by Brenna Kyeong McHugh adopted from Sth Korea to the USA
Below is the documented data and information from The Ministry of Health and Welfare in Korea.
It is inaccurate and incomplete as it states that only 156,242 infants, children and adolescents were adopted from 1953 to 2004. The actual total number of adoptees from Korea since the 1950s is estimated to be 220,000 or more.
There are an estimated 15,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota alone, including myself. The numbers are appalling. 8,680 children were adopted in 1986, myself included. Read that number again: EIGHT THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED EIGHTY. This is just the number that is documented; it is most likely much higher. 8,680 children lost their families, names, identities, language, and culture. 8,680 families were forever altered and destroyed. 8,680 of us endured irreversible trauma that we continue to work and process through as adults, granted, those of us who did not lose our lives to suicide, abuse, addiction, and other circumstances.
According to the data in the second chart, the leading reason that was documented for adoptions was listed as Abandonment. The second documented reason was Unwed Mothers. They only listed the number of male children who were adopted but not the number of female children, which we can all assume is much, much greater.
These numbers for every year since the beginning of international adoption from Korea are astronomical. The data itself indicates the systemic issues that feed the adoption industry, making it the beast it is today, including racism, White supremacy, saviorism, capitalism, ableism, poverty, socioeconomic issues, politics, etc.
Throughout my journey as an adopted person, I have been told different accounts about the first part of my life. I was first told that my name Lee Okkyeong (pronounced Yi Oak Young), was given to me by my family. Later, I was told that it was given to me when I was being processed at Eastern Social Welfare Society, the adoption agency. I was also told my date of birth was an estimate. I was initially told my mother was single and unwed and that my father was basically a dead beat who left my mother before knowing she was pregnant with me and that he couldn’t hold down a job. When I was 24 years old, I was told by the adoption agency that my mother and father had actually been married.
The beginning of my life is full of contradictions. I still don’t know my truths and I’m going to continue to assume that I never will. Being adopted and trying to piece my past together has proven to me time and time again that people in power and the system are not to be at all trusted, and are not designed or created for the us – the marginalized, the poor, and those who seek change and truth.
The adoption industry will lie, fabricate, use, exploit and destroy families in order to make profit. The adoption industry does not care about children; it only cares about money and having control and power. I realise just how unaware I was of the inequities and inequalities in adoption when I was little and how they affected me even though I couldn’t fully understand or name them.
Korean adoptees are more than these numbers. We are more than this data, and these documented statistics. We are human beings. We have histories and families. We are more than our losses, pain, and trauma. We deserve our truths. The more we adoptees share our narratives and return to Korea to search and fight for our truths and families, the more government and adoption agencies will not have any choice but to acknowledge us and what they did to us – their children.
Documentary Film by Sun Hee Engelstoft (Korean adoptee to Denmark).
What an emotional and powerful documentary! Very much aligned with the research I read and wrote a review for about the birth mothers of South Korea in 2016. I shed tears through many parts of this film because Sun Hee manages to ask and answer the two most prevalent questions we adoptees have of our mothers: “How could you have given me up?” and “Why?” This is Sun Hee’s journey to understand her mothers decision and situation.
For those not adopted, if you want to get a glimpse into the grief we adoptees carry, this film will do that. It accurately portrays what sits in the deepest parts of our soul (often buried and unknown for many years) and shared in the film. As Sun Hee learned and portrays, this grief and sadness is what binds us to our mothers.
It was heartbreaking to watch. I felt this could so easily be mine and my mother’s journey. I know now why my grief is so deep — because I carry her grief too. No doubt she held it within herself while I was in utero. It wired me. And I remembered it when watching this. I’m sure my mother would have been as powerless as these women — living in situations where there is no support, no empowerment, no voice, no real choice. Not for her, and often not for him either – our fathers, often unspoken about, invisible. He, she, us adoptees — we are all just pawns of circumstance and choices made by others.
This is what adoption is all about but rarely gets talked about. I doubt there would be any adoptee who could watch this film and not be emotionally affected.
What struck me is the entrenched thinking of the grandparents. It was so eye opening to see the various scenarios. Only one out of all those covered, would keep the baby BUT only on their terms and at a price I believe is just as emotionally high as demanding she send her baby away via an agency like Holt. I personally find Asian culture such a contradiction – supposedly they value family first and foremost, but I just can’t fathom how they can send away their grandchild? The individuals at the centre of these situations – mother and baby – are treated like they don’t matter. But watching this film, I realise it’s not family that’s valued at all – it’s all about how everything appears on the surface, saving face, reputation. South Korean culture, like others around the world and how they deal with single motherhood, puts reputation ahead of our souls. Its painful and confronting to watch it unfold so clearly.
I love how Sun Hee weaves her own search and struggles into this honest look at the adoption industry as a whole. This film highlights the overwhelming lack of support, understanding and infrastructure. If only these young mothers could rebel and survive on their own without their families! I can’t wait for South Korea to evolve out from under the patriarchal structures that allow intercountry adoption to continue.
I have no doubt these mothers go on to suffer endlessly with their mental health and depression! The impact on their life is forever. It’s a fantasy of their parents to think the daughter will go on with her life as if nothing happened. The lives of adoptees demonstrate that we often live a lifetime of inner pain, some of us manage to mask it, others not so well. Our mothers are no different.
