South Korea closing foreign trade in abandoned babies

Date: 1990-03-13

Michael Breen
The Washington Times

SEOUL, South Korea - Embarrassed by its image as an international "baby trader," the South Korean government is halting a decades-old policy of permitting foreigners to adopt abandoned and unwanted Korean children.

"Now the time has come to stop this practice as we can no longer be the brunt of world scorn," said Choi Duk-bo, overseas adoption director of Holt Children's Services, the largest of four government-authorized agencies.

"We must look after our own children," Mrs. Choi said in a recent interview.

In the past 30 years, some 160,000 Korean children have been legally adopted, nearly half by American families, according to government figures.

However, the nation became increasingly sensitive about its international reputation before the 1988 Summer Olympics and began phasing out the practice.

The Korean Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is cutting overseas adoptions by about 20 percent a year until a planned total ban in 1996. Afterward, only physically and mentally handicapped babies will be available for foreign adoption.

National outrage over the practice is highlighted by a planned movie showing an American couple adopting a local baby to steal its kidney for their own child.

The movie, announced by South Korean film director Kim Soo-Yong in January, is based on a recently published short novel entitled "American Dream."

The novel describes how a fictional American couple adopted a 7-year-old South Korean orphan in order to have his heart transplanted to their own child, who was dying of heart disease.

Enraged by Mr. Kim's project, John Reid, director of the U.S. Information Service in Seoul, slammed the story in a letter to a local newspaper as malicious and distorted.

"Such a reprehensible theme of child murder insults the caring and generous people around the world who bring orphan children into their homes to love as their own," he wrote.

Mr. Kim replied, "I admit there are many warm-hearted American couples, but I believe I have an obligation to show the dark side of the baby trade."

Mr. Kim, however, did agree to soften the script to make it a kidney transplant rather than a fatal heart extraction.

The practice of allowing foreigners to adopt unwanted children sprang, in part, from the massive influx of American servicemen during and after the 1950-1953 Korean War and a resulting rise in unwanted pregnancies.

The decision to halt the trade, with a resulting shortage of babies available for adoption, has led to allegations of unscrupulous dealings by some agencies that have boosted prices.

Foreign couples now pay an average $4,000 for transportation, medical and administrative expenses. Koreans pay about $600 to adopt a baby. Health Ministry officials are probing reports that some agencies are charging foreigners up to $2,000 more in some cases.

Some fear the ban on overseas adoptions will force many Korean children to spend their lives in orphanages.

"The welfare of these children is the important thing," said Theodore Kim, director of the Adoption Service Information Asia (ASIA) of Washington, D.C. "If they can't find homes in Korea, then it is better they find homes abroad than grow up in orphanages."

Korean officials, however, say a government-led campaign to encourage local adoption has led to more Koreans taking unwanted babies.

Some prospective adoptive parents are philosophical about the new policy.

"We feel sad for selfish reasons," said Mary Ermer of Bethseda, Md. Mrs. Ermer and her husband, David, who are both lawyers, have already adopted two Korean children and are seeking a third.

"But if it's because there are less children available because of more local adoptions, then it's a happy sadness.

"However, if the Korean government is only reacting to bad publicity, it is negative for the children," she said.

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