South Korea Struggles to Free Itself From Adoption Stigma

Every year, South Korea welcomes back a few of the nearly 140,000 babies it has sent abroad for adoption since the end of the Korean War.

Returning as adults - and as Swedes, Americans, Germans, or whomever - they encounter a culture overcome with guilt for having sent them away and enthusiastic to educate them about Korea. Some Koreans even urge these foreigners to become Korean - it is, after all, they say, their biological heritage.

But even with this nationalism - and the capacity of a postwar industrialized South Korea to provide its babies with a high standard of living - today's orphans are still sent abroad by the thousands.

The practice continues because Koreans are unwilling to take up the slack. In a global context, biological links bind all Koreans. But in a cultural context, raising someone else's baby - even if Korean - is considered shameful and unacceptable. Only a quarter of South Korea's orphans are adopted domestically.

Over the years, campaigns to abolish overseas adoption have failed. Recently the government launched a plan to cut overseas adoption by 3 to 5 percent a year - modest compared with the 10 percent yearly goal of the 1980s.

But young Koreans, who are more open-minded in many ways, say they are almost as unlikely as their parents were to adopt.

Hoping to sway them, the government offers incentives to families who adopt, including considerable housing, education, and medical subsides. A quota system aims to pressure adoption agencies to encourage domestic adoption.

But few have taken advantage of the subsidies because parents who adopt want to keep their adoptions secret, says Woo Jae Dong, an official at the Health and Welfare Ministry.

In this bloodline-based family order, adopted children have no place. And in society, they are cast adrift. Families that do adopt will go to great lengths to protect their child from discrimination. Some women fake pregnancy before adopting by putting padding under their clothes. The government even allows Koreans to officially register adopted babies as regular newborns to prevent children from learning the truth.

Sometimes parents mistreat adopted children. In one case, a couple forced their adopted son to eat meals separately. Relatives shunned him at family gatherings, and eventually, his parents arranged for him to marry a disabled person. In Korea, "like marries like," says Molly Holt, whose father founded Holt Children's Services, Korea's largest adoption agency.

Because Koreans don't believe one can love a stranger's child as one's own, they often suspect ulterior motives are behind overseas adoptions. News reports have accused adoption agencies of selling babies for profit and speculated that foreigners adopt babies to make servants of them. A movie called "American Dream" even told the fictitious story of a child who was adopted to remove his organs for transplants.

This hasn't been enough to boost domestic adoption yet. But Mr. Woo says that although the government records don't show such a trend, he's optimistic. "People in their 30s and 40s are [still ashamed] of it, but people in their 20s think it's OK to adopt. Domestic adoption will increase year by year."

But it will be "very, very gradual," says Lee Jong Eun, a graduate student at Seoul National University. Most Koreans, he says, adopt because they're sterile and want to escape the stigma and loneliness of childlessness. It remains the choice of last resort.

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