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 United States 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).

History of Adoption and Korean Adoptees in South Korea[edit]

The start of adoption in South Korea is usually credited to Harry Holt in 1955.[1][2] He wanted to help the children of South Korea and so adopted 8 children from South Korea and brought them home. He then created Holt International Children's Services in 1955. Holt created the system since before that point overseas adoption was not common in Korea.[2]

South Korea, then, formulated the Ministry of Social Affairs for overseas adoption.

The first wave of adopted people from Korea came from usually mixed-race children whose families lived in poverty; the children's parents were often American military men and Korean women.[2]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the reasons for adoption shifted. Industrialization and urbanization brought about more teen pregnancy and increased divorce rates. The centralization also led to the poverty of many rural areas, which was a contributing factor to adoption. Also, it brought about more children who were born out of wedlock. This brought about higher abandonment rates.

Also in the 1970s, many adopted people first became adults some chose to also adopt children either from South Korea. Because they became adults, some KADs chose to lobby to make change to Korean adoption and adoption laws.

From 1988, when South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, many social issues of South Korea were shown. The wave of journalist articles forced Korea to try to decrease the amount of international adoptions and try to increase domestic adoptions, which has had some mixed success. The number of adoptions has decreased in recent years as more restrictions and rights for women and single mothers are put into place, including banning of proxies.

Not until the 1980s and early 1990s did the South Korean government and South Koreans, both in South Korea and in the diaspora, pay any significant attention to the fates of KADs. The nation was not prepared for the return of their 'lost children.' But the numerous adult KADs who visited Korea as tourists every year, in addition to raised public awareness of the KAD diaspora, forced Korea to face a shameful and largely unknown part of their history. South Korean president Kim Dae-jung invited 29 adult KADs from 8 countries to a personal meeting in the Blue House in October 1998. During this meeting he publicly apologized for South Korea's inability to raise them.[3]

One factor that helped making KADs visible in the South Korean discourse, was a 1991 film called Susanne Brink's Arirang, based upon the life and experiences of Susanne Brink, an adult KAD from Sweden who said that she suffered abuse and racism in her adoptive home and country. After the movie she became a celebrity in South Korea, and many South Koreans started to feel shame and guilt for the children their country had sent out.[4]

Since then, South Korean media rather frequently reports on the issues regarding international adoption. Most KADs have taken on the citizenship of their adoptive country and no longer have Korean passports. Earlier they had to get a visa like any other foreigner if they wanted to visit or live in South Korea. This only added to the feeling that they were 'not really South Korean'. In May 1999, a group of KADs living in Korea started a signature-collection in order to achieve legal recognition and acceptance (Schuhmacher, 1999). At present (2009) the number of KADs long term residents in South Korea (mainly Seoul) is estimated at approximately 500. It is not unlikely that this number will increase in the following decade (International adoption from South Korea peaked in the mid-1980s). A report from Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L) indicates that the long term returnees (more than one year) are predominantly in their early twenties or early thirties.

The first ever association to be created for and by adult KADs, was the Swedish Adopterade Koreaners Forening (AKF) in 1986.[4] Since then, similar groups have emerged in most Western European countries, various US states and cities, as well as in Canada, Australia and Korea. Before this, most organized events and activities for KADs had been arranged and administered by adoptive parents and Korean immigrants. These arrangements included culture camps and social gatherings, with a main focus on adoptive families and their children.

With the formation of the adult associations, KADs for the first time were gathering with others who shared a common experience, on their own terms and by their own initiative. KADs were making statements both for themselves and towards the public, that they were no longer children, but independent adults with their own unique concerns and issues. Together, these varied groups and associations have tried to raise awareness locally and internationally about KADs' unique position in relation to South Korea and their adoptive countries. In 1995, the first KAD conference was held in Germany; in 1999, conferences were arranged in both the US and South Korea.[4] During the last couple of years, numerous adult KAD conferences and social gatherings in various countries have been arranged, including world gatherings that draw participants from across the globe. In addition, works of KADs have become known both in art, literature and film-making. Other KADs have received celebrity status for other reasons, like Soon-Yi Previn who is married to Woody Allen, actresses Nicole Bilderback, and Jenna Ushkowitz, Washington State Senator Paull Shin, former Slovak rap-artist Daniel Hwan Oostra, Kristen Kish of Top Chef - Season 10, make-up artist turned content creator Claire Marshall[5] and former French minister Fleur Pellerin.

Race and national control[edit]

Many of the South Korean children adopted internationally, grew up in white, upper or middle-class homes. In the beginning adoptive families were often told by agencies and social workers to assimilate their children and make them as much as possible a part of the new culture, thinking that this would override concerns about ethnic identity and origin. Many KADs grew up not knowing about other children like themselves.[6] This has changed in recent years with social services now encouraging parents and using home studies to encourage prospective adoptive parents to learn about the cultural influences of the country. With such works as "Beyond Culture Camp" [7] which encourage the teaching of culture, there has been a large shift. Though, these materials may be given, not everyone may take advantage of them. Also, adoption agencies started to allow the adoption of South Koreans by people of color in the late 1990s to early 2000, and not just white people, including Korean-Americans. Such an example of this is the rapper GOWE, who is a Korean adopted into a Chinese family.

