This past May, South Korea — renowned within adoption circles for its transparent and above-board practices — was taken to task by the committee on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. The committee said there is “a possibility of abuse” in intercountry adoptions from South Korea.
On Nov. 10, 2009, a coalition of adopted Koreans, unwed Korean mothers, and our allies will go to the South Korean parliament and confirm that yes, abuses have occurred, and are still occurring.
Our bill written to change the laws that have allowed these abuses to occur is sponsored by Rep. Choi Young-Hee (Democratic Party) and will be introduced in the public hearing. We will reveal both what is wrong with the current law, and how we propose to fix it.
The following is the text of my speech that I will give to lawmakers, Korean citizens, and concerned parties living and operating in Korea on the human rights abuses that have occurred as a result of the adoption law.
Speech to be given by Jane Jeong Trenka at the National Assembly Nov. 10. 2009, on the adoption law revision bill by TRACK, ASK, KoRoot, unwed moms, and Gonggam lawyers.
My thanks to Rep. Choi Young-hee for the great honor of participating on this historic occasion, the first time that adoptees and single mothers have proposed an entirely new bill to the National Assembly to revise South Korea’s adoption law. I also wish to acknowledge Choi Young-hee’s staff, who have met with us regularly, as well as the members of the coalition: the Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers, the single mothers’ group Miss Mamma Mia, KoRoot, ASK, and TRACK.
I believe it is an unintended benefit to South Korea that while adoptees had no choice in their adoptions to foreign countries, they are now able to report back to Korea on the country’s adoption program and how post-adoption and Korean family services may now be improved. While workers in adoption agencies have certainly voiced their opinions to the Korean government before, I believe it is significant that our bill has been written by a coalition of concerned Korean citizens and diasporic Koreans, international adoptees, and single Korean mothers who will reap absolutely no economic, professional, or social benefit from continuing the adoption system as it has been practiced in the past. Instead, we look forward to meeting international standards of human rights and justice. We seek to create a system of child welfare in Korea that can be a source of not shame and guilt, but pride and self-sufficiency, for all Koreans.
Today I will give a brief critique on the current law and the problems it has caused for adoptees and their families. I hope these criticisms will be heard by parliament members and the countries influenced by Korean adoption as the result of many lifetimes worth of experience and our sincerest efforts to understand the laws that have profoundly and permanently affected our individual lives, as well as the modern history and society of South Korea. I speak in English, but my wish is for the parliament members to hear the adoptees not as foreigners, but people whose mothers spoke to us in Korean while they carried us in their wombs, and who were born as Korean citizens, but whose families were abandoned by the state.
Gonggam public interest lawyer So Rami will give a detailed presentation on the coalition’s revisions, which were written as specific solutions to specific problems. I will now detail these problems in the hope that these findings will within the next five years lead to a truth and reconciliation process for the adoption community of Korea that identifies past abuses and prevents future abuses so that the relationship between Korean society and the adoption community may at last be healed.
The Korean government’s expediting and preferencing of adoption over the preservation of the child’s original family is a major flaw that has led to the construction of the country’s international adoption program that has now notoriously sent up to 200,000 children overseas. While many adoptions appear to have been processed completely legally on paper, many returning adoptees have found that in reality there were abuses that occurred in order to facilitate their adoptions. The American scholar Dr. David Smolin calls this “child laundering,” a reference to money laundering or processing something that is illegal in a way to make it look legal on the surface. In South Korea, these abuses have been documented by TRACK as follows:
1. Unclear relinquishment – TRACK has found cases where the parent did not relinquish under real name, a person other than the parent relinquished, only one parent relinquished, the child was relinquished for domestic but NOT international adoption, or the signature on the relinquishment form appears to be forged. The current law holds agencies responsible for locating children’s parents in order to make sure they can be sent for adoption, which is a conflict of interest.
2. Kidnappings within the family, particularly by paternal relatives and grandmothers have been documented by TRACK. The mothers’ custody rights were and still are too weak under the law.