What would be interesting is to continue following these mothers and babies. How do their lives turn out? Allow the rest of the life journey, the impacts of relinquishment, to become as visible as this beginning, so beautifully captured by Sun Hee. When I speak with mothers who relinquished, as with many adoptees, the grief never ends. Even if we reunite it can’t make up for the life we never had together.
Several comparisons have looked at social climate and economic factors to understand the motivations for why the South Korean government continues to export its children via intercountry adoption. Some individuals claim it’s due to impoverished conditions after the Korean War but I find this to be misleading. America has a long tradition of sounding a rallying cry after a great disaster such as the collapse of an economy, famine or war. Modern intercountry adoption began from South Korea and has remained popular over time. Other nations have become popular sending countries in recent years, for example China. However, South Korea still reigns as having the highest number of children sent away to a foreign country via intercountry adoption.
Korean War the Rallying Cry but Not a Major Contributor
The graph above shows the number of adoptions that occurred by year. The rally cry for South Korean adoptions may have started with the aftermath of the Korean War and for 17 years, the children did trickle into the America. The gap between the Korean War and the start of the first wave of Korean Adoptions that occurred in the 1970s was nearly a full generation after the Korean War. Therefore, there must be another driver that motivated South Korea to export its children.
If the safeguarding of the children after the War was an important driver to aid South Korean children, then one would expect to see the number of adoptions rising after the War. However, the increase in adoptions did not occur until sixteen to eighteen years after the War had ended. One argument often used has to do with the poor economy. However, the two peak periods with the largest number of children sold off via intercountry adoption occurred during the largest economic boom for Korea. Therefore, other reasons must exist that motivated South Korea to sell of its most precious asset, its children.
This essay will investigate the underlying motivation in depth for why South Korea has sent out so many children via intercountry adoption. I will draw from both my professional financial background and as a person who has lived this exporting experience.
American Adoption Trend or Preference?
The bulk of children adopted to America came from Asia and Russia and former Soviet-controlled countries. Preferential selection based on race has been cited numerous times to be the main reason for this disparity amongst the Caucasian community who adopts the majority of children into America. The article Discouraging Racial Preferences in Adoption by Solangel Maldonado summarized this context well:
“Tracing the history of transracial adoption in the United States, this article argues that one reason why Americans go abroad to adopt is race. The racial hierarchy in the adoption market places white children at the top, African American children at the bottom, and children of other races in between, thereby rendering Asian or Latin American children more desirable to adoptive parents than African American children.”
If Americans were really concerned for children involved in conflicts, then there are huge gaps in adoption trends. One would assume children from the massacres of Rwanda, Darfur and other Wars and disasters would be reflected in adoption statistics but America has a preference to adopt children that are from light-skinned countries. Ethiopia is located in northern Africa and Ethiopia has some of the lighter shades of skin color in Africa. The culture was influenced by Judaic influences as well as the middle east. The reality is Americans do have a preference, they want as many light skinned babies as possible.
In the past, I have been asked to talk about the business side of adoption. The following information is initially from an interview I did with Kevin Vollmers for an interview on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I found a great explanation about supply and demand and how it correlates to business, to include the adoption industry.
“Supply and demand are perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy. Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship. Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good a producer is willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”
A focus on factors that influence the supply side of the equation of adoptions from South Korea was highlighted and shows how changes in prices and the use of subsidies have made adoption a very lucrative business.
Demand Side within America for Intercountry Adoption
Some individuals are very ignorant about the large demand for children in America. For the most part, prospective parents are looking to adopt infants to allow them to experience parenting. I was surprised by the number of couples incapable of conceiving and although technology is advancing to assist conception, the barriers to use these technologies are at high costs and the toll it places on the woman’s body as compared to the trade-offs of not conceiving.
The latest information from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) estimates the following:
“About 6% of married women aged 15 to 44 years in America are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertility). Also, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 years in America have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status (impaired fecundity)”.
National Survey of Family Growth stated that 7.5% of all sexually experienced men reported receiving help with having a child at some time during their lifetime. This equates to 3.3 – 4.7 million men in America. Of the men who sought help, 18.1% were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. This data points out that there could be as high as 6.7 – 10.8 couples that will have problems in conceiving children and are likely candidates for adoption. This isn’t to say that infertile couples are the only ones wanting to adopt. There is evidence that families without fertility issues and families with biological children have the desire to adopt too.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Council For Adoption and their testimony before Congress on foster and adoptive parent recruitment reform; their polling concluded the following:
25% seriously consider becoming a foster parent/ or adopt;
63% believe religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt;
76% support hiring more case workers, even if cost millions of dollars.
Besides the desire to raise a family by infertile couples, the adoption industry has been heavily influenced by the evangelical movement in America that spans nearly a decade. During this time, large established families without infertility issues have adopted in high numbers. The evangelical adoption movement also fought to lobby in Congress to keep the adoption tax credit and won in 2017 to extend the bill to support growing evangelical families.
It’s extremely hard to determine how large the demand side of adoption is, it’s true that not all infertile couples will look to adoption as part of their basket of choices and furthermore, there are large segmented groups like the evangelicals that are very pro-adoption and that too is also hard to determine but the demand side potential could be easily be in the double digit millions.
