exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

‘Sorry Jeong-in’: how K-pop stars and a Twitter campaign are forcing a rethink of South Korea’s ‘profit-driven’ adoption services

  • Death of a 16-month-old baby, allegedly at the hands of abusive adoptive parents, has reopened a national debate on the country’s adoption services
  • Critics say the services have become too focused on profitable overseas adoptions and that vulnerable children are being commodified

David D. Lee

For many people in South Korea, 2021 started with an apology.

The words “I’m sorry, Jeong-in”, reverberated around Twitter, as across the country people vowed to remember the death of a 16-month-old baby girl who allegedly suffered at the hands of abusive adoptive parents, and never to let it happen again.

Among those joining the cause were television actors, such as Shin Ae-ra, and K-pop stars such as Jimin, of boy band BTS, and the singer and actress Uhm Jung-hwa.

It was not only the rich and famous, but the whole nation that was shocked when the investigative SBS television show Unanswered Questions detailed the child’s injuries in a documentary that aired in January.

Jeong-in, who died in Seoul in October last year, had suffered severe abdominal injuries and bleeding caused by “strong external force applied on her back”, according to a forensic examination. She had fractured bones and bruises all over her body.

The “I’m sorry” campaign is centred on getting justice for Jeong-in and already there are signs the pressure is having an effect.

Jeong-in’s adoptive mother had initially been charged with child abuse resulting in death, but following criticisms that prosecutors in their trial had been too lenient – and a re-examination of the case by forensic experts – the charge was raised to murder.

That decision raised the maximum possible prison term from six years to 16. Jeong-in’s father, meanwhile, has been charged with negligence of child abuse. A new trial is expected on February 17.

But there is another part to the campaign too. Many child welfare advocates say Jeong-in’s death should be a wake-up call for the government to rethink the country’s entire approach to adoption.

They argue that rather than meeting a social need, adoption has become an industry that treats adoptive parents as customers, that maximises profit and commodifies the children it is supposed to be helping.

As countless of the campaigners’ social media posts put it, “it’s time for us to change”.


Modern adoption services in South Korea are rooted in the humanitarian effort that followed the 1953 armistice in the Korean war, which left tens of thousands of children orphaned.

Part of this effort involved the highly televised adoption of eight children by Harry Holt, the founder of Holt International, the parent company of Holt Children’s Services.

Today, Holt Children’s Services is the country’s largest provider of adoptions, serving adoptive parents both overseas and domestically. It is also the company that arranged Jeong-in’s adoption (to South Korean parents).

Critics say despite the humanitarian roots modern adoption services have become too focused on money.

Due to the commercial secrecy cited by most adoption agencies it is hard to know what the entire “industry” is worth, yet some of the figures involved are eye opening.

Holt Children’s Services reported revenues of US$80 million in 2019 and according to its website, in 2017 it was charging a commission fee of US$33,150 per child to adoptive parents overseas. For each domestic adoption, the company is paid 2,700,000 won (US$2,500) by the government.

The government also gives domestic parents a financial incentive to adopt by paying them 150,000 won (US$135) per month per child until they turn 17.

Beyond the figures involved, another cause for concern, say critics, is that it has become common for adoptive parents in South Korea to specify the blood type, gender, health conditions and the educational and health backgrounds of the birth parents in an effort to get their “ideal” baby.

Agencies prefer to take in younger children; some have been known to say that any child above 16 months is too old.

Meanwhile, the criteria for parents is opaque, with the screening process known to differ from case to case – though levels of wealth, clean criminal records and educational backgrounds are usually taken into account.


Kim Do-hyun, the director of KoRoot, a non-profit guesthouse in Seoul for overseas adoptees visiting their birth country in search of their roots, blames Holt Children’s Services for choosing the wrong parents for Jeong-in.

He noted that the social worker had asked if the adoptive parents wanted to take Jeong-in during what was only their first meeting with the child.

“Just because the couple were known to be long-time Christians who participated in volunteer services and had expressed their desire to adopt in the past didn’t make them qualified one bit,” he said.

