Korean adoption history
(from Eleana Kim, ed., Community 2004. Guide to Korea for overseas adopted Koreans,
Overseas Koreans Foundation, 2004)
International adoption, the movement of children from predominantly non-Western
countries to adoptive parents in the West, was initiated on a large scale in connection with
the Korean War (Benet, 1976: 120-136). International adoption from Korea is intimately
linked to the decline of traditional Korean society and the dispersal of people of Korean
ethnicity from the Korean peninsula. Starting with the collapse of the Chosôn dynasty, and
escalating during the colonial era, this dispersal reached its peak with the national division
and the civil war and reached its conclusion with the rise of post-war industrialisation. All of
these dramatic, and in all respects, tragic events took place within less than a century and
in the course of three generations, affecting every Korean individual struggling to survive
and causing extreme strain on every Korean family trying to stay together in the chaos.
The modern exodus of Korean people began in the year 1860, due to the outbreak
of famine and the impoverished conditions of the northern provinces (Lee Kwang-kyu,
2000: 6-13). The first wave of emigrants found their way to the Russian Far East territory
(bordering present day’s North Korea), and from 1869 Koreans started to pour into Chinese
Manchuria in great numbers. From 1881, Korean students went over to Japan, and, in 1903,
emigration to the U.S. was initiated through indentured labour. These four countries, Russia
(later Soviet Union and Central Asia), China, Japan and the U.S., have since then been the
most important host countries for the Korean diaspora (Back, 2001; Cui, 1990; Hurh, 1998;
Lee Kwang-kyu, 1993; Ryang, 2001).
The colonial period, with its extreme migration patterns (see Kim and Sloboda, 1981),
changed Korean society irrevocably as the country and its people were ruthlessly exploited
by imperial Japan. At the time of Japanese surrender, altogether 4 million Koreans––an
astonishing 16 percent of the entire population––were to be found outside the peninsula,
while a total of 40 percent of the adult population had been uprooted and dislocated (Eckert
et al., 1990: 322). Altogether 266,000 Korean males were mobilised for labour service
(kyosei renko) in Japan, while 320,000 were drafted as military personnel and stationed
within the extensive Japanese Empire. A total of 70,000 of these men died from hardships,
during war operations or as unintentional victims of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki (Dower, 1986: 297; Ryang, 1998; Yoneyama, 1995). In addition, tens of
thousands of young girls had been forced to serve as comfort women (chôngsindae) in the
Japanese army of whom a minority survived and returned to Korea after the war (Kim Hyun
Sook, 1997; Kim-Gibson, 1999; Yoshiaki, 1995).
For Koreans, 1945 would mean liberation from Japanese rule, occupation by
American and Russian troops, partition along the 38th parallel, repatriation and resettlement
of countrymen from the collapsing Japanese Empire, and the beginning of massive internal
migration movements (Lee Hyo-Jae, 1985). In 1948, the division was formalised by the
establishment of two contending dictatorial regimes, both systematically purging its
ideological opponents and causing further mass killings and floods of refugees. Lastly, the
Korean War, a civil war that became an international conflict between the Cold War
superpowers, resulted in something close to genocide with 3.5-4 million soldiers and
civilians being killed on both sides, representing 10-15 percent of the entire ethnic Korean
population (Halliday & Cumings, 1988: 200-201; Hong Sung-Won, 2000).
The various ways of calculating the magnitude of these movements of people
between 1945-53 have been considered by Kim Choong Soon (1988) and James Foley
(2001, 2002) in their studies of separated families, and by Shin Eui Hang (2001) in a paper
on the effects of the war. According to Korea’s leading demographer and most reliable
source, Kwon Tai Hwan, as many as 2.6 million people ended up in South Korea during
those years, eventually constituting 14 percent of the population. Of these, 1.4 million had
been repatriated from every corner of the Japanese empire, and 1.2 million were refugees
coming from North Korea, while 300,000 took the other direction and went to the North.
These historical events and social contexts are prerequisites to understanding
inte rnational adoption from Korea. Statistics for institutionalised children given by the
Church World Service social welfare consultants Charles Chakerian (1968: 40-44) and Helen
Miller (1971) are revealing. In 1945, when Japanese rule ended, there were just 38 child
welfare institutions in the country inhabited by 3,000 children, while at the outbreak of the
war in 1950 after repatriation and refugee movements from the North, those numbers had
increased to 215 institutions and 24,945 children. Finally, in post-war Korea of 1957, five
years after the armistice and the separation and destruction of numerous families, there
were 482 institutions and 48,594 children living there.
The first Western-style orphanages were set up by missionaries in the late 19th
century, and numerous others were established by soldiers during the war (Ch’oe Wôn-kyu,
1996; Paik Lak-Geoon George,  1980). Out of 273 child welfare facilities existing in
2002, 177 were established before 1960 and as many as 144 in the 1950s, of which the
absolute majority can be attributed to Westerners (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2001).