Demand Side within South Korea
South Korea has little-to-no demand for adoption within its own borders. It’s estimated that South Korea takes in around 4% of their unwanted children. Despite selling off 200,000 children, it has nearly a ten-fold increase that remains within their state-run orphanages in the past six decades. It’s estimated that more than 2 million children have been brought up by the state in South Korea. For the most part, Koreans adhere to Confucian principals and conform to staying within their own bloodlines. Therefore, the demand side in Korea is near non-existant. To understand the cultural differences, The Economist ran an article entitled “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea“ and stated:
“Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month-old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons”.
Supply Side in America for Domestic Adoption
The Department of Health and Human Services produces a report every year about the number of children who are in foster care or in need of a home. Adoptionnetwork.com provides a plethora of adoption statistics to give an idea of how large the supply is within America. The site gave the following examples:
428,000 children are in foster care in the United States;
135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year;
In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in the foster care system;
2% of Americans have actually adopted, more than 1/3 have considered it;
Around 7 million Americans are adopted;
State and federal expenditures for foster care administrative costs (placing and monitoring children in foster care) totaled $4.3 billion
In America the figures show the vast majority of children are not adopted and the system is heavily subsidized by Federal and States funds that has turned into a multi-billion dollar business.
Supply Side in South Korean for any Adoptions
The exact number of children that are available for adoption each year in South Korea is unknown and has been artificially inflated due to laws and incentives that encourage abandonment. The math doesn’t lie, its estimated that 4.2% of the 51.5 Million Koreans were either raised in state ran institutions or sent off for adoption. The real issues are glossed over when emotions are used over facts. The main reason why South Korean mother’s give away their children is because there are no social welfare programs nor civil rights that support single parenting in South Korea. A single parent receives on average 70,000 won (US$84) per child a month compared to the 1.1 million won that is spent for each child in an orphanage and this disparity helps push desperate mothers to relinquish their children.
If the support went to the mother instead of the institutions, the supply side in Korea would dry up overnight.
Despite these perverse laws, the number of children in welfare centers that house orphans has dropped considerably. In 2015, the number of children taken care of by the State declined to 12,821 from 17,517 in 2006, i.e., a 26.8% drop. Many organizations try to point to the fact that South Korea has shipped 200,000 children to other countries as an indicator of a large supply of children available for adoption but does anyone show the research for this? No because in doing so, we would understand there is not a large supply side in South Korea.
Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers and he stated in a Huffington Post article in 2015:
“Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — “abandoned” Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.”
He further explains why there isn’t a supply curve in South Korea by stating:
“Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different from mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.”
Unscrupulous Practices Decrease Input Costs
Adoption agency costs are much lower to operate in poorer developing nations. Operating costs could be much lower – a few thousand dollars to cover a year supply of expenses for lodging, food and incidentals. During the height of the baby sales in South Korea there was a large disparity in GDP per capita between America and South Korea. WIth the lower operating costs in Korea during this time period, this allowed the South Korean government to make more profit. The cost could be dramatically less if unscrupulous practices that were market driven to bring in children for foreign adoption. Other benefits to the adoption agency and the adopters include the lack of resources for poor families to look for their child or petition the legal system if the parents change their mind.
Adoption Incentives Drive Profits Upwards
The American tax incentive plays a negative roll in driving up costs in adoption. Several economists correlate the rise of College tuition with the increase of Federal grants and subsidies. This means for every dollar a student received in grants and free money – the university had increased the tuition costs and the amount of debt the same for the student. The government provided funds did not offset costs for the student. Instead, what the system did was increase the total cost of tuition. No matter how much this can be pointed out by economists and smart legislators – people will demand to get more of their schooling funded through grants and government subsidies instead of asking for ways to lower tuition costs.
The same problem holds true for those who want to adopt. Funding is available via tax write-offs, loans, and grants to prospective parents, incentivizing them to adopt.
There is no clear evidence that the input costs are being driven up or that parents are being matched with better children due to more extensive search or process. Specific adoption expenses such as adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses are used as a tax credit. Remember a tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in federal tax and not a reduction of taxable income. Furthermore, the adoption tax credit allows US$13,460 worth of tax credit for the adopted child. So, one must ask, where does this money go? Adoption agencies respond saying the increases in costs are caused by tougher regulations, longer holding times and increases in input costs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).
An assessment was made at the financials of Holt International to determine where the funds were being distributed throughout the system.
Holt International, as well as numerous adoption advocacy sites, have used the figure of US$40,000 to be the average cost a prospective family spends on each adoption. Using this for 2010 on the number of children processed for adoption into America, the total amount of revenue earned was US$29,560,000. Subtracting the adoption fees Holt International charges to each family, the total liabilities unrecorded is US$18,756,000 i.e., 63% of the funding is unaccounted for.
A Washington Post article states that the biggest cost outside agency costs (which are separate) is legal fees that range from US$6,000 to $8,000. Much of what Holt and other adoption agencies publish is vague and the financial records change from year to year, making it hard to determine where the funds are spent and preventing transparency. In 2010, how did Holt earn an additional US$14 million worth of revenue when half the revenues came from adoption fees?
