Korea has been known as the “Cadillac” of international adoption for its supposed ethics and legality. However, as adult adoptees search for their birthparents and are reunited, it becomes apparent that Korea’s system has been riddled with abuses.
Watch a program from Korean national broadcaster KBS to see the story of one adoption in which a private broker or child-finder seems to have played a role.
II. Fresh off the Glocal Baby Farm
International Korean adoption is dependent on the relationship and infrastructure built up between Korean and foreign governments and agencies. This hierarchical relationship that exists on a political level also extends to the very personal level, between an American woman who adopts the child of a Korean birthmother. (Perhaps this is an ugly example of “glocal.”) At the source of the adoptions, however, is the Korean system, which seems to willingly provide the supply of babies to meet the demand of the Western adopters.
In an article about Korea’s comfort women, who are also estimated to number around 200,000, Chunghee Sarah Soh defines “structural violence” as “chronic large-scale economic, political, and cultural oppression that historically is entrenched in everyday lives …” She goes on to write:
Structural violence is manifested in exploitative or unjust exercise of power that is customarily practiced (and implicitly sanctioned with societal indifference) by one category of social actors and/or groups against another – such as fathers against daughters, husbands against wives, or power elites against ethnic minorities – in situations of hierarchically organized social relations.
In the case of unwed mothers today, this structural violence is enacted in the family, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, by so-called service providers, and by the South Korean government itself in a program that at its peak sent over 8,000 children for adoption per year and is now notoriously called “baby export” in South Korea, referring to the country’s export-driven economy.
However, the program did not make headlines until 1988 Seoul Olympics. In “Babies for Sale: Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them,” American journalist Matthew Rothschild said that South Korea’s adoption program relieved the government of the costs of caring for children, and that the adoption agencies’ methods of procuring babies for adoption were “efficient and well-established.” He went on to write:
Korean adoption agencies support pregnant-women’s homes; three of the four agencies run their own. One of the agencies has its own maternity hospital and does its own delivery. All four provide and subsidize child care. They also support orphanages, or operate them themselves. Along with advice from ‘counselors’ at the agencies, this system not only makes the process of giving up a child easier, it encourages it.
Payments are routine to maternity hospitals, midwives, obstetricians and officials at each of the four agencies acknowledged. The agencies will cover the costs of delivery and the medical care for any woman who gives up her baby for adoption. The agencies also use their influence with hospitals, and with the police, to acquire abandoned children.
Rothschild did not describe how that “influence” manifested or how it was exercised. However, a report by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, presented to the National Assembly in 1989, showed that adoption agencies were actually competing to secure children for overseas adoption. A Korea Herald article reported that Holt paid “up to 200,000 as ‘gratitude’ for the adoption of each child” to each welfare facility and hospital from which it procured children. In addition, David Smolin, a law professor and internationally adoptive parent of children from India who coined the term “child laundering,” writes:
In societies with a high incidence of corruption, public officials, from petty clerks to police officers to high government officials, become accustomed to demanding and receiving payoffs. Bribes are required simply to obtain legitimate approvals and services, but also can become a means of acquiring illegitimate approvals and services. Under these circumstances, the prospects of creating a “clean” inter-country adoption system are slim.
Meanwhile, in Korea, news stories of corrupt politicians are the norm. The acceptable and common Korean practice of giving cash in white paper envelopes to younger family members as a token of love or to friends for special occasions can be easily extended into the bribery of public officials. Chan Sup Chang and Nahn Joo Chang write in “The Korean Management System: Cultural, Political, Economic Foundations”:
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether the money presented is for appreciation or for bribery, since the money may serve both purposes. Some Koreans hand out cash or white envelopes with money inside to most government (federal, state, or local) officials for permits, licenses, and other businesses.
It is easy to presume that many white envelopes have changed hands in connection with the international adoption industry in Korea. Quoting the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Korea Herald reported in 1989 that Holt paid an average of 60,000 per child in the form of raising fees and up to 200,000 won as “gratitude” for [the] adoption of each child. In the same article, it reported that Holt gave “about 788 million won to 51 children’s welfare facilities and hospitals between 1986 and 1988 in return for drawing children for adoption.” The same article goes on to note that all four agencies authorized to process foreign adoptions paid fees to maternity clinics and hospitals in 1989, despite written pledges to not actively promote “activities for picking up children for adoption.”
Almost 20 years after the publication of Rothschild’s article, the agencies’ system of procuring children for adoption has become even more developed and interlocked with supplies of babies.In 2008, there were 27 unwed mothers’ facilities in Korea. According to information provided to TRACK from the Ministry of Health Welfare and Family via the 2009 National Assembly Audit, thirteen of them were run by the international adoption agencies Holt, Eastern, and Social Welfare Society. A small majority of the mothers were staying in facilities run by adoption agencies, at 251, while 203 were staying in facilities not run by adoption agencies.
Also in 2008, there were 23 adoption agencies in Korea. All but four of them have hospital connections. (The ones that do not use hospitals are domestic adoption-only agencies.) These hospitals include well-known, large hospitals such as Korean University Anam Hospital, Seoul National University Hospital and Severance Hospital, as well as small local hospitals. The Ministry of Health and welfare says that Holt alone uses 27 different hospitals. Eastern lists six, Social Welfare Society uses six, and Korea Social Service uses two.
At the time of this writing, the first and only female (former) prime minister of South Korea, Han Myeong-Sook, was on trial for allegedly receiving a bribe from a businessman. Former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide in 2009 while his close family members were being investigated under such allegations.
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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