Ch’oe Wôn-kyu argues in his study of foreign voluntary agencies in Korea that the
introduction of charitable and philanthropic social welfare facilities by missionaries in the
1890s followed by military relief activities for refugees during the war actually laid the
foundation for modern Korean social work and its focus on private and institutional care,
thereby preventing the formulation of comprehensive social policy and planning.
It is even possible to say that modern Western aid and assistance to developing
countries actually was established after the Korean War, as so many of these
practices––including sponsoring, fostering and adopting of children, the setting up of
hospitals and orphanages, and educational and technical assistance––were tested in Korea
for the first time (Alvernaz & Tieszen, 1958; Molumphy, 1984: 107-134; Tieszen, 1966). In
this way, Korea became heavily dependent on foreign resources and private initiatives
inhibiting the development of its own social welfare system. For instance, facilities received
more support from foreign voluntary agencies if they had more children, thereby creating
economic incentives for orphanage directors to take in as many children as possible.
Children of war
The children of Korea suffered enormously during the war as Seoul changed hands four
times and armies marched back and forth across the small peninsula, ravaging the country
and causing tremendous destruction. Already in 1951, the United Nations Korean
Reconstruction Agency estimated the number of orphaned children to number 100,000, and
in 1953 there were 293,000 widowed women caring for 516,000 children under the age of
thirteen (Republic of Korea National Red Cross, 1977: 71; Ressler, Boothby & Steinbock,
1988: 37-43). In 1954, when Western relief organisations started to arrive in the country, a
total of 2 million people under the age of 18 had been displaced from their homes
(International Union for Child Welfare, 1954).
The immediate response among the soldiers to the miserable plight of orphaned
children was a whole mixture of evacuations, fundraising drives for food and clothing, the
setting up of orphanages, and, most importantly, the spontaneous incorporation of children
into care at military bases as regimental mascots, houseboys or interpreters. In many cases,
these relationships developed into a kind of informal adoption (Tise, 1992). For example, in
1950 American pilots flew out 950 orphans from Seoul as the city fell to the Northern side
and placed them in an orphanage on Cheju Island. Known as “Operation Kiddy Car,” this
event was later immortalised by Hollywood in the film Battle Hymn (1956). Some of those
war orphans, among the first to be adopted to the U.S. shortly after the war, have written
compelling autobiographies bearing witness to the humanitarian aid the military rendered to
Korean children (Anthony, 1960; Park Clement, 1998; White, 1995).
Between 1950-53, 1.3 million Americans served in Korea excluding smaller
contingents from South Africa, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France,
Great Britain, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Philippines, New Zealand, Thailand
and Turkey, which also took part on South Korea’s side in the war as U.N. troops (Halliday
& Cumings, 1988; Hastings, 1988). In addition, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India and Italy
participated with military hospitals. Further, 60,000 American soldiers were to stay
permanently stationed as the Eighth U.S. Army to protect America’s security interests in the
Pacific Asian region. As always in times of war, women fall to the lot of conquerors, and the
Korean War did not turn out to be an exception to this rule. Not surprisingly, a sexual
exploitation of Korean women took place on a mass scale during the war (Hanley, Choe &
The numerous Korean women who had intimate contacts with foreigners were
shunned and stigmatised by the Korean society, as were their children in a country
obsessed with miscegenation (National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 2003;
Okazawa-Rey, 1997). Consequently, a mass migration of Korean wives of U.S. servicemen
started immediately after the war, with 100,000 Korean women moving to America (Hong
Sawon, 1982; Kim Bok-Lim, 1972). These women, comprising 10 percent of all ethnic
Koreans in the country, have played an important role in Korean-American history as it is
estimated that 40-50 percent of all Koreans in the U.S. can trace their immigration to the
sponsorship of a wife of an American military man.
The products of these unequal and all too often temporary relationships between
U.N. soldiers and Korean women, known by the neologisms Amerasian, Eurasian or GI
baby, were often abandoned by both parents and made up a good proportion of the
estimated 10,000 children who lived on the streets after the war (Ressler, Boothby &
Steinbock, 1988: 37-43). The exact amount of mixed children who were born in Korea
during those years is not known (Bowman, Gjenvick & Harvey, 1961: 35-36). Hurh Won
Moo (1972) estimates a total of 12,280 born between 1950-65, of whom half ended up
being adopted to America or to other Western countries.
The issue of mixed children and war orphans and their difficult conditions in Korea
were widely discussed in the Western media and the numbers were often exaggerated
(Chakerian, 1962; Miller, 1971). National Geographic, Time, Life, Readers’ Digest, Saturday
Review and Ladies’ Home Journal all published articles about mixed children in Korea, and
the Christian relief organisation World Vision made a documentary. In 1954, World Vision’s
documentary Other Sheep toured America to inform the public of the plight of mixed war
orphans in Korea. At a meeting in Portland, Oregon, Harry and Bertha Holt met with World
Vision’s president Dr. Bob Pierce in person. The meeting resulted in the couple’s decision to
adopt eight mixed children from Korea themselves, and in the end to start their own
The first formal international adoptions of Korean children took place in 1953 under
the provision of the Seventh Day Adventists. Authorised by the Korean government, it was
made possible by the Refugee Relief Act passed by the American Congress the same year
which allowed the dubious practice of proxy adoption (Bowman, Gjenvick & Harvey, 1961:
35; Chakerian, 1968). Yet, it is impossible to say that the four cases processed during the
year are the first international adoptions from Korea as there is proof of earlier informal
adoptions taking place already during the war.