3. Misrepresentation cases are rampant in the adoption community. On paper, the children are misrepresented to adoptive parents and Western adoption agencies by changing information such as age, social history, medical history, or marital status of the mother.
4. Contradictions in the adoption file of the same child have been documented by TRACK. Contradictions may be found going from Korean-language record to Korean-language record (from police to orphanage to agency, or intra-agency), or going from Korean-language record to English-language record (or other Western language).
5. Kidnapping by the orphanage is another oft-repeated story, such as in cases like Toby Dawson. The Korean parent came looking and they were told that the child was not there, or had died. Older children may have known their identities and home addresses and wished to go home, but were kept inside the orphanage.
6. Hojuk forgery. All correctly processed international adoptions used an orphan hojuk to expedite the adoption, but in the case of older children who had already been registered on their family’s hojuk, that means an orphan hojuk had to have been made in order to process the adoption. This is a falsification of a legal document.
7. Citizenship forgery. The child was recorded as having been sent to a different adoptive country than they really were, and were recorded as having gained the citizenship of the wrong country.
8. Identity forgery. In cases such as that famously recorded by Deann Borshay in First Person Plural, the child was switched for another child who was not able to be sent at the time the adoption was scheduled.
Government oversight is not adequate. We need a watchdog.
It is because of these various abuses performed at the time of adoption that are listed above, as well as the inadequate post-adoption services reflected in the astonishingly low 2.7% rate of international adoptee reunions, that a watchdog must be created. It must have the legal authority to monitor adoption processes, including adoption fees and the links between unwed mothers’ facilities and adoptions. So far there is no legal basis for such a body, although KCARE has the potential to be strengthened into such a body and is already funded by the Ministry of Health Welfare and Family. This body must also have the legal authority to authorize police searches for birthfamilies, and hold all the original files of the adoptees and mediate reunions as an objective third party. This body would also serve as the central authority if and when the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption is ratified by South Korea. In addition, it would control the registration and permission procedures for adoption.
Babies can be relinquished in the womb, but mothers need more time to make a decision.
Other practices, which may be considered legal by the Korean government, are in reality not ethical. Currently the law has allowed children to be easily relinquished while still in the womb. This is not ethical. A mother should have more time and adequate counseling from an objective, non-adoption related body in order to make an informed decision. The ties between the unwed mothers’ homes and adoption agencies and facilities such as hospitals has created an atmosphere of “baby farming” that depends on the vulnerability of unwed mothers and coercion in order to secure a supply of babies to send for adoption.
Family Preservation is better than “Adoption Promotion.”
The current law is called the Special Act Relating to the Promotion and Procedure of Adoption. While the government spent 104,299,000 won to promote adoption in 2008, the domestic adoptions have fallen numerically from 1964 children in 2002 to 1388 children in 2007 and 1306 in 2008. The success of the adoption promotion campaign is questionable. Our coalition believes that the obvious answer to childcare is not to use government funds to promote adoption, but to strengthen support for original families, extended families and single mothers so they can raise their own children. Every child already has a family.
Adoptees and their families lack of access to information.
There is no legal framework that guarantees the human right of the adoptee to access his or her own information. In addition, there is no legal framework guaranteeing the right of the the birthfamily, including siblings, to try to initiate contact with the adoptee. There is also no current law ensuring that the agencies provide adequate and timely search and reunion services, and issues of adoptees inheriting from natural parents are problematic.
Escorts are convenient for adopters, but bad for children.
Escorts have been used as a matter of convenience to transnationally adoptive parents, allowing their children to be delivered to them without having to travel to Korea. However, this introduces several more complications and caretakers into the child’s journey from Korea to her adoptive country. Numerous breaks in caretaking have been shown to be confusing and traumatic to children, especially babies.
Adoptees should not be stripped of their Korean citizenship.
By law, the Korean government strips all adoptees of their Korean citizenship when they gain the citizenship of their host country. Adoptees should be able to hold dual citizenship throughout childhood and determine their own citizenship for themselves at the age of majority in order to make the paperwork and legal identity continuous. This will also make emigrations through adoption more like other emigrations.
