Transnational Adoption and the “Financialization of Everything”

By Jane Jeong Trenka/Conductive Magazine

August/September 2009

During the presentation of a paper named “Domestic and Overseas Adoption and Unwed Mothers' Welfare” at the South Korean parliament complex in Seoul on March 4, 2009, Dr. Mi-jeong Lee of the Korean Women’s Development Institute remarked that after the Korean War, capitalist South Korea sent children abroad permanently to adoptive parents, while socialist North Korea had a different philosophy in handling the crisis. Instead of sending children for adoption, it sent children to other countries with North Korean nurses, and the children were brought back later. Dr. Lee said that considering this, when the North criticized the South for “exporting” children for adoption, the South “had nothing to rebut against North Korea.”

My point is not to defend the North Korean regime, but to point out that when the two Koreas were faced with the same post-war situation in 1953, they chose radically different ways of caring for children. Transnational adoption is not an inevitable result of war and poverty. There are different ways of addressing the same problem. (That is, if the problem is how to provide care for children — not how to provide babies for parents). Although transnational adoption has been normalized to a great many people, this kind of child-care arrangement is in fact highly abnormal in the history of the world, and the practice is now governed more by the almighty dollar than the “best interests of the child” or international law, which is not so easily enforced.

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey outlines the social damage that neoliberalism has wreaked globally, and based on neoliberalism’s own theory, predicts the current financial crisis that we are struggling to cope with now; the system carries the seed of its own destruction. The book purports that neoliberal practices are based on the idea that freedom equals free markets. However, this idea of achieving ultimate freedom through free markets has instead resulted in government deregulation, which has in turn transferred valuable public resources and essential government services to the private sector. Letting the market run unfettered — auctioning off precious public resources and farming out public services to the private sector —enriches a few, but impoverishes and endangers the rest of us. Pretty soon, private companies are running the government with their lobbying and government-business tie-ups, even though it is the government’s job to govern business. The public interest takes a distant back seat to profit. In a nutshell, neoliberalism is, as David Harvey puts it, “the financialization of everything.”

Personal “freedom,” depletion of natural resources, government irresponsibility, bending over backwards for private enterprise, and considering everything and anyone sellable: Let me posit that transnational adoption has become a neoliberal project. Adoption has become all about the “freedom” and “choice” of adopters, to the detriment of basic human rights in “sending countries.” Even though social welfare services are the responsibility of the state, transnational adoptions are performed by private lawyers and agencies. And, in both South Korea and the U.S., where transnational adoptions are performed by private businesses, not public social welfare agencies, the inevitable questions arise: Who are the most organized and monied people? Who has a business at stake? Who actually shapes the laws that govern adoption? It’s certainly not the birthmothers!

When people talk about the “reform” of intercountry adoption, it is often couched in terms of eliminating the monetary incentive that drives it. If this truly can be done, mass transnational adoption as we know it, which transports tens of thousands of children a year to foreign countries, would be almost completely wiped out. Transnational adoption would only exist for a very few special cases, as recommended by international conventions. The mass production of adoptees would give way to real social welfare programs that support unwed mothers with childcare, education, and adequate monthly stipends for daily necessities in countries like South Korea. People who claim to care about children and unwed mothers would heavily support family preservation programs instead of opening new exploitable markets in places like Ethiopia as soon as other “sending countries” start to shut off the supply.

Yet that kind of situation is at present only a pleasant fantasy. Transnational adoption as it is practiced today is a business that exists in a world of global capitalism where anything — including brides, sex slaves, and the children of vulnerable mothers — can be purchased for the right amount of money. In South Korea, which still sends over 1,000 children per year to Western countries even 56 years after the end of the Korean War, the majority of adoptees have come from unwed mothers. In 2001, 97.2% of Korean adoptees had unwed birth mothers. This is the direct result of a policy of neglect towards unwed mothers by the government on a social welfare level. This practice is then enforced by the adoption agencies that prey on resourceless women, and reinforced by usually well-meaning but emotionally vulnerable adopters, who are willing to accept as inarguable and immutable whatever cultural “knowledge” the adoption agencies dole out, which in reality is just targeted advertising for a very expensive, non-returnable product.

The adoption agencies would like to portray themselves as the leaders of the movement to end the monetary incentive behind transnational adoption. They would like to be perceived as the people who originally came up with the wonderful idea to preserve families instead of separating them. But, let’s look at this logically. The ideal situation, which everyone seems to pay lip service to, is for children to stay with their own families in their own countries. Therefore, the adoption agencies should be working to put themselves out of business. The agencies say that they are doing wonderful work in “sending countries” to support families, but the reality is that the adoptions themselves fund this work. In other words, supporting vulnerable families is directly at odds with their main source of revenue. Adoption agencies exist because of adoption, not in spite of it. Their work to support families will therefore always be half-hearted. This contradiction exists on the organizational level.

On an individual level, the very jobs that adoption agency workers keep, with which they support their own children, are dependent on keeping the existing order intact. In other words, if the adoption agencies stop doing adoptions, a lot of people are going to have to get job retraining. On the other hand, people who do not have any business ties to the adoption industry have no vested interest in continuing adoptions or constantly renewing their customer base.

The supply-demand dynamic of adoption has yet to be fully attacked from the supply side. Most adoptees are, understandably, living in their adoptive countries, meaning the demand side. I stayed in the demand side into my early thirties, and then moved back to the supply side in 2004-2005. I moved — and stayed — for various reasons, including my profound disappointment that this illicit relationship between money and transnational adoption continues, despite a wealth of excellent and easily accessible information available in the English language.