A United Press telegram dated the 23rd of September 1952 states that the 10-year old
Rhee Song Wo, one of those numerous orphans who had been taken care of by soldiers, is
on his way to his adoptive home in America by a special permission from presidents Truman
and Rhee setting aside the then ruling racially based immigration law banning entry of
Asians. Other wartime articles mention plans to adopt orphans, and in 1951 American
authorities openly warned their soldiers not to become too attached to unofficially adopted
children in Korea (Pacific Stars and Stripes 8/21/51). In July of 1952, Kim Yoon Joong
arrived to San Francisco as the foster son of Mr. And Mrs. Beauchamp. Yoon Joong had
been their son Victor’s bearer in Korea before he was killed, and Victor’s last wish was that
his parents would bring the Korean boy to the U.S. Accordingly, an unknown number of
Korean children must have ended up in Western countries accompanied by homecoming
military and diplomatic personnel, missionaries and relief workers as the first adoptive
parents already during the years of war.
The complete absence a legal framework worried the Korean government during
these initial wild years of international adoption from Korea when foreign individuals and
voluntary agencies considered themselves to be guardians of the country’s children. The
sheer chaos in war-torn Korea makes it possible to understand how easy and tempting it
must have been for U.N. soldiers and other Westerners just to grab any Korean “parentless”
child roaming the streets and bring her or him out of the country. In 1952, the Korean
government introduced a welfare facilities system and foster parents’ plan as a response to
the many children orphaned by the war. These steps were to become the beginning of
domestic adoption in Korea (Yi Mi-sôn, 2001: 6). In 1955, the National Assembly tried to
create a law for international adoption, but the draft was considered too premature (Yi Sônok,
2001: 30). Instead, preparations for a second attempt started from 1957 when the
Children’s Charter was promulgated which in the end led to the adoption law of 1961.
On the 20th of January 1954, with a presidential order and under the patronage of
the South Korean First Lady, Francisca Donner, Child Placement Service (Adongyanghohoe)
was set up with initial grants from abroad and subordinated to the Ministry of Health and
Social Affairs for the purpose of providing international adoption of mixed children to the
U.S. and other Western countries which had participated on the Southern side in the war
(Bowman, Gjenvick & Harvey, 1961: 43-44; Chakerian, 1963: 19-20; Tahk, 1983). Between
1954-57, Child Placement Service worked together with the Geneva based International
Social Service, handling child welfare issues since the 1920s, and signed bilateral
agreements with the various receiving countries like with Sweden in 1966 (Department of
Social Affairs, 1967: 38-41).
In 1955, a third authorised agency entered the scene as Catholic Relief Service began
placing Korean children in Catholic families in America. In 1957, International Social Service
initiated its own adoption program (discontinued in 1966), and in 1958 Pearl S. Buck’s
Welcome House also started to adopt children from Korea (Bowman, Gjenvick & Harvey,
1961: 44-45; Miller, 1971). In 1956 the American farmer Harry Holt who, in 1955, had
adopted eight mixed children from Korea himself, founded the adoption agency which still
bears his name. Holt’s agency rapidly developed into both Korea’s and the world’s
dominating organisation in the field of international adoption, placing half of the adoptions
from Korea and altogether more than 100,000 children from various non-Western countries
(Holt, 1982,  1992a, 1992b; Holt Children’s Services, 1985; Holt International
Children’s Services, 1992).
Actually it is most likely that without the activities of Holt, international adoption from
Korea would never have developed into the gigantic dimensions that it did. From the
beginning, according to many vocal critics from the professional adoption field, the Holt
agency conducted speedy procedures, overused proxy adoption, making “mail order babies”
possible, disregarded minimum standards, chartered whole flights filled up with children
which were perceived by many as modern slave ships, and accepted couples who had been
rejected by other agencies, while at the same time prioritising Christian fundamentalists as
adoptive parents and paying attention to specifications for age and sex as well as racematching
(Herman, 2002). Harry Holt, having no previous experience at all in child welfare,
was instead feverishly driven by a Christian fundamentalist zeal to rescue the children of
Korea. Holt, quoting Isaiah 43:5, prophetically conceived international adoption to play a
part in a divine scheme for the fulfilment of God’s will (Holt,  1992a: 55):
I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to
the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far,
and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by
my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have
The evangelical couple from Oregon turned into celebrities for their missionary-style
emergency program to rescue the mixed children of Korea, and attracted so much attention
in both Korea and in the U.S. that many today believe that they not only initiated adoption
of Korean children but international adoption itself. Successful lobbying by Holt saw the
realisation of the so-called Orphan Bill passed by the American Congress in 1957, thus
replacing the temporary Refugee Relief Act and securing the future for international
adoption from Korea to the U.S. In 1961, with a congressional amendment of the
Immigration and Nationality Act, international adoption was finally given a permanent place
in American law. This bill also put a stop to proxy adoption (Breckenridge, 1977).
