International adoption of South Korean children

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The international adoption of South Korean children is a recent historical process triggered initially by casualties of the Korean War after 1953. The initiative was taken by religious organizations in the United States, Australia, and many European nations, and eventually developed into various apparatus that sustained adoption as a socially integrated system.

Historical context[edit]

International adoption of South Korean children started after the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953. When the war was over, many children were left orphaned. In addition a large number of mixed race ‘G.I babies’ (offspring of U.S. and other western soldiers and Korean women) were filling up the country’s orphanages (Jang, 1998).

Touched by the fate of the orphans, Western religious groups as well as other associations started the process of placing children in homes in the USA and Europe (Jang, 1998). Adoption from South Korea began in 1955 when Bertha and Harry Holt went to Korea and adopted eight war orphans (Rotschild, The Progressive, 1988) after passing a law through Congress. Their work resulted in the founding of Holt International Children's Services. The first Korean babies sent to Europe went to Sweden via the Social Welfare Society in the mid-1960s. By the end of that decade, the Holt International Children's Services began sending Korean orphans to Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany (Hong, Korea Times, 1999).

For the next decade, most of the children adopted from Korea were fathered by American soldiers who served in the Korean war. But American Asians presently account for fewer than 1% of adoptees. Foreign adoptions serve many purposes for the government (Rothschild, The Progressive, 1988).

Social context[edit]

Korean traditional society places significant weight on paternal family ties, bloodlines, and purity of ‘race’. Children of mixed race or those without fathers are not easily accepted in Korean society (Jang, 1998). Many families would rather go through excessive and expensive procedures such as surrogacy or in vitro fertilization than accept the child of a complete stranger into their family. Indeed, it was the case until recently that Korean citizenship was directly tied to family bloodline. Children not a part of a Korean family (i.e., orphans) were not legal citizens of Korea. Another reason is the stigma of adoption. Ninety-five percent of families who do adopt choose babies less than a month old so that they can pass them off as their natural born offspring, overlooking older adoptable children (Yun, Korea Times, 1997).

In addition, most Western countries started to face a shortage of healthy, domestic babies available for adoption in this period, as a result of social welfare programs, legalized abortions and use of contraception. Many Western couples became open to the idea of adopting children from abroad.

This was the start of a popular trend which is still present today, as the demand for babies by infertile, upper- and middle class couples in the West is rising (Jang, 1998). The procedure of international adoption is today a growing and often favoured method for couples to build their families and new countries are constantly opening up for international adoption, both as sending and receiving countries. However, recent adoption “scandals” have caused some countries, like Russia, to reduce the number of children being adopted by U.S families. A mother from Tennessee adopted a boy from Russia and was misled about the boy’s mental conditions. She sent him on a plane back to Russia, causing upheaval. This led to an agreement between the U.S and Russia to reduce the number of children being sent to the U.S.[1]

Economic impact[edit]

Korean adoptees bring in hard currency, which is roughly $15 to $20 million a year. They relieve the government of the costs of caring for the children, which would otherwise be a drain on the budget. International adoption addresses but does not solve a difficult social problem: What to do with orphans and abandoned children? In 1986, South Korea had 18,700 orphaned or abandoned children. Almost half were sent abroad for adoption, 70% of these to the United States, the rest to Canada, Australia, and eight European nations (Rotschild, The Progressive, 1988). At the time of writing (1988) the amount of $15–20m was significant compared to the spending on social welfare.

Some academics and researchers claim that Korean adoption agencies have established a system to guarantee a steady supply of healthy children (Dobbs 2009). Supporters of this system claim that adoption agencies are only caring for infants who would otherwise go homeless or be institutionalized. While their motives can not be easily determined, their methods are efficient and well-established.

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. All pay foster mothers about $80 a month to care for the infants, and the agencies provide all food, clothing and other supplies free of charge. 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.

When the time for departure arrives, the babies are flown to their foreign families. 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, the police, and with maternity homes to acquire children (Rothschild, The Progressive, 1988; Schwekendiek, 2012).

Upbringing, identity, and nationalism[edit]

The adoption abroad of Korean children has been criticized both in and out of Korea. A number of adoptees grow up feeling out of place or alienated from the Western society they are placed in. Despite the fact that many are well adjusted and go on to live happy and successful lives, in Sweden, Korean and other international adoptees are highly overrepresented when it comes to suicide, suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues (Hjern et al. 2002).


