exposing the dark side of adoption
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Babies for Export: And Now the Painful Questions

SEOUL JOURNAL; Babies for Export: And Now the Painful Questions

By SUSAN CHIRA, Special to the New York Times

The babies, in embroidered pink and blue jumpsuits, wait in the adoption agency, the way station between those who bore them and those who will raise them. They smile at the women who will escort them to new homes half a world away.

Six thousand Korean children a year - given up for adoption by unwed mothers or abandoned by their parents - are adopted by American families alone. Unlike other countries, where black markets for infants have sprung up, South Korea goes by the book. Indeed, the Government supports the idea of foreign adoptions and oversees each step of the adoption process, licensing adoption agencies and the unwed mothers' homes that supply them with babies.

This flow of children overseas began when South Korea was a poor nation, its cities and families devastated by the Korean War. That it continues now, when South Korea boasts skyscrapers, giant factories and the 1988 Olympic Games, is prompting questions.

Critics charge that it is time South Korea took care of its own, that sending Korean children abroad robs them of their culture and spares the Government the expense of caring for them. But those who support foreign adoptions say very few Korean families are willing to take in children who are not blood relations. In a country where most families proudly display thick volumes of genealogical charts, where the Confucian respect for ancestors remains very much alive, there is little place for children of a different bloodline.

Sensitive Issues for Nation

The debate touches on sensitive issues for this swiftly growing, swiftly changing nation. South Korea is no longer a third-world country, so poor that it cannot afford to feed and shelter its children. Yet this very industrial development has helped to swell the nation's pool of unwanted children, even as the number of war-displaced or orphaned children shrank.

Most of the children adopted overseas are born to unwed mothers, usually teen-age women who left the countryside to work in factories in the city. Koreans are torn between the sense of national shame about sending children abroad and a reluctance to welcome them at home.

''In the beginning, the only reason foreign adoptions were allowed was that it was so difficult to raise children after the Korean War,'' said a Government social work official who asked to remain anonymous. The topic of foreign adoptions arouses so much controversy here that the Government ministries that oversee foreign adoptions refuse to grant interviews or provide statistics.

''If we had abided by our cultural traditions, it would never have happened,'' the official said. ''There is a growing voice that we should take care of our own orphans. We don't feel very good about sending these children abroad - we're not poor anymore. But I see photos of Korean children adopted by American families, and I can see how much the children are loved and cared for. It is harder for Koreans to accept these children.''

Overseeing the Process

With this rationale, the South Korean Government has allowed and tacitly encouraged foreign adoptions - although they require agencies to try to place babies first with a Korean family. Last year, according to State Department immigration figures, 5,742 Korean children were adopted by American families; in 1986, 6,150 Korean children were adopted. That represents 59 percent of all foreign children adopted in the United States. Korean adoption agencies dispute these statistics, saying that more babies enter the United States illegally from countries like Mexico.

To insure that foreign adoptions remain aboveboard, the South Korean Government licenses four adoption agencies to handle all foreign adoptions. The agencies draw children from hospitals where unwanted babies are delivered, police stations that pick up abandoned children, and a network of unwed mothers' homes that they help support financially.

Pregnant factory workers are tormented by shame, and most want to give up their babies to start a new life, said

Kim Yong Sook

, who runs a Salvation Army shelter for unwed mothers. Freed from the close supervision of their families, naive about sex and birth control, most become pregnant accidentally, she said. Some are raped, but in either case, most families refuse to support either the mother or the child; an out-of-wedlock pregnancy embarrasses the entire family.

''What matters most is to give another chance to a girl in distress and despair,'' Miss Kim said.

New Parents Pay $4,000

Once the baby is born, the adoption agencies take it and place it with a Korean foster parent until adoption papers come through, said the director of one of the country's largest adoption agencies, who agreed to be interviewed only if his name and that of his agency did not appear. Then the babies are sent to the United States or other foreign countries, in the care of escorts who give the agency a small donation and receive a free ticket. The agency pays the mother's medical expenses and delivery fees.

The adoptive parents pay around $4,000, a fee that includes transportation costs, medical expenses, payments to Korean foster parents and adoption agency processing costs.

The scale and the efficiency of the adoption process in South Korea troubles those who believe that the nation should make more effort to keep its children at home. ''I think the women are pushed to give up their babies, and that the agencies do get profits from the adoptions,'' said a social worker who has dealt with adoption agencies for years.

It is clear that foreign adoptions bring in more money to the agencies - the agency director interviewed said there is virtually no charge when Korean families adopt children. But for the most part, the fees charged for foreign adoptions do not seem inflated. Robert L. Ackerman, immigration attache at the American Embassy in Seoul, who oversees foreign adoptions, said that although he had reservations about the numbers of children going overseas, he had seen no evidence of fraud or profiteering.

The social worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said she disapproved of foreign adoptions because Korean children then grow up ignorant of their culture and the Government is spared addressing a real social problem: the increasing numbers of illegitimate children and the need to support the mothers.

''It is true that even if they want to raise children, how could they?'' she said. ''So it's not only pressure but the situation that makes them give up the baby. At least the Government should start trying to decrease the number of foreign adoptions, but they are not even trying.''

While the debate continues, the babies keep leaving, on their way from one home to the next.

Photo of escort with baby bound for adoption in U.S. at airport in Seoul (NYT/Park Jong-Woo)

1988 Apr 21