Can Korea confront its legacy of exporting children?

Adoption is a matter of migration; both sending and receiving countries are accountable.

Editor’s note

This article is the eighth in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children’s right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries’ moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.

By Lee Kyung-eun

My research focuses on the movement of children across borders, specifically migration matters related to intercountry adoption laws and policies. During my exploration of these issues, a question that has always lingered in the depths of my mind is whether Korea can ever reckon with its history of sending over 200,000 children overseas for adoption and confront its legacy of children’s rights violations.

Adoption’s intrinsic link with child welfare has made discussions about human rights abuses a heated matter. The Korean government has justified its use of intercountry adoption as a benevolent act despite evidence of wide-scale rights abuses. It continues to argue that sending children overseas was a response to a lack of domestic child welfare support — something it claims was beyond its control — and under such circumstances, it shouldn’t be held accountable. However, an examination of the migration policies and laws tells otherwise.

In adoption, migration measures have been seen as more of a bureaucratic legal hurdle to overcome, but these are not haphazardly assembled policies. On the contrary, countries strictly control who can enter, leave and reside within their borders. Consequently, when migration measures are intentionally relaxed to facilitate the sending and receiving of children at the cost of those children’s human rights, then that is a deliberate act of government. While sending countries often shoulder much blame for adoption abuses, a review of migration laws and policies reveals that receiving countries also bear responsibility for rights abuses.

Receiving countries have claimed that they cannot be responsible for the negligent practices of sending countries. They support this assertion by saying they rely on sending countries’ public authorities to ensure ethical adoption practices. But this logic does not address why receiving countries accept wide disparities between the child protection systems of sending countries and their own.

In receiving countries, child protection systems function as an essential public service, and these states provide this as part of their duty to protect the rights of their citizens. In other words, instead of demanding a sending country reform their child protection systems, so the children can remain in their country of origin, receiving countries engage in what Samford Law School Professor David Smolin describes as “slash-and-burn adoption.”

This vicious cycle involves a large number of adoption-related agencies being established in sending countries, which usually have populations living in poverty, high degrees of child trafficking, and poor government oversight and capacity. The competition between receiving countries to “procure” children leads to a rapid rise in intercountry adoptions at the cost of highly abusive practices, such as obtaining children through fraud and corruption. Eventually, wide-scale abuses become an issue in the sending countries, resulting in an end of or a slowdown to intercountry adoptions from those countries. At this point, receiving countries move on to new countries to resume the cycle. Put simply, receiving countries play a willful role in intercountry adoption abuses, and this intent is apparent in their immigration policies when they adopt children despite those children’s rights having been violated during the adoption process.

In the left photo, the section on the Hague Adoption Convention where Korea was expected to sign remains unsigned. In the right photo, the section is filled in with the autograph of then-Health Minister Chin Young in 2013. Courtesy of Lee Kyung-eun

Adoption linked to society’s child protection system

In adoption studies, the abuse of adoptees has been given a higher degree of attention than the systematic impact “slash-and-burn adoption” has on the sending countries. Under slash-and-burn practices, the sending countries’ systems and processes erected to promote and facilitate the export of children hamper the development of other public services, such as birth registration, family and community support, and alternative care, just to name a few. In many cases, the effects have been such that sending countries lose the opportunity to develop comprehensive child protection systems, and as a result, their child services continue to suffer problems to this day.

To illustrate what I mean by these lingering problems, I provide three examples of Korea’s struggle to reckon with its legacy in the 21st century. First, Korea has yet to ratify the Hague Adoption Convention. This legal instrument, although far from a panacea to address abusive adoption practices, is meant to establish minimum global standards to reduce child trafficking. With 100 state parties since its drafting in 1993, South Korea only signed the convention in 2013 with a promise to ratify it within five years. Although 10 years have passed, Korea has yet to reform its domestic practices for ratification, which reveals the lack of protection provided to children in this country.

Second, a list of statistics on major sending countries published by International Social Services, a Geneva-based children’s rights NGO, in 2020 shows that South Korea was the third major sending country. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world came to a standstill, and all other sending countries’ intercountry adoptions declined, South Korea was the only country to increase the number of children it sent overseas.

Third, after authorities discovered thousands of unregistered children due to a broken birth registration system, the National Assembly responded, but rather than attempting to address the problems, it passed a special act to allow “anonymous births.” Human Rights Watch condemned this law. Not only does it violate children’s rights, it does nothing to address discrimination against unmarried pregnant women. Instead, it serves as another demonstration of the government’s unwillingness to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens and another attempt to evade its responsibilities.

If Korea wants to confront its legacy, it must face the truth by launching an official comprehensive investigation. A genuine undertaking of such an endeavor can only be done when guided by the principles of justice and rectification. Just as slashing and burning may allow for cultivating new crops when the soil is properly prepared, so too may Korea heal its social landscape when it commits to excavating the truth from the lies it has told itself for over half a century.

Lee Kyung-eun ( is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country,” and the English book, “The Global Orphan Adoption System; South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development.”

The original article may be found at The Korea Times

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