is more important, respecting the rules or sending the children abroad? » assures an expert who wishes to remain anonymous.

political will

The Olympic Games are also the beginning of the end, explains Yves Dénèchere. ” At this point, people are aware that it is not normal for a country that has access to development to entrust the adoption of its children to an international organization and to send so many children abroad. In view of the media coverage of the foreign press, which is very critical of this system of “child export”, the land of the morning calm is undergoing a partial transformation. The number of adoptions dropped significantly, but it wasn’t until 2011 that procedures really strengthened. However, despite pleas from some adoptees, the South Korean authorities are not planning an investigation. When asked about the issue, the Ministry of Health says “ wants to apologize by acting clearly and that an inadequate or clumsy apology would not help to resolve these files and could even harm the adoptees or those affected. »

Adam Crapser filed a complaint against Holt and the South Korean state. Adopted in the United States, he was denied American citizenship at the age of 41 because the courts did not recognize his adoption process. Forced to return to a country he knew nothing about, he feels like a victim of a system and its irregularities. A historic process, the outcome of which could relieve adoptees who are searching for the truth.


Editor’s Note: Holt declined to answer RFI’s questions.

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