By Lee Kyung-eun
If, as the dominant narrative claims, transnational adoption is about rescuing war orphans, then the surge in inter-country adoption in the 1960s unravels such assertions. So let us drop the pretext of war orphans as an impetus. What about “economic” or “social” orphans? Then we must ask how poor is poor enough to warrant casting children from their own country on a massive scale with such persistence.
As this series explored earlier, the immigration laws of the receiving countries spurred the trend of adopting foreign babies by employing an array of weak regulations that facilitated inter-country adoptions. Concurrently, Korea (later followed by other sending countries) responded by initiating corresponding measures to move children abroad.
The “pulling” effect from the receiving countries’ legislation, coupled with the favorable “pushing” effect from Korea’s laws and inter-country adoption system, explains the reason for the sharp increase in the graph.
Moreover, relevant global statistics and evidence reveal that transnational adoption stemmed from deliberate policy decisions of political leaders rather than from the consequences of external factors. This phenomenon is evident in the development of the Korean transnational adoption program that originated in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53).
Although the government barely functioned enough to perform even the most basic tasks, it still managed to institute a program that targeted mixed-race children to send abroad for adoption. It began by issuing a presidential emergency order to permit transnational adoption, then established a government affiliated agency specifically dedicated to fulfilling the aims of this order.
Mixed-race children fathered by foreign soldiers of the allied forces were tracked down, and their families solicited to place the children for overseas adoption. Unlike what many may assume, the majority of these children were living with their families not residing in orphanages. From 1955 to 1966, the number of children sent away reached 5,000, which attests to the priority this order occupied on the country’s policy agenda.
The period of 1961-1979 served as a particularly crucial period for the systemization and entrenchment of inter-country adoption in Korea. During these two decades, the government enacted a legal framework exclusive to such adoptions, instituted specialized agencies to facilitate and perform adoptions, and devised a revenue scheme. It was not coincidental that the government took these measures after Korea’s first military coup d’etat in 1961.
In 1961, General Park Chung-hee led a successful coup and founded a provisional body called the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, which he led as the chairman. The council wielded overarching power over the legislative, administrative and judicial bodies of Korea. While unconstitutional and autocratic, it enacted many of the fundamental laws that remain to this day. Until that point, most of the modern legal system remained underdeveloped and fragmented under Korea’s first government, which began in 1948.
This council passed many basic laws without any parliamentary discussions or democratic procedures. The Orphan Adoption Special Procedure Act is a notable example. The Act derives neither from Korea’s traditional laws nor from any other country’s legislation. Instead, it was a product designed with primary economic aims.
This intention is evident with the government mentioning that “sending orphans overseas is killing two birds with one stone since it brings 130 dollars per person [which was also the per capita income of that time] and saves welfare costs on the housing of orphans at the same time” (1965 National Assembly minutes). In other words, Korea’s inter-country adoption policy had a dual purpose ― to simultaneously generate revenue while relieving the national budget of child welfare expenses.
With these aims in mind, the government introduced the necessary statutes and infrastructure to systematize the placement of children for overseas adoption. It authorized four agencies to carry out these tasks. Each of them signed deals with partner agencies in the receiving countries. This configuration set a clear division of labor with the agencies in the receiving countries overseeing duties related to prospective adoptive parents while the agencies in Korea managed those tasks related to adoptable babies.
To ensure they had sufficient capacity, the Korean agencies secured control of a wide variety of childcare options, including orphanages, foster homes, and in-house facilities. Ironically, these arrangements would prove to be a major obstacle for the Korean government when it attempted to redirect its policy direction decades later.
The provision of alternative forms of care for newborn babies has historically been concentrated under the control of the adoption agencies. Thus, the country never developed any substantial policies or programs to protect its own children by competent authorities. Consequently, the basic infrastructure of protecting and caring for babies remains in the hands of private bodies.
Revenue scheme of private adoption agencies
Though the adoption agencies proclaim themselves as child welfare organizations, the business of inter-country adoption is not connected to the public welfare system. Instead, it relies solely on the fees received from foreign adoptive parents.
From the very beginning, this scheme was guaranteed by the laws and regulations on orphan adoption. To this day, it remains to be seen whether any competent authority of the Korean government has ever undertaken a comprehensive audit into the finances of the inter-country adoption business of any of the agencies.
Essentially, the 1960s marks the dawn of the worldwide spread of global orphan adoption. During this early era, eleven countries (the U.S., France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and Italy) received nearly 60,000 Korean children. While the number of sending countries was less than twenty, Korea constituted 50 percent to 70 percent of the total number of transnational adoptions.
Returning to the original question posed in this article, what is the real reason for the current situation? The lack of capacity or the resistance to take responsibility? I would suggest both. These two factors reinforced each other as history developed, and as we shall see, this series will continue to examine other historical events to learn lessons and devise better solutions for the future.
Lee Kyung-eun (Ph.D in law) is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”