Adoption History

Adoptions from South Korea


In 1955 Harry Holt, an Oregon farmer, was so moved by the plight of orphans from the Korean War that he and his wife, Bertha, adopted 8 children from South Korea. The arrival of these children to their new home in Oregon received national press coverage, sparking interest among Americans from all over the country who also wanted to adopt Korean children. In partial response, Harry and Bertha Holt created what has become the largest agency in the U.S. specializing in Korean children - Holt International Children's Services which has placed some 60,000 Korean children into American homes.

During the same period, the South Korean government began formalizing overseas adoption through a special agency under the Ministry of Social Affairs. For the first decade, the majority of children sent overseas were mixed-race children of American (and other United Nations) military fathers and Korean women. (Biracial children in Korea were called "dust of the streets," a term that illustrates the pervasive negative attitudes in South Korea toward these children.) Soon the practice of placing Korean babies for adoption became institutionalized and over the course of several decades following the Korean War, South Korea became the largest supplier of children to developed countries in the world. An estimated 200,000 South Korean children have been sent overseas for adoption (about 150,000 to the U.S. and the remaining 50,000 to Canada, Europe, and Australia.) In Europe, Korean children have been adopted by families in such countries as Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, and Luxembourg.

Prior to the Korean War, adoption was not a common practice in Korea. Cultural values emphasized bloodline and if adoptions did take place, they were done within the same family to preserve the family line. However, during the late 1950s and 1960s, with foreign adoptions becoming the primary social policy for orphaned and abandoned children, many distraught parents from poverty-stricken families who could not feed or educate their children abandoned them with hopes of getting them to a Western country. Most of the children adopted during this period were older.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, industrialization and urbanization brought changing social mores, including increased divorce rates and teen pregnancies. Unlike the period immediately following the Korean War when most adopted children were orphans or had been abandoned, the majority of the children sent for adoption during the 70s and 80s were infants from out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Arrangements for these adoptions typically began in obstetrical clinics where unwed, pregnant, young women (usually poor and working class) were provided pre-and post-natal care. While women were generally not paid for giving up their babies, they were often housed in unwed mothers' homes until the baby's birth and their medical expenses were covered by the adoption agencies. (There are four main adoption agencies in South Korea, all closely regulated by the government: Holt Children's Services, Eastern Child Welfare Society, Social Welfare Society, and Korea Social Service. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare establishes annual quotas for the number of children that will be released for adoption by each agency. The total quota for 1999 was approximately 2,000. (Source: U.S. Department of State).

Meanwhile, in the U.S., legalized abortion, access to reliable birth control methods, greater social acceptance of single parenthood, and other socio-economic factors in the 1970s and 1980s dramatically altered the domestic adoption landscape. The availability of "normal" infants (non-disabled and White) began to decline significantly and the demand from prospective adoptive couples far exceeded the supply of available babies. At the same time, controversies over the adoption of Blackchildren by White parents began to increase. The National Association of Black Social Workers issued a formal position (in the 1970s) opposed to transracial adoption, raising concerns about whether such placements compromised the child's racial and cultural identity and claiming that such adoptions amounted to cultural genocide (see Transracial Adoption Overview). These controversies increasingly led childless couples to look abroad. By this time, legal and administrative arrangements of international adoptions from South Korea had become extremely efficient, reliable, and reportedly free from corruption. These factors, combined with the changes in the domestic adoption market, soon made children from South Korea the most popular alternative to healthy, White American infants.

The year 1988 was a turning point in South Korea's adoption history. The Seoul International Olympics attracted the attention of journalists worldwide about many aspects of Korean culture, and much of thisattention focused on Korea's primary export: its babies. Journalists like Bryant Gumbel of NBC commented that Korea's primary export commodity was its babies, and articles like "Babies for Export" (The New York Times) and "Babies for Sale: South Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them" (The Progressive), embarrassed the South Korean government. North Korea also criticized South Korea's adoption program, pointing out that selling its children to Western countries was the ultimate form of capitalism. As a result, the South Korean government delayed the scheduled departure of adopted children before and during the Olympics. And the number of Korean children adopted by American families began to decrease, from over 6,200 in 1986 to just over 1,700 in 1993.

Following the Olympics, the government set up a long-term mandate to cease international adoption by 1996. However, finding limited success with in-country adoptions, the government began to reconsider its policy and decided in 1994 to continue international adoptions for biracial and disabled children. With the recent economic collapse in 1997, policies have changed once again and foreign adoptions of healthy Korean children are again on the rise.

While international adoptions have long been associated with wars and destruction, in the case of South Korea, the largest number of children were sent overseas after the country had long recovered from war - the 1980s. The peak was in 1985 when South Korea sent 8,837 children overseas in a single year. Critics of the South Korean adoption program point out that because of the government's reliance on international adoptions, South Korea's social welfare programs for families and orphaned or abandoned children remained under-developed. Lack of support for poor and single-parent families, lack of access to programs like free or affordable childcare, a growing preoccupation with population control, and the continuing dependence on international aid organizations that supported orphanages in South Korea, all contributed to the growth of international adoptions well beyond the crisis of the Korean War period. In addition, cultural attitudes and a pervasive stigma toward orphans, adoption, widows, and single and unwed mothers had a deep impact on relinquishing decisions by birth parents.

Copyright © 2000 Deann Borshay Liem & NAATA. This content was originally created in 2000. Visit the original site.