History of Adoption from Korea


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American interest in adopting Korean orphans was sparked by Harry and Bertha Holt, who adopted eight children after the Korean War. The agency they founded, the Holt International Children's Services, has since find U.S. homes for approximately 60,000 Korean children. For three decades, South Korean children constituted the largest number of foreign-born adoptees to enter the United States on an annual basis, a status that changed only in 1991, when Romanian children surpassed Korean children (2,552 Romanian children as compared to 1,817 Korean children).

South Korea has looked to restrict foreign adoption after facing some criticism for its rules governing the practice -- in particular from its neighbor, North Korea -- though this might not be obvious based on the large number of South Korean adoptees abroad. In 1976, South Korea enacted the Five Year Plan for Adoption and Foster Care (1976 to 1981) to encourage domestic adoption and reduce the number of children going overseas. However, many Korean families were still reluctant to adopt children who weren't family due to a traditional emphasis on family bloodlines.

South Korea has struggled since to balance a desire to end international adoption with the ongoing success of the program and the continued reluctance of Korean families to adopt. In the early 1980s, contrary to its announced goal of curbing the practice, it encouraged international agencies to hire Korean social workers who could ease adoptees' transitions abroad; this plan helped achieve a new high of 8,837 international adoptions from South Korea in 1985.

During the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea faced new criticism of its policies, and in 1989 it implemented a plan to reduce international adoptions, eventually limiting adoption to only mixed-race and disabled children.

This goal has not yet been achieved, though the number of international adoptions decreased from 1986 to 2007. In addition, as the South Korean economy has flourished, the government's efforts to encourage domestic adoption have become more fruitful. 2007 marked the first time that domestic adoptions outnumbered international ones -- 1,388 to 1,264 -- although international adoption numbers rose in 2008 and 2009 as a result of financial hardships created by the global economic crisis.

Even with that increase, however, Korea has dropped from longtime largest sender of children to the United States to the fourth largest in 2009, behind China, Ethiopia and Russia.

South Korea has in place a plan to eliminate international adoption by 2012. "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," Kim Dong-won, who oversees adoptions at the Ministry of Health, told The New York Times in 2008.

To encourage domestic adoptions, the South Korean government instituted monthly allowances and increased health benefits for children adopted in country, and it also eased restrictions on potential adoptive parents, allowing single parents and raising the maximum age from 50 years older than the child to 60.

» POV. "Transracial Adoption."
» Freundlich, Madelyn, and Joy Kim Lieberthal. "The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees: Adoptees' Perceptions of International Adoption." Evan B. Donaldson Institute.
» Onishi, Norimitsu. "South Korea aims to end stigma of adoption," The New York Times, 9 October 2008.
» "Korean Adopted Children."
» "Korean War's Secret Legacy Lives on in Children Adopted in U.S.
» "Time to Shake Off Image of 'Child Exporter'." The Korea Times, 10 May 2010.

Requirements to Adopt from Korea

South Korea is not a party to the Hague Convention of 1993, so while other countries have changed their requirements since then, Korea's guidelines for adoption have remained largely unchanged in recent years. In line with its plan to eliminate international adoption by 2012, South Korea has implemented quotas that will reduce international adoptions by 10 percent each year.

In order to adopt from Korea, an American family must first be found eligible by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Currently, a family can expect to wait anywhere from one year for a child with special needs to three to four years for a healthy child. The application process, required for all international adoptions, involves filling out an application, providing documentation about marital status and income, undergoing a home study and providing fingerprinting (paying a fee through USCIS per household member). Adoption fees vary and include agency and social worker fees, legal, administrative counseling, service fees in the US and Korea, immigration applications, and travel to and from Korea.

Korea also has a set of requirements for all prospective parents, including:

  • Parents must have been married at least three years. Single parents are not eligible.
  • Parents must be between 25 and 44 years old, with no more than a 15-year age difference. Exceptions may be made if at least one parent is younger than 45, the couple has previously adopted Korean children or they are willing to adopt an orphan with serious medical issues.
  • Parents must have an income above the U.S. average and sufficient to support a child.
  • Parents may not have responsibility for more than five children, including the child to be adopted.

In addition, the Korean child must meet requirements for adoption as dictated by the South Korean government. Korean orphans usually have a five-month waiting period in Korea before being eligible for adoption abroad; this is to provide an opportunity for a suitable Korean family to be found. Adoptions must be organized through agencies approved by Korea's Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

» Office of Children's Issues, United States Department of State. "Intercountry Adoption: Eligibility to Adopt."
» Office of Children's Issues, United States Department of State. "Intercountry Adoption: South Korea."

Korean Adoptee Identity

In 2009, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit adoption research and policy group based in New York, released a report examining the experiences of Korean adoptees in the United States.

The study, which focused on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, now adults, found that as children, 78 percent of respondents had considered themselves white or had wanted to be white. Sixty percent said that their racial identity had become important by middle school, and 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea as adults to learn more about their culture and to find their birth parents.

Members of this generation of adoptees were involved in some of the first transracial adoptions in the United States, and many reported being teased or discriminated against as children, often by teachers. The majority grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, and only a small minority (13 percent) responded "very often" when asked if they felt welcomed by their own ethnic group. (It is estimated that Korean-born adoptees make up 10 percent of the U.S. citizens who are of Korean ethnicity.)

The approach to assimilating children from other cultures has changed since Americans first began adopting internationally: While once it was believed that parents would do best to immerse a child in American culture and disregard his or her ethnic heritage, today experts advise educating foreign-born children about their origins. Moreover, experts say that socialization to one's culture is not sufficient -- children adopted internationally also need relationships with others from their own ethnic groups and preparation for coping with discrimination.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute also recommends that support for adoptive parents be improved and advises that a child's adoption grows in significance as he or she gets older, becoming especially important in development during young adulthood.

More recently, the South Korean government has worked to establish connections with children who were adopted internationally, making available resources that allow them to maintain closer ties with Korea.

» Freundlich, Madelyn, and Joy Kim Lieberthal. "The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees: Adoptees' Perceptions of International Adoption." Evan B. Donaldson Institute.
» Nixon, Ron. "Adopted From Korea and in Search of Identity." The New York Times, 8 November 2009.