South Korea's Baby Mill
Written by Steven Borowiec
Thursday, 01 December 2011
Despite a faltering birth rate, Korea still exports more adoptees than
any other country
Despite having one of the world’s lowest birthrates and the
14th-largest economy, South Korea is a major source of infants adopted
internationally each year.
As the country has grown richer, its total fertility rate has fallen
to the lowest level in the industrialized world, from more than six
babies per mother in 1960 to 1.15 today, far below the accepted
replacement level of 2.1 per mother, according to figures supplied by
the World Bank. Despite that, there seems little impetus to keep its
adoptable children at home. Many factors are at work that lead to
South Korean babies being adopted, both domestically and abroad.
According to the Korean Ministry of Health, an estimated Korean
220,000 babies have been adopted by parents in 14 receiving countries
since the global child diaspora began in 1955 when an American couple,
Bertha and Henry Holt, adopted eight at one go.
The Americans continue to lead in adoptions. According to the 2011
Annual Adoption Report to the US Congress, of the 2,047 foreign-born
children adopted by US families from October 2010 to September 2011,
734, or 36 percent were from Korea. Worldwide, China was next,
followed by Ethiopia with 1,727 and Russia with 970.
These numbers show that adoption is not simply a matter of a poor
family being unable to care for a baby and therefore placing the child
in the care of a family with more resources. A stubborn taboo against
childbearing out of wedlock and single parent families is a major
reason for the lingering prevalence of adoption. According to the
Ministry of Health and Welfare, in 2010 one third of adoptees were
born to unwed mothers.
Despite its impressive economic development, South Korea is still in
many ways a conservative country. On the national census distributed
in South Korea earlier this year ‘cohabitating unmarried couple’
wasn't among the options provided in the living arrangement category.
Although more young South Koreans are choosing to live together before
marriage (in part to share high housing costs), they often keep it a
secret from family and coworkers.
There have been continuing objections to the high adoption rate,
regarded by some a “baby mill,” with adoption agencies supporting
homes for pregnant women in an industry that generates some US$20
million a year. All agencies pay foster mothers to care for the
infants, and provide all food, clothing and other supplies free of
charge. They also support orphanages or operate them themselves. Along
with advice from 'counselors' at the agencies, this system not only
makes the process of giving up a child easier, it encourages it,
according to one study.
Nor, say international critics, is it particularly healthy for the
adopted children, who tend to grow up alienated from the new society
in which they live. According to a 2002 Swedish study, Korean and
other international adoptees are highly overrepresented in suicide,
suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social
maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues.
Accordingly, earlier this year the National Assembly passed a measure
delivering big changes to the country’s adoption regime, making
adoptions subject to court permission, requiring counseling on child
rearing by the biological parents, requiring them to agree to the
adoption only after a week from birth, and other reforms. Adoptees are
to be given the right of access to information regarding their
adoptions information. The backgrounds of prospective adoptive parents
must be vetted for evidence of criminal behavior.
The low of rate of population growth is a threat to continued
prosperity. According to a March 2011 study by HSBC, South Korea’s
workforce will contract by 32 percent by 2050, which would reduce
annual growth by 1 to 1.3 percentage points from 2020 through 2050.
More and more South Koreans are retiring and it is feared there will
not be enough people of working age to care for them, which will place
strains on the country’s welfare system. There is a lack of welfare
measures to assist the elderly.
Many young children in South Korea are traditionally cared for by
their grandparents while their parents work. But the rising cost of
living is driving more middle-aged women into the workforce and giving
them less time for familial responsibilities. Women in their 40s and
50s are being pushed into the labor force by the rising cost of
living, according to data recently released by Statistics Korea.
The employment rate among middle-aged women stands at 59.3 percent in
the April-June period, the highest level since the third quarter of
1992, when the rate peaked at 60.1 percent. The data showed that
female workers in their 50s totaled 2.09 million in the second
quarter, up 72 percent from the same period a decade ago when it stood
at 1.21 million.
Life is also tough for single parents in South Korea. A study in 2008
by Statistics Korea showed that the average income among single-parent
households was just W1.82 million a month, 56 percent of the average
W3.22 million a two-parent household made. Unless a single parent
happens to be very well off, it is unlikely that they will be able to
afford the high priced education that is increasingly important for
young South Koreans to succeed.
The South Korean administration has made steps to complicate the
process of international adoption and encourage domestic adoption. To
some, the image of a country that exports babies for adoption is
In 2005 a set of measures was introduced to ease the burden for
domestic adoptive families. The government made it compulsory for
foreign adoption agencies to first seek adoptive parents in Korea
while the child is still less than five months old. The government
also pays parents a monthly childcare allowance.
In 2007, the national government set a quota to limit the number of
adoptions and other measures intended to make adoption less likely.
Birth registration became mandatory and adoptees were granted easier
access to their birth records, along with the introduction of a seven
day period during which mothers may think over the decision of keeping
or putting their newborn up for adoption, according to the Korea
While steps to discourage adoption may lower the total number of
adoptions, it will do nothing to address the factors that lead South
Korean mothers to give up their children. At 7.5 percent, South
Korea's welfare spending to gross domestic product average is less
than half the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
average. In a June 2011 report entitled "A framework for growth and
social cohesion", the OECD called on South Korea to increase its
welfare spending by 100 percent or more.
As the reasons for the high rate of adoption are complex, critics say,
an imaginative response to the situation is needed to update thinking
on the nature of parenting, along with more effective government
programs to ease the burden of caring for the elderly and educating
children. The adoption reform bill passed earlier this year, is a step
in that direction.