Kim said the agency had not provided enough time to see if the parents were able to handle the stress of caring for a child or showed a true attachment to the child.

Post-adoption care at Holt includes two family “visitations” and two counselling sessions via e-mail, phone or a “visitation” to Holt’s office per year.

However, a 2014 special report by the health and welfare ministry into Holt Children’s Services claimed that the majority of “visitations” to family homes were done over the phone.

Kim said the problem went beyond Holt and that the whole business model of adoptions in the country needed to be reworked.

“These mishaps are bound to happen due to the privatisation and the consequent profitability of adoptions in the country,” Kim said. “The business strategy of agencies even allows people to choose a child because their biological parents attended prestigious universities while filtering out children with parents who had a history of smoking or drinking.”

He has teamed up with politicians and documentary filmmakers to call on the government to overhaul the whole adoption process.

“We can’t have agencies with incentives of making huge profits continue to choose the parents and play the role of matchmaker in adoptions,” he said. “We need organisations that will look out for the best interests of the children, not themselves.”

Holt Children’s Services released an official apology last month, under the title: “We sincerely apologise to Jeong-in”.

“We take responsibility for failing to respond fast enough and protect a child whose life was falling down, and we will rightfully receive the blame that is directed toward us,” it said.

However, the agency added that an investigation by the health and welfare ministry had found no fault with its adoption process in regards to Jeong-in’s death.

In response to the outcry, the government has announced plans to increase its role in the adoption process while providing more support for parents during the early stages of adoption.

However, it has still not signed the Hague Adoption Convention, an international agreement to safeguard intercountry adoptions.


Since the end of the Korean war, some 200,000 South Korean children have been adopted overseas.

The boom years came in the 1970s as the country’s rapid industrialisation sent poverty levels rocketing. At the same time, demand grew from the West, where increasingly affluent infertile couples found they could afford to adopt.

“In 1985, when overseas adoptions peaked at around 9,000 in South Korea, millions of dollars came in from abroad as an estimated 1.3 out of 100 babies were sent overseas,” said Helen Noh, a professor of social welfare studies at Soongsil University.

Noh said adoption agencies now prioritised sending children abroad over domestic adoption due to greater profits and lower requirements for oversight.

“Unlike domestic adoptions that require periodic check-ups and other management roles, agencies have fewer responsibilities for children who are sent overseas,” said Noh, a former part-time employee at Holt Children’s Services.

“We are the only country where private organisations [rather than public bodies] take in children and manage them in child care facilities and designated foster care homes,” said Noh.

“Our country doesn’t need to be sending our children abroad any more,” she added. “We have the lowest birth rate in the world as it is.”

According to a 2019 study by Peter Selman, a former professor at Newcastle University specialising in child care and adoption, South Korea sent 321 children abroad in 2018, putting it behind only China, India, Colombia and Haiti.

Noh agreed with Kim from KoRoot that a fundamental change was needed. Instead of “trying to facilitate as many adoptions as possible … there needs to be protection and support for birth parents so adoptions are less likely to be needed in the first place.”


Jeon Hyun-suk gave birth to her first son in 1990 at a centre catering to single mothers in need of support. She was just 21 when she gave him up for adoption.

Today, she is married and is bringing up four children. Last year, she reconnected with her son in America after 30 years.

“The first thing he told me was that he didn’t resent me,” said Jeon. “I’ve always wanted to tell him that he was not thrown away.”

In a journal entry she wrote within six weeks of her first son’s birth she had written that she wanted to “receive counselling one more time” and to “take responsibility”.

“But I didn’t have any professional help to guide me during this crucial time when decisions about the future of the child were made,” she said.

More attention should be paid to mothers in need of support so they could make more informed decisions rather than thinking, like her, that adoption was the “only way”, she said.

“People have told me to forget about my first child, but the bond between adopted children and their birth mothers is not something that can be cut,” she said.

“Adoption can be the best option in some cases, but it really shouldn’t be the job of agencies to [let parents pick and choose]. It should be about finding the best possible family for a child in need.”

This Week in Asia has asked Holt International Services for a comment.

2021 Feb 13