This article is the 18th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity. ― ED.
By Lee Kyung-eun
I’m often asked by Western diplomats, “I know Korea had a problem with that issue in the past but is it still relevant these days?” Korean civil society and human rights groups have demonstrated a similar depth of understanding, “Wasn’t that the legacy of the military dictatorship? With democratization, hasn’t that already changed?” Rather than addressing the fundamental flaws and injustices of the legal system and legislation, these problems have been swept under the rug to be forgotten or ignored.
Korea’s political landscape has changed since 1992 and now resembles a “democratic” presidential system. This progress has been complemented by economic growth that has elevated the level of social and cultural development of the country. Unlike in many other countries, a 1987 revision of the Constitution banned consecutive or multiple executive terms, limiting the president to a single five-year term. Critics have expressed frustration over the short term-limits that encourage presidents to prioritize short-term gains to secure their legacies. However, considering the times in which the revision was passed, the primary aim of the term limit was to prevent the re-emergence of prolonged dictatorial rule, which remained fresh in the minds of the people.
The democratization of Korea did not mark the end of tyranny but rather ushered in a new stage of struggle for human rights. We only need to look at world history to see that democratization does not guarantee an actual “democracy.” Moreover, “democracy” does not automatically equate to the protection of human rights.
After the series of regimes led by military leaders ended in 1992, Korea has had six civilian presidents, and among them, former President Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2002) may be the most well remembered by adoptees. Over the years, he has come to symbolize and embody the democratic movement to such an extent that he’s been compared to Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Similar to Mandela, throughout the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, Kim suffered torture, imprisonment and a death sentence. Despite enduring such oppression, he survived to oversee the democratization of the country in his 70s and led efforts towards peace with North Korea, which eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
While the death penalty remains legal in the country, Korea maintains an “abolitionist in practice” position, which can be traced to Kim. Throughout his administration, he never approved an execution, and his successors have maintained this tradition to this day. Some presidential candidates have campaigned on resuming executions, and opinion polls reveal that a majority of Koreans approve of the death penalty. However, despite sixty inmates currently sitting on death row, their sentences have never been carried out.
This lack of death penalty enforcement illustrates how Korean society tends to respond to human rights issues. Although laws and the official system remain unchanged, Korea pretends to abide by those universal norms endorsed by the U.N. However, this stance does not represent a genuine gesture to honor life but rather reflects the means by which politicians and policymakers hide behind opinion polls and evade what should be their responsibility, to initiate dramatic reforms. Ironically, such a strategy seems implicitly endorsed by the international community, which has conveniently overlooked Korea’s legal death penalty provisions. Instead of condemning the country, like other countries that impose the death penalty, the global community seems to overlook Korea’s lack of legislative reforms in this area.
We must bear this paradoxical situation in mind when understanding Kim’s action toward transnational adoption. While this story has never been officially recorded, I heard from a former Korean ambassador to a certain European country that Kim had visited that country before becoming president. During a meeting in which he gave a speech, an adoptee stood up and asked why Korea sent away their children like commodities. Kim began to cry with the young adoptee and immediately apologized, saying that he hopes that the adoptee thrives despite what Korea had done to this person and all other adoptees.
Once Kim became president, he invited a group of Korean adoptees to the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, to issue an official apology, and promised that the government would provide support for birth families and birth family search programs. Although he pledged many policy reforms, the actual implementation of those promises fell to the same government bodies and private agencies that had a history of maintaining the practice of exporting children. In the end, adoption remained a private decision without public intervention or child protection measures. The policy tools his administration provided for reform were little different than those exploited by the previous authoritarian governments, in which they aimed to control the number of child exports. In other words, while the policies’ titles changed, the reality remained the same.
Consequently, from 1990 to 2010, the number of children sent abroad hovered first in the 2000s, and then the 1000s, annually. Throughout those two decades, basic national systems and measures for child protection, such as mandatory universal birth registration, intervention and limitations over parental rights and court-appointed guardianship, failed to develop properly. Instead, private adoption agencies continued to expand, which gave them greater leverage in dealing with the government.
Perhaps more significantly, along with the president’s policy, promoting the stories of so-called “successful” adoptees obscured the systematic injustices and harm done to the children through the process of intercountry adoption. Whether Kim had good intentions and sympathy toward adoptees is not in question. However, human rights issues are not matters of charity, and such issues demand a rights-based approach. As it has been said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but protecting people’s human rights requires fundamental reforms in the laws, policies and systems of a country. Mere charity and benevolent rhetoric without any commitment to confront uncomfortable truths only disguise human rights violations and delay the achievement of justice.
Lee Kyung-eun (Ph.D. in law) is the director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”