Adopt for All Children is another American adoption agency and they list a greater breakdown of their costs. They co-operate with the Eastern Social Welfare Society to place children from South Korea to America.
Smoking Gun Another adoption agency called New Beginnings that deals with South Korean Adoptions gives some insight of the greater detail of their South Korean Program Fees:
“Korean Program Fee Program Coordination $6,500 for program sponsorship and development; working with ESWS to identify a child and arranging for an adoption; receiving a referral of a child that includes the Child’s Background Study; securing the child’s legal information to present to USCIS for immigration approval; filing the documents in Korea for court approval and emigration permission, establishing the itineraries while the family is abroad for the adoption hearing, the placement of the child and the child’s travel visa. ($2,500 due at home study approval; $1,500 due at acceptance; and $2,500 due at submission of Emigration Permission).” Foreign Agency Fee and “Donation” $19,500 For child care expenses prior to the adoption, identifying a child available for adoption, securing the necessary terminate parental rights, providing the background study on the child, arranging for the finalization of the adoption and the immigration of the child (due at acceptance). Total Korean Program Fees $26,000“
The document provided by New Beginnings show that a large portion of the adoption costs gets returned back to the South Korea Government. I dislike the term that these agency use. They call it donations and that means the funds are unaccounted for. South Korean agencies need to be transparent on the funds they received and how the funding is spent. Regardless, this is the amount of funding that could have contributed to Korea’s economy: to pay for salaries to process documents, cost of care for the children and other expenses. I will refer to these numbers throught the study as the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation.
Holt Case Example It is almost impossible to obtain any real assessments from Holt’s online financial statements. Most years, Holt will publish a total number of children adopted into America vs. splitting the numbers between adoptions made from the parent country and domestic adoptions. Due to limited data I have to make some assumptions. I will assume the majority of the costs will be transferred to the American families and that the majority of costs would be for foreign born children i.e., the domestic adoptions should be cheaper to process.
In 2007, Holt listed the domestic and international adoptions to America separately and if we peel back the onion, the overall costs for the international adoptions would increase if we sliced the domestic adoptions out of the equation. I used the 2007 figures to come up with the new cost: 59 domestic and 561 foreign adoptions and this implies approximately 10% of all Holt adoptions, for an average year, are domestic.
The Federal Adoption Tax Credit was enacted in 1997. I do not have enough data to determine if the law increased these costs. I would need to look at financial statements going back to the early ’90s to make an accurate assessment but it doesn’t mean this data is totally useless either. First, the adoption fee per international child is close to what other sources are reporting. The increase in Total operating Revenue suggests the costs are passed down to the potential parents, the number of adoptions is not increasing dramatically and the annual operating funds have increased from year to year, on a whole. This may be due to inflation of 2-3%.
The annual reports also list the areas the adoption agencies are actively working. We can see numerous trends. First, they are constantly going to economically depressed areas to obtain these children. We see where they are focusing their attention and possible patterns of abuse. For instance, in recent years adoption agencies have been prohibited from doing business in Russia and Guatemala due to perceived or real abuses within the adoption process. Overall, one can assume that the policy is working well in encouraging individuals to adopt. However, other sources point out that the program is supporting foreign adoptions and not helping the domestic foster care system.
A recent Child Trends research brief uses 1999–2005 data from the US Treasury Department to determine who most benefits from the credit. In his report summary, author Rob Geen reveals that:
The vast majority of adoption tax credit recipients completed private or foreign adoptions rather than adoptions from foster care.
The tax credit disproportionately supports higher-income families.
The tax credit primarily supports the adoption of younger children.
Nearly all foreign adoptions were supported by the … tax credit but only one in four foster care adoptions were.
Estimated Size of the Adoption Industry
The adoption process is no different to other programs where federal assistance increases the wealth of those who run them. Together with increasing demand for international adoptions, the federal assistance acts to inflate costs and enables those who run the programs to become wealthier.
I went to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get the average number of intercountry adoptions per year. The site has a database that lists the total number adoptions as 271,833 from 1999-2017. I took the average year to be around 15,101 adoptions a year and multiplied it by Adoption.com’s average intercountry adoption cost of US$35,000 to determine the size of the American market. It is US$529 million dollars a year. This does not factor in legal fees, medical fees, counseling costs and immigration costs. It also doesn’t factor in all the other developed countries that adopt abroad. Several sites estimate that Europe and all other developed countries adoptions numbers, equal that of America. Therefore, the entire intercountry adoption industry is worth at least a billion US dollars a year.
There were actually two peak periods where children were adopted out of South Korea enmasse and these occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. There was no correlation between the adoption rates against GDP per capita. If this was true, then one would expect more children being exported during the IMF crisis in the later part of the 1990s, however, this never occurred. One could argue that size of the family may have been the key driver. This could be said for the children born in the 1970s. The average household size contained 4.53 children per household.
South Korea’s birthrate stabilizes near the current rate which is below 2 children per family around 1982. However, a large number of children were still being adopted for nearly 8 years after the birthrate dropped below 2 per family household.
A better explanation for the adoptions has to do with South Korea being a patriarchal society. If a South Korean woman losses support from her partner, she is shunned and ridiculed by society. She has no support system to turn to and is given only one option to give her child a fighting chance: adoption.