Between 1953-59, 2,899 Korean children were adopted overseas, excluding missing
data from Catholic Relief Service, a small number adopted through American Soul Clinic and
the private adoptions going through, for example, staff at the Scandinavian administered
National Medical Center and Scandinavian Mission to Korea. Miller (1971) estimated one or
two hundred a year, and more than half went through Holt. A majority were mixed as their
ratio constituted 70-90 percent until 1959 when full-Korean children started to take over. It
was mainly Holt that at an early stage had moved into adoption of full-Korean children as
85 percent of the Seventh Day Adventist placements and 60 percent of those by Child
Placement Service were registered as mixed (Bowman, Gjenvick & Harvey, 1961: 41-43).
Chin Kim and Timothy Carroll (1975) give the exact number of 4,494 mixed children being
adopted abroad between 1958-74, of whom 955 were of African-American origin. The
children who left the country during this first stage of international adoption from Korea
were predominantly girls, abandoned on the streets during and after the war or relinquished
at institutions or directly to adoption agencies (Ministry of Health and Welfare 1999). The
main country of destination was the United States where Korean children would dominate
inte rnational adoption for 38 years in a row. In addition, small numbers had started to
arrive in Norway (from 1955), in Sweden (from 1957) and in England (from 1958).
The adoption industry
In 1960, the student uprising of April 19 ended president Syngman Rhee’s increasingly
autocratic rule, it was followed by a period of democratisation. But the military revolution of
1961 abruptly stopped this short experience with democracy, and installed a dictatorial
military regime characterized by harsh oppression of students and workers that was
governed by fierce anti-Communism, developmentalism and modernisation theory (Choi
Chungmoo, 1995; Shin Gi-Wook, 1998). At the time of the military take-over, Korea was still
an agrarian society suffering from typical developing country symptoms of mass poverty
and overpopulation. The two principal measures implemented to decrease the population
were family planning and emigration, while international adoption was used as a
combination of both (Lee Sea Baick, 1989). Hence, the era of authoritarian regimes with
Park Chung Hee (1961-79) and Chun Doo Hwan (1981-87) were to become the years when
international adoption witnessed its heydays as three out of four of all placements occurred
during the period.
One of the first actions of the military government was to pass the Orphan Adoption
Special Law (Koaibyangt’ûgryêbôp), Korea’s first modern adoption law, on September 30,
1961, followed by the Child Welfare Act, to facilitate international adoption as an alternative
to costly institutional care (Chang Pilwha, 1996; Kim Chin & Carroll, 1975; Tahk, 1986a).
Through this decree, a legal basis for international adoption of Korean children was finally
established, making private adoptions illegal and establishing a framework for the most
effective adoption program in the world with efficient agencies, speedy procedures and
secure logistics (Penner, 1996: 35-36; Pyôn, Yi & Kim, 1999: 47-48). After an amendment
in 1967, the law stipulated every adoption to take place according to Korean law and
through a government licensed agency working closely with a Western counterpart, both of
which charged fees to adoptive parents (Tahk, 1986a: 80-81). The agencies mandated for
international adoption were expected to employ professional social workers, doctors and
nurses to run the orphanages as well as to provide foster care and domestic adoption.
In 1964, Korea Social Service began to process international adoptions and it was the
first agency to be entirely run by Koreans. In 1965 Child Placement Service was reorganised
as a private agency and renamed Social Welfare Society in 1972 (Tahk, 1983, 1986a). In
1972 Eastern Child Welfare Society was founded as the fourth of the Korean agencies still
handling international adoption today. Thus, at the beginning of the 1970s as many as
seven agencies operated in the field: Seventh Day Adventists, Child Placement Service,
Catholic Relief Service, Holt Children’s Services, Korea Social Service, Welcome House and
Eastern Child Welfare Society (Chakerian, 1968: 49-57). To balance the numbers of
inte rnational adoptions, a special agency for domestic adoption was created in 1964. Called
Christian Adoption Program in Korea, it was later absorbed by Holt in 1976 (Chakerian,
1968; Miller, 1971; Yi Mi-sôn, 2001: 7). Between 1962 and 1970, a program for domestic
adoption was openly promoted, requiring the country’s government workers and officials to
take care of an orphan. As a result of this compulsory nationalistic campaign, the decade
ended as the only one in which domestic adoptions exceeded international ones––8,247
cases versus 6,166 (Chông & An, 1994: 13).