Something I have discovered while talking about adoption with Korean people — even highly educated people who work on women's issues and civil rights — is that the general South Korean public is largely unaware of the link between money, institutionalized discrimination against unmarried South Korean mothers, and adoption. This is partly because material on the subject of adoption as an industry is not readily available in the Korean language. I am not disappointed by this lack of knowledge on the supply side. Rather, I think it’s a good start. We are simply at Square One. People just don’t know. So let’s start by educating the people. I believe that if the system could only be revealed to Korean people, they would feel a lot differently about allowing their government and the adoption agencies to continue to supply babies to the West.

Something that encourages my belief in the Korean public is that when I speak at universities or other institutions, a common response to simple facts comparing Korea to the U.S. is, “What are we doing sending our children to the U.S.?” For instance, the U.S. has more overall poverty (17.1% vs. 14.6%) and child poverty (21% vs. 11%) than South Korea. Meanwhile, 117,380 American children are waiting to be adopted, and 8,216 of them live in institutions.

Information from South Korean institutions is harder for a transnational adoptee to find. In this regard, partnering with the media is very important. In South Korea, even the government is afraid of the media, and that is why it is important to use it skillfully, and view journalists not as exploiters — but partners, private detectives, and public educators. Very often, crucial information is impossible to get, such as when the government acts behind closed doors, or when the agencies are not required by law to reveal their budgets. (There has never been, for instance, a complete economic study of exactly how much foreign currency has flowed into South Korea as a direct result of the adoption industry.) But any information we do find can still be used to raise the public’s consciousness. For instance, the day before Adoption Day (which is a national holiday here in Seoul aimed at promoting domestic adoption) my organization, TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea), distributed Korean-language fact sheets to over 700 people in a plaza in downtown Seoul. The aim was to show Koreans what is happening with adoption and get people to think more deeply about the meaning of the allocation of money. The fact sheet was titled “Test Your Adoption Knowledge” and took the form of mock tests.

Math Test

Calculate how long a Korean family could be supported with the same amount of money paid by American parents to adopt a Korean baby through an international adoption agency.

Answer: Over 30 years of support at 50,000 won per month or 5 years of support at 546,043 won per month.

American adoptive parents pay the equivalent of 32,762,613 won to adopt a Korean child. If that 32,762,613 won were distributed to the same child’s mother at 50,000 a month (the amount of money given to Korean single mothers by the Korean government per month) the mother and her child could be supported for over 30 years. However, because 50,000 per month is not adequate, let us calculate differently: If the same sum of money were used to support the mother and child over the first 5 critical years, the mother could have 546,043 per month in support to take care of her own child.

Neoliberalism is the economic system that relentlessly fuels transnational adoptions by creating monetary incentives for middlemen. It favors private Western adopters on the "demand" side over vulnerable parents on the "supply" side. Aside from the cultural and economic elite, adopted children have become the only people in the world who can so easily flow over the boundaries of nation-states because they have been rendered into commodities instead of people. (Birth mothers, on the other hand, are specifically banned by law from having any special immigration privileges into the U.S. after their child is adopted. If the mothers of transnational adoptees tried to immigrate to the U.S., they would likely be considered "illegal immigrants” as they have no useful economic function.)

If you live in South Korea and don't mind talking to strangers in Korean, you can quite easily and randomly meet some of the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and siblings who have lost one of the 200,000 Korean children sent overseas by the adoption industry. Since the population of Korea is about 48 million, that means about 1 in 48 Koreans is affected. I have met them on the street, in taxis, on trains. The stories they tell are quite different than the stories we are told by the adoption agencies, and quite different from the rhetoric that is used by adoptive parents. They do not tell me how adoption has enriched their lives. They do not tell me that they gave their children as “gifts” to other parents. These people do not talk about how their children were born "not under" someone else's heart but “in it,” and these people certainly do not have time to wait for “reform.” For those who have already lost a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, it’s already too late.

This article has not brought forth anything that has not already been said better by someone else, including some very honest and courageous adoptive parents. The reason for taking up this page space, therefore, is to simply challenge transnational adoptees to make a clear distinction between their feelings toward their adoptive families — which are genuine and are to be respected — and an unflinching intellectual and political critique of the adoption system itself. This is also an invitation for transnational adoptees to do what it takes to work on the supply side. That is because the demand side already knows what is going on. And they have no real incentive to change the system when they are already gaining so much from it. People do not yield their power because they are nice and they want to lose some of it. And compliance has never, ever worked for oppressed people.

Never let anyone forget that you are a dignified human being with human rights, not a product for sale So I encourage you to go to your birth country, wherever that is. Figure out what you need to do to survive there. Figure out what Square One is to the people who were once, and maybe still are, your own. Struggle for justice. Never let anyone forget that you are a dignified human being with human rights, not a product for sale. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that your mother country is the same thing as the real person who is your mother. Find allies. Find a different way to solve problems. Go, see and hear for yourself. When the demand side starts to see you as a threat, refuse to shut up. Turn up the volume one more notch. Change history. Change the future. Do it with a deep and furious love.

Bio: Jane Jeong Trenka was born in the U.S. military district of Yongsan-gu in Seoul, South Korea, and was sent to the U.S. for adoption in 1972. With Julia Chinyere Oparah and Sun Yung Shin, Trenka is co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing and Transracial Adoption and the author of two memoirs: The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions. She makes her living by correcting English grammar at night, and volunteers by day for the Seoul-based organization TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea), which advocates for a full understanding of the practice of adoption, both past and present, to improve the human rights of children and families affected by adoption.

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