Wikipedia states: “Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea’s national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percentand, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent”.
In relatively a short period, South Korea greatly improved its education system which meant a larger number of women entered university. The age when women gave birth in the 1970-80s was 20-24 year old mothers and this is where a large number of children for adoption came from. The number of children born to this segment shrank dramatically after the 1980s. This was largely due to 2 factors: firstly, the use of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the child and perform targeted abortions on female fetuses; and secondly the increased use of contraceptives and abortion by women in South Korea.
This also explains the high percentage of South Korean girls given up for adoption throughout this period. More than likely, the poorer women who could not afford to have an abortion or use contraceptives were forced to give up their child due to social pressures.
“Imbalances in the sex ratio at birth in Southeast and East Asia increased especially after the mid-1980s. We study how ultrasonic technology affected sex ratios at birth in South Korea, a country with a strong son preference. Between 1985 and 1995 fetal screenings and abortion services were widely available, though not available in the years before, and prohibited in the years after”. (Source: NIH article)
As a direct means of avoiding unwanted births, particularly after contraceptive failure, induced abortion gradually increased in South Korea especially among urban women (Choe and Park, 2005, Stephen, 2012). By 1970, abortion had become a common practice with more than 40% of women reporting having had an induced abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and this rate rose to over 50% by the 1980s (Chun and Das Gupta, 2009). Abortions were easy to obtain in clinics throughout the country and the operations were safe, cheap and completed without social resistance despite the illegality of the procedure (Tedesco, 1999).
Adoption used for Cost Avoidance
What could be another driver for South Korea to sell off their children? I believe we really need to look at the economic incentives. The first economic incentive is the cost avoidance. South Korea forfeited the costs to raise children in institutions from the age they enter the system until adulthood. One needs to remember economic growth in South Korea was extremely high and the average growth between 1970 to 1990 was 18.7% each year. Imagine the amount the government would have to carry as the costs of wages, food and shelter continue to rise by that amount each year?
I measured the growth by looking at the GDP per capita as an indicator. I calculated the cost to house, feed and educate a child under an institution would cost more than a family given the children need 24 hour care. I used the cost of 40% of the given years GDP per capita as the cost to raise the child for that given year. The costs could actually climb higher when factoring in the higher cost of labor to take care of infants and special needs children. I also estimated that the average child spent 16 years inside the institution. An assumption was made that the average age of the child sent to Korean institutions was 2 years old.
The total cost to the South Korean Government in terms of cost avoidance for only 20 of the 62 years that Korea was exporting children (1970-1990) is estimated to be around US$6.4 billion!
This is evidence that South Korea had an economic motive to sell off its children and supports this theory of cost avoidance. South Korea spend way less money on social welfare programs than other OECD countries which means they have more funding for other programs such as its R&D and military.
In her 2010 book, Kim Rasmussen said: the root cause of the number of adoptions out of South Korea in 2010 was South Korea’s lack of spending on its social welfare system. Rasmussen also shared that the other OECD-30 countries spent an average of 20.6% of their GDP on social welfare benefits while South Korea only spent 6.9% of its GDP on social welfare benefits. Rasmussen believes that South Korea’s promotion of domestic adoption does not address the heart of the problem and that South Korea should raise its spending for social welfare benefits.
Adoption as a Revenue Maker
In the graphs below, I estimate the average cost for the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation as a steady state (US$19,500 per child) times the number of adoptions per year in South Korea. I compare the revenue in terms of the GDP per capita and determined that in 2015, when the article was written, the cost is around 35% of the GDP per capita in America. I then took that percentage and calculate it by the American GDP per capita stated for each corresponding year. I took the information and compared it against the cost and number of barrels of oil used in Korea to determine how much adoption could have impacted the South Korean economy (if any). The Tax and South Korea’s GDP was compared to determine the strength of the economy and whether it had any effect on the number of adoptions. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
The price adjusted to today’s dollars of the total adoption program from 1970-1990 earned South Korea a revenue of US$3.1 billion, averaging US$157 million a year.
To understand the magnitude and impact, the equivalent to a program in America which is more than 6 times the size of South Korea, the revenue gained by selling off its children would be the equivalent to the cost of the fight on AIDS in Africa. In that program America spent roughly US$1 billion a year. Or you could equate the amount to the American national After-School Lunch Program for the entire country that fed hungry impoverished children.
The yellow line in the graph (above) takes the adjusted Foreign Agency Fee and Donation times the number of children that were adopted each year. Most of the funds went to the South Korean government as above the line profit. Articles have been published stating that the South Korean government has made money from adoption, such as this article on International Adoption of South Korean Children in Wikipedia.
A 1988 article originally from The Progressive and reprinted in Pound Pup Legacy says the South Korean government made fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from the adoption of Korean orphans into families in other countries. The 1988 news article also says the adoption of orphans out of South Korea had three effects: it saved the South Korean government the costs of caring for the Korean orphans; it relieved the South Korean government of the need to figure out what to do with the orphans and it lowered the population.
I think the amount of revenue gained from exporting South Korean children has been understated!