The family planning program launched in 1962 was to become the most successful
population control policy in any developing country in terms of accomplishing the objective
of lowering the fertility rate. By the time it was dissolved at the end of the 1980s, the
average number of children per woman had decreased from 6.3 in 1960 to 1.6 in 1990 (Kim
Son-Ung, 1981; Nam & Ro, 1981). The program included birth control and sex education,
the popularisation of different types of contraceptives, economic incentives and tax
reductions to persuade families to have less children, a somewhat lenient one child policy,
abortion which was made legal in 1973, and the wide use of sterilisation––with more than
200,000 cases registered between 1962-75 (Donaldson, 1981: 251).
The program has been strongly criticised by Korean feminists for its complicity in
having restricted the reproductive rights of women while at the same time having preserved
the Confucia-based son preference and the male-centred family head registery system of
hojujê (Cho Hyoung, 1997; Kim Eun-shil, 1996; Lee Hye-kyung, 1994; Oum, 2003).
Yeonoak Baik and Jin Young Chung (1996) have identified other ramifications of the
program such as a severe disproportion in the sex ratio and a high frequency in abortions.
The skewed sex ratio at birth stood at 116.8 in 1990 compared to a normal 106.0, meaning
that in 2015 there will be 700,000 extra males in the marriage market, and there are
estimates that more than half of all married Korean have experienced an abortion due to
son preference. Korea earned the reputation as an “abortion paradise” with one of the
highest abortion ratios in the world (Kim Tai-Hun, 1997; Park Sook-ja, 2001; Tedesco,
1996). In 2003, the Korean birth rate had declined to a mere 1.17 representing the lowest
in the world, and it is attributed to a trend in late marriage and a drastic increase in the
number of divorces (Lowe-Lee, 2003).This demographic plunge should not come as a
surprise after decades of patriarchal population policy in the forms of sex-biased abortions,
adoptions and sterilisations, seriously decimating the fertility ratio of the female population,
and the fact that tens of thousands of women have left the country for international
Sending people overseas to countries in need of cheap labour was another method
used to decrease the population. From 1962, emigration programs to Argentina, Brazil,
Bolivia and Paraguay in Latin America, to West Germany, France and Scandinavia in Europe
and to oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia sent tens of thousands of Koreans abroad
who contributed to the country’s economic development by sending back remittances (Hong
& Kim, 1979; Kim Dae Young & Sloboda, 1981: 115-117; Stahl & Arnold, 1986; Yoo, 1996).
Many of those who went overseas were actually re-migrants as there are estimates that half
of all Koreans in Latin America and a quarter of those in the U.S. originated from the North
(Grinker, 1998: 104). Canada, Australia and more recently New Zealand were also popular
destinations for Koreans leaving their country (Coughlan, 1995).
The most important host country during the post-war era was to be the United
States, receiving three-quarters of those who went overseas and with annual immigration
numbers from Korea exceeding 30,000 between 1974-90 (Chang Edward Taehan, 2000;
Hurh, 1998; Tomasko, 1996; Yoon In-Jin, 2001). The main reasons for this are of course
the country’s semi-colonial status in the American world order, together with the 1965
change in American immigration law which since 1924 had discriminated against Asians
(Lim, 1985; Takaki, 1998; Wu, 2002). However, contrary to domestic Korean writers, there
is a tendency among Korean-American and Asian American scholars to neglect both
inte rnational adoption and international marriage when accounting for the emigration
history even if adoptees and military brides together constitute one in five of all Korean-
Americans. These two groups, victims of a combination of American imperialism and Korean
patriarchy, almost parallel each other in the statistics and can be seen as physical reminders
of the huge power imbalance in the relationship between the two countries (Kim Bok-Lim,
1977; Lowe, 1996). In total, between 1962-77, 300,000 Koreans left the country, with
international marriage (16.9 percent), international adoption (14.8 percent), and invitation
to work (68.1 percent) as the reasons registered (Hong & Kim, 1979: 42). In total, 1 million
Korean citizens have moved to other countries after the Korean War, of whom 15 percent
are adoptees and at least as many wives of American soldiers and Western men (Overseas
Koreans Foundation, 1999).
Within a period of 30 years from the start of the first five-year economic plan in
1962, the authoritarian developmental state of Korea transformed itself from an agricultural
society to a modern industrial nation with an astonishing speed and a horrifying efficiency.
Between 1967-76, 6.7 million people migrated from rural areas to the rapidly growing cities
involving close to 20 percent of the population as the process of proletarianisation created
factory workers out of peasants in barely one generation (Choi Jang Jip, 1995: 28: Song
Byung-Nak, 1992). In 1960, 39.9 percent of the population were engaged in agriculture
compared to 9 percent in 1990, with 18.6 compared to 44.7 as the equivalent percentage
distributions for industry.
An important aspect of Korean industrialisation emphasised by Hagen Koo (2001: 23-
45) in his study of the formation of the Korean working-class was the heavy reliance on
female labour. The rate of proletarianisation was higher among women than among men –
an increase of 7.4 times between 1963-85 has been noted compared to five times for the
males. In 1976, women constituted 53 percent of the industrial labour force, and two out of
three were unmarried girls between 15-25 years, a fact important to bear in mind when
trying to understand the conditions for international adoption from Korea during those
decades, as many of these women were to become biological mothers (Hong Sa-won,
1981; Spencer, 1988).