When International Korean Adoptees turned into adults, many of them chose to return.[8][9] These countries include Sweden, United States of America, The Netherlands, France, Belgium etc. In this respect the so-called re-Koreanization of the KAD's is often reproduced in South Korean popular media (e.g. the blockbuster 'Kuk'ka Taep'yo/National Representative/Take Off). The 're-Koreanization can be reflected in Korean ethnic based nationalism (both North and South of the 38th parallel). Even in its capacity as a global economy and OECD nation, Korea still sends children abroad for international adoption. The proportion of children leaving Korea for adoption amounted to about 1% of its live births for several years during the 1980s (Kane, 1993); currently, even with a large drop in the Korean birth rate to below 1.2 children per woman and an increasingly wealthy economy, about 0.5% (1 in 200) of Korean children are still sent to other countries every year.[citation needed]

To stem the number of overseas adoptions, the South Korean government introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987. And under the system, the nation reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5% each year, from about 8,000 in 1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015. But in 1998 the government temporarily lifted the restrictions, after the number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of growing economic hardships.[10] Notable is a focused effort of the 2009 South Korean government to seize international adoption out of South Korea (with the establishment of KCare and the domestic Adoption Promotion Law.

For several decades, the South Korean international adoption program provided homes for more orphans per state than any other country in the world. Some South Koreans view adoption as an international shame, but domestic adoption is still rare because it clings to patriarchal bloodlines (Elliott, 2002). Official numbers show that approximately 170,000 Koreans have been adopted by North American, European and Oceanic peoples (Overseas Korean's Foundation), but the actual numbers could be as high as 200,000. It is a curious fact that Scandinavians are much more likely than those of other countries to adopt South Koreans, especially when population in Scandinavian nations is taken into account (see statistics here).

As a result of many internationally adopted KADs growing up in white areas, many of these adoptees avoided other Asians in childhood and adolescence out of an unfamiliarity and/or discomfort with Asian cultures.[11] These KADs sometimes express a desire to be white like their families and peers, and strongly identify with white society. As a result, meeting South Koreans and Korean culture might have been a traumatic experience for some.[6] However, other KADs, often those raised in racially or culturally diverse communities, grew up with ties to the Korean community and identify more strongly with the Korean aspect of their identities.[11]

In 2010 the South Korean Government legalized dual citizenship for Korean adoptees.[12]

Korea's Domestic Program[edit]

Since the Seoul International olympics, Korea has been pushing for a domestic program.[13] However, this has been less than successful over the decades. The numbers only picked up after 2007.[14]

This was because Shin Ae-ra, and her husband, Cha In-Pyo publicly adopted, making headlines.[15] This raised domestic numbers.helped to raise domestic numbers as did several dramas and documentaries.[citation needed]

The tide also turned with the release of the movie, My Father and subsequent dramas featuring adopted characters without melodramatic storylines. Such as My Princess,

However, the numbers of domestic adoption fell in 2013 due to tighter restrictions on eligibility for Adoptive Parents. However, the number in babies has also gone up with the forced registration of babies, also a new law, leading to more abandonment.[16]

The primary reason as of 2015 for the majority of surrenders within South Korea is single mothers are still publicly shamed within Korea.[17][18] The amount of money single mothers can receive within the country is 70,000 won per month, only after proving poverty versus the tax break from adopting domestically is 150,000 won per month, which is unconditional, whereas it's conditional in the case of single mothers.[17] 33 facilities for single and divorced mothers, but the majority of them are run by orphanages and adoption agencies.

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.[19]

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

U.S. adoption of Korean children by year
U.S. adoption of Korean children by age group
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]


  1. ^ "Adoption History: Bertha and Harry Holt". 
  2. ^ a b c POV. "Adoption History - First Person Plural - POV - PBS". 
  3. ^ Kim, Dae-Jung, President Kim Dae Jung's Speech: October 23, 1998 at the Blue House, in Chosen Child, vol 1, no 5, May 1999: 15-16
  4. ^ a b c Hübinette, Tobias, Korea - adoptionens historia, Um & Yang, 3/1999, accessed 09/11/02
  5. ^ Claire Marshall (13 December 2012). "My Tattoos - heyclaire" – via YouTube. 
  6. ^ a b Meier, Dani Isaac, Loss And Reclaimed Lives: Cultural Identity And Place In Korean-american Intercountry Adoptees, Graduate Thesis, University Of Minnesota, March 1998.
  7. ^ "Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption - The Donaldson Adoption Institute". 
  8. ^ Jones, Maggie (January 14, 2015). "Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ Jang, J, Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots, Korea Herald, 1998/12/10
  10. ^ Lee, Claire
  11. ^ a b By Global Overseas Adoptees' Link, Collection of Resources & Scrapbook of G.O.A.'L
  12. ^ "Dual Citizenship Campaign". Global Overseas Adoptees Link. Retrieved 27 March 2012. 
  13. ^ "Domestic Adoption - South-Korea - korea4expats". 
  14. ^ "South Korea's troubled export: babies for adoption". 25 May 2007 – via Reuters. 
  15. ^ "The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea - Celebrity Couple Adopts 'God-Sent' Addition to Family". 
  16. ^ "Pity the children" – via The Economist. 
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^ "South Korea's Single Moms Struggle To Remove A Social Stigma". 
  19. ^ CNN, From Martin Savidge. "Woman who returned Russian boy must pay child support -". 

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 [18]
  • 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
  • Pate, SooJin, From Orphans to Adoption: US Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
  • Rothschild, Matthew, Babies for Sale "South Koreans make them, Americans buy them", The Progressive, U.S, January 1988 16 August 1999
  • Savidge, Martin. "Woman Who Returned Russian Boy Must Pay Child Support -" CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.
  • 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, [19]
  • United States. Bureau of Consular Affairs. Department of State. SOUTH KOREA. N.p., Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Oct. 2012. [17]

External links[edit]