Due to a lack of transparency, there is no exact method of calculating how much revenue the South Korean government made during the adoption process. Holt and other adoption agencies that operate out of South Korea declare their financial statements on an annual basis and if the amounts are lower than the average adoption transaction, one could assume the difference is given to the South Korean government. Issues that make transparency difficult are that adoption agencies such as Holt change their financial statements on a frequent basis and only a fraction of the adoption companies share their financial statements with the public.
The graph below shows a comparison of Korea’s GDP Growth (grey line) in comparison to profit made from adoption (blue line), changes in oil useage (orange) and increase in tax revenue (yellow) over time.
A comparison was made of the cost of barrels of oil used during the twenty years. The amount of money made in adoption sales stays above, or at the level of oil used, when using the steady state number ($6000/adoptee) and it jumps dramatically higher when applying the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation ($19,500). The blue line would grow three fold.
Economically selling off the children via intercountry adoption has been a suicidal move because the population ultimately fell below 2.1 children per household. In developed countries, sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman, but the threshold can be as high as 3.4 in some developing countries because of higher mortality rates. Going below this number will result in the current situation that South Korea faces and that is a sub-replacement fertility rate. This occurred around the early or later part of 1982.
I theorize that the rapid drop in fertility rates in South Korea occurred for two reasons:
Cultural: it was unacceptable for women to have children if they weren’t married. That segment quickly disappeared (20-24 year olds) because of contraception and abortion use took place. I need to overlay this to see if more kids are being raised in orphanages. South Korea makes it too easy for parents to dump their kids off and run.
Someone (or the government) was economically gaining from the wholesale of children: if we average the profit throughout the years of $5000 x 200,000 children the profit would be equivalent to US$1 billion dollars .
In 1980 South Korea’s GDP was $68 billion, showing the wholesale of its children would have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the country. There must be a South Korean document somewhere that is equivalent to Germany’s Final Solution. Instead of eradication, South Korea had a plan for the mass exportation of its children.
Following 1988, there was a large drop in intercountry adoptions after the Seoul Olympics. This is an important date, as many nations were chastising South Korea for the exportation of its children. Feeling this pressure, South Korea immediately reduced the number of adoptions per year by 75%.
The Number of Institutionalized Children and Adoptions are Dropping
With the recent passage of laws and strict requirements for adoption the number of children exported by South Korea for adoption has declined sharply over the past decade. In numerous studies, I note the statistic that America has been taking in nearly half of the adoptions worldwide.
An online journal The Conversationarticle says international adoptions have dropped 72 percent since 2005 and quotes:
“In recent decades South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, China, Kazakhstan and Russia– all former leaders in foreign adoption – have also banned or cut back on international custody transfers. In 2005, almost 46,000 children were adopted across borders, roughly half of them headed to a new life in the United States. By 2015 international adoptions had dropped 72 percent, to 12,000 in total. Just 5,500 of these children ended up in the U.S., with the remainder landing in Italy and Spain”.
Furthermore, the number of children sent to orphanages in Korea has also fallen. See this article which quotes:
“In 2015, the number of children staying in welfare centres caring mainly for orphans dropped by 26.8 per cent to 12,821, from 17,517 in 2006”.
Adoptee Parents are Rapidly Dying Off
During the early 1970’s, fertility rates within South Korea and the ratio for women giving birth was one third in the early to mid 20s age range, one third in the mid to late 20s, and one third in their 30s or older. As South Korea progressed, the number of women in the younger segment shrank greatly. My initial graph above showed potential age lines and made the assumption that the father was on average a couple of years older than the mother.
I also found an article on life expectancy which increased by nearly 20 years from the 1970s to today. The dotted horizontal red line in the graph above is the changes in life expectancy and will merge with the mean age of the parents. The life expectancy shot up and stayed around 84 years from the mid 80s to the present. Where the dotted vertical red line meets the dotted horizontal line shows a high likelihood that the fathers have passed away and where the dotted yellow and first dotted red line meets, also holds true for the mothers. I also calculated the ages by the number of adoptees adopted by year group and estimated, using current actuary tables, that more than 2,000 parents are dying each year. Roughly one third of all adoptee’s biological parents have already died and it’s crucial for adoptees to do their searches as soon as possible if they want to find parents alive.
The money spent on the intercountry adoption of South Korean children would have done more to support single mothers, prevented the separation of children from their surroundings and prevented unnecessary negative externalities experienced via adoption. South Korea could have used the funding to begin its social welfare programs such as Canada’s training programs which train mothers how to raise their children, cope with stresses and empower them to become productive single parents.
The issues facing many 3rdworld countries are not about bad parenting but rather a situation of a lack of resources. If a mother cannot afford to provide for her child, she will do anything to ensure that her child will have a better life. Few individuals see the altruistic actions of desperate mothers. These mothers are willing to give away their children to afford them a better life. Furthermore, nobody has dethroned the archaic ways of doing business and management of governance in South Korea. Rights and laws go to protect the same patriarchal men who hold the keys to the power in South Korea. Nothing is being done to provide for the millions of women and children left vulnerable when the man decides to abandon the family. Nothing is done to ensure child support is provided and a safety net developed by a government who chooses to bury its head in the sand, instead of dealing with issues that have plagued them for over 5 decades.