The birth registration system is insufficient.
The law does not provide an adequate system for positively identifying and registering children at birth. Children who are secretly adopted within Korea — meaning they are not told they are adopted and are registered as the biological child of adoptive parents — are denied their right to identity. In addition, children who are not registered at birth are at risk of trafficking.
Children should have a say about their own adoptions at a younger age.
While in practice this applies more to domestic adoption, the age at which a child can consent to his or her own adoption is currently set at 15 years Western age. The age should be reduced to 12 to match the maturity of children these days.
There are too many disrupted adoptions.
Also pertaining more to domestic adoptions is the problem of many broken adoptions. Adoptive parents are not screened and educated adequately, and the result is adoption disruptions. There are currently no laws stipulating the period for consideration of adoption or the post-adoption service period. There should be more specific and stricter regulations on adoption disruptions.
The two sets of adoption laws –civil and international — are not integrated.
Another problem with the Korean law is that the laws that govern domestic and international adoption are not integrated. The case of Jade illustrates the kind of occurrence that can happen because of that. As you recall, the Korean girl named “Jade” was adopted by Dutch foreigners through the civil law. Later these diplomats abandoned the girl, who presumably still had Korean citizenship, in Hong Kong.
The Korean adoption laws must be brought up to international standards.
Finally, Korea’s adoption system must be brought up to international standards. Although it is not the within the realm of the bill we are discussing today, I would like to remind all that the South Korean government has expressed reservations to Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that adoptions should be handled by a central independent authority, and should not be influenced extensively by individuals or private organizations. This reservation should be removed and the rest of the UNCRC strictly implemented and adhered to. In addition, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last year pointed out that the South Korean adoption agencies do not keep sufficient documents on the adopted children and that the South Korean government still does not seem to be fully managing the adoption system. Finally, I would like to point out that the only UN country besides Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC is the United States, and that is the main country we are sending our children to for adoption.
In closing, I would like to note that South Korea, the host of next year’s G20 conference, has been making big efforts to boost its national brand and image overseas lately. These efforts have centered on business concerns and things like making a new logo for the government. But a more meaningful way that South Korea can improve its image overseas is to first solve its human rights issues at home.
South Korea’s discrimination against single mothers on both the social and the government level is not a secret — it is well-documented in the foreign press, and there are 200,000 adoptees scattered around Europe and the U.S. who are walking, breathing testaments to such discrimination. And in the countries that we were sent to, such discrimination on the basis of marital status is absolutely unthinkable.
It is truly in South Korea’s national interest to help single mothers raise their children, and not just because it will make the country look better. Forty years from now, who will grow and cook our food, drive our trains, and work in Korea’s companies? Would it be alright with you if the person who takes care of you in the hospital when you are old is an educated and skilled doctor who happens to have been born the child of a single mother? Taking care of single mothers and their children not only makes sense as an investment in the future labor force of Korea. It is just the right thing to do.
But as of this year, our law has yet to be passed, the overseas adoptions still continue at the rate of over 1,000 a year, and single mothers are still not getting any meaningful assistance from the government. The only way for South Korea to save face on the global stage is to quickly and decisively solve its own problems domestically. We need not just economic leadership, but also ethical leadership. We have the golden opportunity this fall do exactly that. I urge all the lawmakers here to work with Rep. Choi Young-hee to help us achieve our vision for a just and abundant future for all Koreans. Thank you so much for your listening.
Watch a Korean TV documentary on adoption abuses. (subtitled and posted on YouTube by permission of SBS)
Coalition Web sites
Jane Jeong Trenka was born in the U.S. military district of Yongsan-gu in Seoul, South Korea, and was sent to the U.S. for adoption in 1972. With Julia Chinyere Oparah and Sun Yung Shin, Trenka is co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing and Transracial Adoption and the author of two memoirs: The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions. She makes her living by correcting English grammar at night, and volunteers by day for the Seoul-based organization TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea), which advocates for a full understanding of the practice of adoption, both past and present, to improve the human rights of children and families affected by adoption.
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