As a result of the industrialisation of the country and the rapid disappearance of
traditional extended family networks, international adoption was supplied by the tens of
thousands of Korean children often born to young factory workers (yôgong) who were
abandoned, and declared foundlings in the brutal turmoil of internal migration and
urbanisation. The number of abandoned children increased dramatically from 715 in 1955 to
11,319 in 1964 after when it started to slow down, while the number of orphanage inmates
reached its peak in 1967 with 71,816 children affiliated to 602 institutions (Miller, 1971).
Between 1955-70, a total of 80,520 children were abandoned with urban poverty as the
reason stated for half of the cases followed by disability (18.5 percent), family break-up
(11.4 percent), neglect by parents (6.7 percent), illegitimacy (5.5 percent) and prostitution
(4.5 percent) (Chakerian, 1968: 36-39).
At the end of the 1960s, Korea’s international adoption program suddenly gained
worldwide popularity. Even if the initial impetus arose out of a rescue mission to adopt
mixed children, international adoption had become a last resort for infertile middle-class
couples, under pressure to live up to the post-war mandate of building a normative nuclear
family. In the West, adoption was legitimised by a left-liberal ideology that framed it as a
progressive, anti-racist act of rescuing a destitute child from the “miseries of the Third
World”, and a way to create a so-called rainbow family (Benet, 1976: 120-126; Kirton,
2000; Masson, 2001; Solinger, 2003: 20-32; Triseliotis, 2000). The demand from Western
countries for Korean children increased concurrently with a growing shortage of workingclass
children available domestically. This was a result of the legalisation of abortion,
increased availability of contraceptives, a growing societal tolerance for single mothers who
became eligible for government welfare, but, above all, the general strengthening of
women’s rights after the sexual revolution of 1968 (Doreen Farrar, 1999; Solinger, 1992;
Zelizer, 1985) was a major contributing force.
International adoption became almost synonymous with adoption from Korea, and
was perceived as a bonding strategy to develop friendship ties between Korea and the host
countries. In 1973, Holt’s director Jack Theis stated: “Korean orphans adopted abroad have
turned into some of the country’s best goodwill ambassadors” (Korea Newsreview,
2/10/73). Two years later, the Swedish ambassador Bengt Odevall said in an interview:
The adoption program is one of the most successful undertakings between our
two countries. Some 3,400 Korean orphans adopted by Swedish families from
1967 to 1974 have been well integrated into their adoptive families…I might
say the relations between us can be likened to a blood-bonded one in
consideration of the successful adoption program (Korea Newsreview,
Canadian social worker Sydney Byma (1974) also warned that international adoption
actually hindered the development of a domestic social welfare system in Korea, while
International Social Service and Save the Children concluded that the existence of an
efficient adoption policy in Korea encouraged parents to abandon their children in their
belief of a better material life in a Western country, or, even more disturbingly, to use
adoption as form of retroactive abortion (Kim Una, 2002; Lee Hye-Kyung, 1993; Korea
Newsreview, 12/21/74). An even stronger response came from Dag Ahlander (1976),
secretary at the Swedish embassy in Seoul as he informed his countrymen that international
adoption must be considered a Western upper-class phenomenon and that it causes
strongly negative reactions in the countries of origin. Ahlander referred to how Korean
media had portrayed the leading adopting country of Sweden in a negative way as the
Swedes demanded more and more Korean children. Further, the Council of Europe (1980:
44-45) expressed concern over its usage in exchange for both economic aid and political
The first half of the 1970s also saw international adoption as playing a part in the
struggle for legitimacy waged between the two Koreas. North Korea accused its southern
neighbour of selling Korean offspring for profit to Westerners (Park Soon Ho, 1994: 52).
The negative attention led to several panic-stricken temporary stops to Northern Europe
and the promotion of domestic adoption, while the adoption program itself was transformed
into something close to a state secret as its numbers were classified from 1974 and
separated from emigration and diaspora statistics (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002;
Pyôn, Yi & Kim, 1999: 47).
The temporary stops mainly concerned the Scandinavian countries of Sweden,
Norway and Denmark between 1970-75, partly motivated by a high preponderance of
disrupted adoptions where adoptees were placed at institutions and foster homes and the
discovery of cases of maltreatment of adopted Korean children in those countries, and
partly by the open reporting of North Korea criticism in the left-leaning Scandinavian media
(Dagens Nyheter, 1/7/71; Korea Newsreview, 2/8/75; Korea Times12/15/74; Seoul
Shinmun, 12/5/74). Nevertheless, business resumed after intense lobbying from the three
Scandinavian counties. Particularly, Sweden played an important role in the campaign to
abolish the temporary prohibitions by making use of its position in the U.N. Security Council.