“Although Korean women are participating more in the labour market than in previous years, the gap in the level of employment between men and women, regardless of their education level, is enormous. In fact, the gender gap is wider among those with a tertiary education than among those with only preprimary and primary-level education; and South Korea is the only OECD country that shows such an effect”. (Source: OECD)
Intercountry adoptees speak often about the return to their birth country, a time defined by searching and finding. Lynelle’s recent post made me consider my relationship with Korea, the land that, over three decades ago, released me to a country made of dreams. We speak of “the return” as a journey of healing, confrontation, and conflict. Today I’m sharing my perspective on what “the return” means for me and how that phrase is set against my experience with adoption and my parents.
An ocean and several continents occupy the distance between myself and an invisible past. A past that suffers me its opacity every time I hear the word Korea.
For many years, Korea was a Bad Word, something spat out, a noun formed in the back of your throat where phlegm collected. It was shameful. It was ugly. It was full of people with flat faces and squinty eyes and coarse dark hair like me. But Korea was the country, my home in only the metaphorical sense, that I was instructed to embrace.
Many families encourage intercountry adoptees to go back, to find the place that let them go, suggesting a return trip will erase an adoptee’s discontent and otherness and experience with racism. A trip to the homeland might replace those evils with the satisfaction of a curiosity fulfilled. Perhaps this helps some adoptees. I certainly support them and I hope a trip serves those purposes and more. It has, for many, and I’m proud of them. But I have never returned, for either lack of money or desire. Here’s why.
On her deathbed, my mother urged me to Go to Korea. She had pushed for this trip my entire life, pressing me to return while things like I’m going to kick your eyes straight and Chinese people can’t be punks competed for space in my developing self-image. My mother shoved Korea at me as my Asianness became a liability, weaving her misguided request into our relationship’s growing divide.
One late afternoon, my mother sat across from me in our breezy kitchen, perched on her backless padded barstool while I did homework and complained about teenage life. Somehow, either adoption or race came up, topics we fit the criteria for but on which we ourselves boasted ignorance. She fixed her bright blue eyes on me and in that wide open kitchen asked Why don’t you like Korea? Is it because it gave you up?
I gathered my things and raged into my bedroom. Her carefully hung family portraits shook when I slammed my door. My teenage self couldn’t articulate anything but anger in response to her accusatory question. Today I understand my reaction.
From my mother’s perspective, my lack of curiosity was a flaw. She died never realizing that I couldn’t accept a country not because it “gave me up” but because years of external conditioning taught me to hate it.
But we can undo this damage. Adoptive parents eager to change the public’s one-sided adoption narrative can support adoptees struggling to find their place, to accept what fragments of a heritage they assemble as their own. We must allow adoptees the room to grow into whatever culture they choose—or not—to inhabit. Or maybe an adoptee will embrace their freedom to float freely between worlds, content in independence, drawing strength from ambiguity.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the adoptee makes the choice to visit their homeland, we must consider them independent human beings. We can operate separately from our adoptions, finding ourselves on paths we finally forged ourselves. If this happens with or without a homeland visit, it’s because the adoptee chose that way.
Click on the link above. You will then be asked to OPEN or SAVE the file. If you want to watch it – click OPEN. If you want to keep the file – click SAVE.
This is a Microsoft PowerPoint slide show with audio inserted in most pages.
Click onto the speaker symbol on the middle of the page and hit the play button.
The powerpoint show is about my own DNA History. How I became who I am today. How did I get British gene’s? Japanese? Chinese? And Korean? Is it coincidence that my birthday and my sister’s birthday have landed on Korean holidays that celebrate the Japanese liberation movement?
I use my background in Biology and History to explain how I think I became who I am today. It takes about 1-2 minutes to download. File size is 39.5MB.
Intercountry adoption is often portrayed by adoption agencies using words like “forever family” to attract couples wanting to adopt, assuming a child in need is matched into a family, as if born to. One assumes the adopted child’s place in that family becomes permanent, right?
Wrong! Intercountry adoption does NOT equate to permanency. The reality we see today goes against everything that adoption is meant to be about.
Here are some images from the United States (US) Department website (they changed it sometime after this post):
If we google the definition of adoption, Wikipedia tells us:
Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, from that person’s biological or legal parent or parents, and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parent or parents.
Unlike guardianship or other systems designed for the care of the young, adoption is intended to effect a permanent change in status and as such requires societal recognition, either through legal or religious sanction.
Today’s practice in the US of actively deporting adult intercountry adoptees back to their home country because they are not guaranteed citizenship (i.e., permanency), portrays a different message to the definition of adoption. Why should we take note of how the US are treating their intercountry adoptees? Because the US is the largest receiving country in the world for intercountry adoption.
How can citizenship not be automatically given? How is this “ethical” or “transparent”? Why aren’t intercountry adoptions, dating from the 1950s to early 1980s in the US, considered enough to provide permanency to the adoptee as a citizen in their adoptive country?
Gut wrenching to learn of our biological mothers’ life experiences!
This book is a must read for those who think critically about intercountry adoption. It is written by an academic, Hosu Kim, who is herself Korean born and moved to the USA in the 1990s. She is a sociologist and regards herself as a transnational feminist scholar. She provides amazing insight into the history of South Korean intercountry adoption and most importantly, focuses on experiences of South Korean mothers who lost their children to intercountry adoption.
