Modernization means stricter International Adoption Laws in South Korea

South Korean baby in orphanage

For years, South Korea has been a central contributor of adopted children for families seeking to grow and provide a loving home them. But as a result of strong domestic criticism, South Korea’s current adoption regime is going to be subject to a massive overhaul, as reported to the world by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, a writer for Foreign Policy in Focus in this recent article .

Kim Dong-won, the overseer of adoption for South Korea’s Ministry of Health, told the world in a New York Times interview in 2008 that South Korea has become a fully modernized country, and that its own adoption policies lagged behind its economic development. It was his belief that “South Korea is the world’s 12th largest economy and is now almost an advanced country, so we would like to rid ourselves of the international stigma or disgrace of being a baby-exporting country…It’s embarrassing.”

The proposed South Korean law will place much stricter requirements on both ends of the adoption. Adoptive parents will have to pass a more stringent screening process such as criminal background checks, and the birth parents of the child to be placed for adoption (mostly unwed single mothers) will be further deterred from signing illegal consent papers for children still in the womb. The law would also add court participation in the adoption proceedings, and more formal documentation of the process as a whole. It should also be noted that this bill is the direct result of lobbying by groups such as Adoptee Solidarity Korea, and Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association.

While the intentions of this proposed law are clear, and the need for accountability is great, there has already been a steady decline in the number of international adoptions of South Korean children. The “number of children adopted abroad was 1,888 in 2006, but it nose-dived to 1,264 in 2007, 1,250 in 2008 and 1,125 in 2009, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs” whose numbers are cited in this article.

The same piece indicates, though, that while international adoptions from Korea have decreased, adoptions of Korean children by Korean parents have not been able to make up for the losses from international adoptions, marking only  1,332 in 2006, 1,388 in 2007, 1,306 in 2008 and 1,314 in 2009. If this trend continues, it is fairly clear that there will continue to be a rise in orphan children forced into the Korean welfare system as a result of the tightening international adoption restrictions. An additional complication is that South Korean society stigmatizes children who end up in the welfare system, and once those children reach the age of 18, their employment opportunities are severely limited as stated in this article.

On its face, it’s very difficult to argue against a system with more accountability. The proposed legislation very obviously adds layers of security to what used to be a virtually unregulated process of international child adoption. As an adopted South Korean child, I find myself torn as to the findings and statements made in the preceding articles. On the one hand, I strongly support South Korea’s efforts to formalize its international adoption process and more strictly regulate it. One would be climbing a steep and slippery slope in arguing that requiring criminal background checks, and not enforcing illegal adoption contracts, are not beneficial to any country. But on the other hand, this law would add significant obstacles into the paths of parents who wish to adopt a South Korean child. Had this law been in place twenty five years ago, it is questionable if I would even be here, in this country, writing this.

One thought on “Modernization means stricter International Adoption Laws in South Korea

  1. I just read this article and wanted to respond. Is it safe to assume Diane Abbey wrote this article? I am a Korean adoptee as well and am lucky enough to be traveling there in a week or so. Thank you for writing this piece. I have noticed when I travel there that there are very mixed reactions to adoption – I frequently have Koreans yell at me and ask why have I not learned my native tongue. Something that is a goal for me but has just not transpired yet.
    I just felt compelled to say thank you for writing this article. I am gathering up donations to take to the orphans over in Seoul and came across your letter. Best of luck to you!

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