During the turbulent period, adoptive parents were encouraged to come to Korea and pick
up their children to avoid negative publicity of escorted “mail order babies”, and they were
explicitly told to observe secrecy in the media concerning their adoption of Korean children.
In response to the North Korean accusations and to bolster the negative image of the
country, a revision of the law, in 1976, renaming it the Special Adoption Law
(Ibyangt’ûgryêbôp), made domestic adoption, foster care and sponsorship easier, and a
plan for the gradual phasing out of international adoption by 1981 (with the exception from
mixed and handicapped children) was announced (Breckenridge, 1977; Chun Byung Hoon,
1989; Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002; Sarri, Baik & Bombyk, 1998; Korea Herald,
9//15/76; Korea Times, 7/18/86). At the same time, the number of receiving countries was
restricted to eleven, and the agencies, limited to four, were required to be wholly run by
Koreans: Social Welfare Society, Holt Children’s Services, Korea Social Services and Eastern
Child Welfare Society. The Five Year Plan for Adoption and Foster Care (1976-81) aimed at
reducing the number of international adoptions by 1,000 annually and simultaneously
increasing domestic adoptions by 500 through the introduction of a system of quotas.
Regulated by the Social Welfare Society, the quota was based on the number of domestic
adoptions placed the previous year (Kim Una, 2002; Yun Yông-su, 1993: 42-43).
In 1979, president Park Chung Hee was killed by one of his closest aides, and, as
before, after a short democratisation period, a new military strongman, Chun Doo Hwan,
came to power through a coup d’état. In 1980, the new government discontinued the 1976
policy when it was evident that the plan would not be fulfilled due to a failure in increasing
domestic adoption. It outlined a new approach to international adoption, integrating
adoption into the so-called non-governmental foreign policy (mingan oegyo) to expand the
emigration program and develop friendship ties with Western allies (Sarri, Baik & Bombyk,
1998; Korea Times, 10/12/80). Through a process of government deregulation, the quota
system was abolished, and the four agencies were allowed to compete with each other send
unrestricted numbers of adoptable children abroad.
Consequently adoptions increased dramatically, resulting in the largest number ever
to be sent abroad in one decade––66,511 international placements (Ministry of Health and
Welfare, 1999). The 1980s were also the years showing the highest emigration movement
from Korea to nearly the same Western countries affected by international adoption. The
agencies engaged themselves in profit-making activities, real estate investments, and were
running their own delivery clinics, foster homes and temporary institutions. After a scandal
broke out in 1984 around the international placements of missing children without the
knowledge or consent of their biological parents, abandoned children were no longer
eligible for adoption. Since then, a growing number of maternity homes for young, unwed
mothers have been the main source for newborn and healthy babies (O, 1994; Yi Sôn-ok,
2001: 37). By the 1980s, Korea had achieved an acceptable level of economic wealth, and
Park In Sun (1998: 229) has called those who were dispatched abroad as “goodwill
ambassadors” in the decade of “the forgotten children,” ”victims in a pursuit of greater
national economic prosperity.” The years between 1984 and 1988 saw international
adoption from Korea peaking with 6,500-9,000 cases a year, representing an amazing 1-1.4
percent of the country’s annual living births (Kim Una, 2002).
Already from the beginning of the 1970s, the absolute majority of the children
adopted overseas were by now full Korean and still mostly girls, although the proportion of
boys was on the increase. The abandoned children who had constituted 55-65 percent of
the total in the 1960s as well as those coming from broken families had, by the end of the
decade, increasingly been replaced with the children of unmarried mothers from middleclass
backgrounds. About half of the children were from these unwed women, with the
remaining half still comprised of young factory workers (Spencer, 1988; Tahk, 1986a,
1986b). Furthermore, the ratio of disabled children was gradually growing, constituting one
out of four adoptions. Among the receiving countries, it is no coincidence that those who
had sided with the anti-Communist alliance in the war and continued to be important
political allies and trade partners took in the most children; the United States, Norway and
Sweden beginning in the 1950s, Denmark, Canada, France, Australia, Belgium and the
Netherlands from the 1960s, and, finally, Luxembourg in 1984. In addition, since the 1960s,
Korean children also went to West Germany, Italy and Switzerland and smaller numbers to
England, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and Finland.
The events of June 1987––student demonstrations, labour strikes and massive popular
protests––ended 26 years of military rule as president Chun was forced to step down and
announce the opening of democratic elections (Cumings, 1997: 386-392; Lindström, 1993).
Even though his right-hand man Roh Tae Woo was elected president in the following
December election due to an unfortunate split in the opposition, Roh’s government (1988-
92) is commonly seen as the transitional stage to full democracy in Korea.