As an intercountry adoptee myself, raised in Australia and adopted out of the Vietnam War, I have always advocated for empowering and including the voices of our original families to ensure a more balanced perspective of intercountry adoption. ICAV has been instrumental in helping to bring to the forefront the voices and experiences of intercountry adoptees. Intercountry adoptees have continued to evolve, connect, and collaborate, speaking loudly throughout the world about our experiences. In comparison, our mothers and fathers are still invisible and mostly not considered when it comes to intercountry adoption policy and decision making at all levels.
I hope this book, being the first of its kind to academically research the experiences of a number of South Korean mothers, will help the world take steps for inclusion of their voices and experiences!
About the Book
Kim coins the term “virtual mothering” to describe the process by which South Korean mothers get separated from their children for intercountry adoption via maternity homes and then reconnected again with their child via imaginary or real processes such as TV shows, internet blogs, and oral history collections. Her book demonstrates how these South Korean women begin as mothers in the traditional sense but it is not a fixed identity based purely on birthing. Instead, mothering as a South Korean woman who has given up her child via intercountry adoption is a transient and transformative process.
To help us better understand the concept of virtual mothering she cites phrases from mothers such as:
“I am a mother but not a mother”,
“I abandoned my baby but I really didn’t, I didn’t abandon my baby but I might as well have”,
“I was alive but it cannot really be called living”.
Early chapters explore the historical emergence of intercountry adoption within the context of post war South Korea. Often we assume mothers relinquish in intercountry adoption contexts because of poverty but Kim gives you the in depth view of what happened in South Korea. She demonstrates the direct links between war, war orphan crisis, the need for emergency relief programs provided by foreign aid organisations (usually religious NGOs) that turned into permanent child welfare institutions. The emergence of these NGOs as maternity homes and then adoption agencies subsequently allow the South Korean government to avoid the responsibility of developing social welfare infrastructure. In turning a blind eye to taking responsibility, coupled with long held patriarchal beliefs and traditions, the South Korean government chooses to sacrifice mothers and children at the expense of the country’s first priorities – national security and economic development.
Upon reading this book, I gained insight and answers to my long pondered question of why South Korea remains the largest exporter of children yet have a strong economic situation. A strong economy was achieved at the expense of the children exported enmasse and the mothers who were never given any other choice! As an intercountry adoptee, this injustice makes me angry! I often hear other intercountry adoptees wrestling with the same sense of abandonment, not from our mothers, but from our countries who choose to give away their responsibility of us.
The chapter on the role of televised searching/reunion narratives was insightful and fitted with what I’ve also learned from adoptees’ perspectives. The overt orchestrated reunions to “portray the cultural belief that transnational adoption offers a better life” via the American Dream. The “idealisation that adoptive parents and life in the west” is better. The lack of empowerment for the parties involved. The sensationalised first meeting that does little to be real about the complexities. The sadness that encompass adoptees and mothers post reunion. All of these realities struck me head on and highlighted the glibness of such televised search shows!
Kim correctly states television shows “linearise the loss of time .. flatten the complexities of loss”. The harshness of the biological mothers realities post reunion is something I see mirrored in the lives of intercountry adoptees .. the almost impossibility of being able to build any meaningful relationships due to “language, culture, finances, bureaucratic barriers and differences” .
Kim’s following statements powerfully bring home the reality of our mother’s truths:
“it is therefore thru reuniting with her child that the birth mother finally sees and feels the metaphorical death of her child”..
“it is the acknowledgement of the magnitude and irretrievability of these losses”
” .. reunion was both a final realisation, an acknowledgement of loss of time, loss of child, and loss of their own mothering”.
I felt crushed by the weight of South Korean mother’s experiences! It was as heavy as I had sensed in my years of being connected with intercountry adoptees and from the realities I gained from our latest paper on Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes. Adoptees find out the truth of their relinquishment and adoption when they reunite. As Kim highlights from these mother’s experiences, it’s often not as the adoption and television industry try to make us believe.
Kim adequately used the phrase:
“the social death of birth mothers is not merely a state of invisibility, but rather the result of violent processes involving .. domination and humiliation that devalues the lives of these women”.
Once we open ourselves to our mother’s realities, one can’t help but judge the adoption industry harshly for its dehumanising consequences to mother and child. Our mothers really had no choices and their value was crushed from the beginning. So too, it is reflected for adoptees whereby we continue to have little legal, financial, ethical rights or assistance when we experience an intercountry adoption that has not been in our interests e.g. outright or suspected trafficking, deportation, rehoming, and abuse/death at the hands of unsuitable adoptive parents.
Kim wrote about mother’s who inevitably end up “estranged from their own lives”. This same “severance from self” is one of the fundamental issues many adoptees also struggle with. Our mother’s accounts cannot be ignored or denied!
“Her loss severs her from her past and seeps into her present wherein her feelings, needs, and desires become estranged from her; through this estrangement, she becomes cut-off from her own future”.
Intercountry adoption cannot be undertaken without acknowledging the lifelong impacts on our mothers who have been separated from us, their child. Kim challenges everyone to recognise the losses our mothers suffered and the processes and means by which their lives are rendered invisible and devalued. This book asks us to be engaged and affected by what has happened in the name of economic development.
My special thanks to Hanna Johannson who connected me to Hosu Kim and her research!