  • Domestic adoptees in Korea 1953-2001: 62 100 (Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002)
  • Overseas adoptees outside Korea 1953-2001: 148,394 (Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002)

Breakdown by receiving country[edit]

Number of adopted Koreans by country, from 1953-2001:

Country Date range Adopted
United States 1953–2001 99,061
* Guam 1971–1972 3
France 1968–2001 10,923
Sweden 1957–2001 8,622
Denmark 1965–2001 8,417
* Faroe Islands 1973–2001 36
* Greenland 1971–1992 7
Norway 1956–2001 5,806
Netherlands 1969–2001 4,056
Belgium 1969–1995 3,697
Australia 1969–2001 2,837
Germany 1965–1996 2,351
Canada 1967–2001 1,543
Switzerland 1968–1997 1,111
New Zealand 1960–1984 559
Luxembourg 1984–2001 418
Italy 1965–1981 382
Japan 1962–1982 226
* Okinawa 1970–1972 94
England 1958–1981 72
Buland? 1970 47
Iceland 1970–1978 22
Ireland 1968–1975 12
Poland 1970 7
Spain 1968 5
Republic of China 1967–1968 4
Finland 1970–1984 4
India 1960–1964 3
Paraguay 1969 2
Hong Kong 1973 1
Tunisia 1969 1
Turkey 1969 1
Other countries 1956–2001 66
Total 1953–2001 150,349

(Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002).

Korea continues to send children out of the country for adoption; in recent years, roughly 1 of 250 Korean births are adopted by American families alone. There has been a declining trend in adoptions in recent years, but this is only due to a drop in the Korean birth rate, which is now the lowest of any developed country. [1]

Korean Adoptions to the United States, 2001-2005

Year Adopted
2001 1,863
2002 1,713
2003 1,793
2004 1,708
2005 1,604

(United States Department of Immigration Statistics, 2005)

Adoptee Associations[edit]

Korean adoptees have created associations in many countries. Some of these associations are members of the International Korean Adoptee Associations (website [2]), officially created in 2004 as a network for the different associations.

These associations are members of the IKAA :

  • Adopted Koreans' Association (Sweden) (website [3])
  • AKConnection (Minnesota, US) website [4])
  • Also-Known-As, Inc. (New York, US) (website [5]
  • Arierang (The Netherlands) (website [6])
  • Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington (Washington, US) (website [7])
  • Forum for Korean Adoptees (Norway) (website [8])
  • Korea Klubben (Denmark) (website [9])
  • Racines Coreennes (France) (website [10])

Other adoptee associations:

Recent Developments between US and South Korea[edit]

International Korean adoption is constantly changing. The government requires all overseas adoptions to the U.S to be processed through an agency. These agencies are given certain quotas that are being reduced each year. Once the quota is reached, the agency is no longer able to submit emigration applications to the Korean government on behalf of a specific child. Other requirements for U.S citizens to adopt from South Korea include an age range (25-44), must be married and have above the national level of income and, in addition, cannot have more than five children (including the child to be adopted). These requirements are all in place because the South Korean government is trying to promote inner-country adoption rather than overseas [17].

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Baker, Michael, "South Korea struggles to free itself from adoption stigma", Christian Science Monitor, 17 November 1997, Vol. 89 Issue 246, p6
  • Elliott, Louise, "Battling pride and prejudice", The Korea Herald, 30 August 2002, accessed 11 May 2002
  • Hjern A, Lindblad F, Vinnerljung B., "Suicide, psychiatric illness, and social maladjustment in intercountry adoptees in Sweden: a cohort study." Lancet. 2002 August 10;360(9331):443-8
  • Hong Sun-hee, "Subsidy for Families Adopting Disabled Orphans to Double", The Korea Times, 17 January 1999 [17]
  • Jang, J, "Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots", Korea Herald, 10 December 1998
  • Kane, Saralee, "The movement of children for international adoption: An epidemiologic perspective", Social Science Journal, 1993, Vol. 30 Issue 4, p323.
  • Meier, Dani Isaac, "Loss and Reclaimed Lives: Cultural Identity and Place in Korean-American Intercountry Adoptees", Graduate thesis, University of Minnesota, March 1998
  • Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002
  • Rothschild, Matthew, Babies for Sale "South Koreans make them, Americans buy them", The Progressive, U.S, January 1988 16 August 1999
  • Schwekendiek, Daniel, "Korean migration to the wealthy West", New York: Nova Publishers, 2012
  • Shin, Hye-son, "IMF economic pinch increases number of abandoned children", The Korea Herald, 16 August 1999, [18]
  • United States. Bureau of Consular Affairs. Department of State. SOUTH KOREA. N.p., Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. [17]
  • Savidge, Martin. "Woman Who Returned Russian Boy Must Pay Child Support -" CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. [18]


External links[edit]