The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games showcased a proud and newly democratised and
industrialised Korea to the world. Yet Western journalists started to write about the
adoption program, and portrayed the host country as the leading global exporter of
children. Criticism of international adoption had been heard before in Korea, but never had
the negative attention been as strong and massive as in 1988. As a result, during the
Olympics, sending Korean children abroad was temporarily suspended to avoid further
negative attention, and the following year the number of international adoptions was
In September of 1989, new guidelines for the improvement of the country’s adoption
policy and practice were issued with the purpose of reducing the annual numbers of
children going abroad and to eventually stop adoptions by 1996, excepting mixed and
disabled children. Adoption agencies were publicly criticised for having overcharged for both
domestic and international adoptions and for having provided generous “delivery fees” to
medical institutes in their quest for adoptable children (Sarri, Baik & Bombyk, 1998; Yun
Yông-su, 1993: 44-45; Korea Herald, 9/9/89). Tax reductions were provided to encourage
domestic adoption, which was projected to grow by 400-600 placements a year, while
overseas placements were restricted to relinquishment cases––in reality, children born by
young, unwed mothers at the agencies’ delivery clinics and maternity homes.
In August 1994, this second government plan to phase out international adoption
was overturned on the grounds that the number of domestic adoptions remained too low,
and, instead, an annual flexible decrease of 3-5 percent was set up with a more distant
deadline of 2015 (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002; Pyôn, Yi & Kim, 1999: 53-54). In
1995, the adoption law was changed to its present name, Special Law on Adoption
Promotion and Procedure (Ibyangch’okjin mit chôlch’aê kwanhan t’ûgryêbôp), and this law
underwent two smaller revisions in 1999 and 2000 (Yun Hyê-mi, 1995). Between 1991 and
1997, the Korean government managed to keep the number of adoptions down to a little
over 2,000 cases a year, but during the Asian economic “IMF crisis” of 1997-99,s
international adoption was allowed to increase again and placements of “IMF orphans”
contributed to an increase to 2,400 children annually (Kim & Finch, 2002). At the same
time, the government has encouraged domestic adoption, which, by the end of the 1990s,
stood for one-third of all adoptions. Also, since the end of the economic crisis, the
government has strived to create a long-term foster care system based on Western models
as an alternative to adoption (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2002).
As a result of these efforts 22,925 children were adopted overseas during the 1990s,
the absolute majority being extramarital. It is estimated that between 80-90 percent of all
children in the country born out-of-wedlock end up for adoption compared to for example l
percent in United States (Chandra, Abma, Maza & Bachrach, 1999; see Dong-A Ilbo
9/27/01). This is in spite of the fact that Korea, with 1 percent of women experiencing
teenage motherhood, has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy among all OECD countries,
while United States with 22 percent is topping the list (United Nations Children’s Fund,
2001). In addition, 4 percent of the Korean population is estimated to live below poverty
line while the equivalent proportion for United States is 12.7 percent.
The relinquishing mothers are nowadays mostly teenagers or at least under the age
of 25 years, often spending their pregnancies behind the secluded walls of the agencies’
maternity homes, and the majority comes from a middle-class background where the
stigma of pre-marital sexual activity or a former marriage has the potential to ruin future
social advancement for both the parent and the child (Yi Sôn-ok, 2001: 70-73). The
proportion of boys is slightly higher than girls, while as many as one out of three are
categorised as disabled. Lastly, the receiving countries have been restricted to nine as of
2002: United States, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Australia, Canada
and the Netherlands.
Park In Sun (2002) points out that the current Korean situation is strongly
reminiscent of the situation in Western countries before the change of mores that took
place after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She indicates that Korea will soon also have
to look after its children, rather than blaming the consequences of war or the prioritisation
of economic growth during Korea’s rapid industrialization. These excuses are still sometimes
used to hide behind, not to mention the self-Orientalizing image of Confucian thinking and
bloodline clannishness. This culturalist explanation is, of course, as shallow as those used by
Westerners to legitimise the adoption imperative for extramarital or divorced children, prior
to the 1960s sexual revolution.
On the other hand, as the number of refugees from North Korea continues to
increase, the adoption of North Korean children by South Koreans may, in a not too distant
future, become a reality. Actually, ethnic Korean children from Manchuria have already
started to arrive as adoptees, albeit in very small numbers (Wolgan Chosun, 1/7/02). In
January of 2002 two orphaned North Korean children who, together with thousands of
other parentless children, had crossed into Manchuria via the Tumen River border area in
search for food, were provided asylum in South Korea, and in the debate that followed the
American missionary Tim Peters stated in an interview:
I think adoption is an excellent solution. You might remember that many
orphaned South Korean children were adopted by Western families after the
Korean War. It is time for South Koreans to do the same (Korea Times,
After more than half a century, international adoption continues. International adoption is
too often used to get rid of “impure” and costly children whether stigmatised by illegitimacy
(sasaenga), by disability (changae’a) or by race (honhyôla). Mixed-race children have
somewhat ironically returned as an adoption category, this time fathered by guest workers
from South or Southeast Asia and consequently known as Kosian children. Not surprisingly,
the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also repeatedly
criticised Korea for not implementing measures to counter sexual, social or racial
discrimination, while its Committee on the Rights of the Child expresses concern for the
continuance of international adoption from a country that has the world’s 12th largest
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