A Story about outcasts in a racially homogenous society with strong roots in confucianism. Abandonment of unwanted children and the adoption of these children from South Korea has been around for decades. These unwanted Korean children and “dust of the streets", as the mixed race children where referred to, have been taken care of by NGO’s, churches and private organizations. Most were send away to foreign countries to find their forever homes with adoptive families.
Dust of the streets
Pastor Kim Hae Sung, a minister and pastor at the Global Nanum Sarang church in Seoul works with migrant families. His work mainly focus the needs of multicultural families and sometimes he also works with refugees seeking asylum.
“I am not godfather of migrant workers I am just a person who is being hospitable to foreigners visiting my country.” The pastor answered when asked about the reference of him being the godfather to migrant workers. He smiled and I understood this as I have experienced first hand his work that he does with the workers. I knew about the emergency funeral earlier the day.
Nanum Global Sarang runs free clinics, orphanages, shelters, schools and soul kitchens to help migrant workers in need in Seoul. “The food is for free, the clinics are free, the schools are free, we give everything without charge.”
Pastor Kim is a human rights activist. He fights for the rights of the forgotten and less fortunate. Those in need that have no where to go. His work and activism for the rights of migrants have earned him the nickname ‘Pastor with the microphone’.
“I believe that I got that nickname because I was always at the frontline during the protests and demonstrations for human rights movements and pro democracy movements,” commented the pastor as he reflects and tells the story of how as a sophomore in 1980 at theology school he got involve in a struggle for human rights.
In that time, 1980, when Pastor Kim was studying, the former president Park was assassinated and everything was unstable in Korea. Every college student demonstrated and protested against the government. One of his friends went down to Gwangju and he was killed during the Gwangju massacre. The pastor was also involved in protests so the police wanted to arrest him but he fled and felt guilty for holding on to his life cowardly, so he decided work for the urban poor in Gyeonggido.
“I witnessed the oppression that workers had to endure so I decided to work at a factory with them but because I was a college graduate I got fired and I realized that there are so much injustice and unfairness for the workers so I decided to fight for their rights by establishing a labour counseling centre to help the workers.”
“That has been 25 years and total 35 years has been working for the rights of workers.”
The discussion turned to human rights and the injustices that is being done to so many.
“That is why a private organization is trying to help these workers and their children out.”
“When we talk about human rights we sometimes forget that they are god given rights they were born with these rights. No one can or should take these rights away or destroy them.”
The pastor’s work focus a lot on children and in 2010 he took on a foster role for three children born to a mixed couple. The mother was from Ghana and the father was Korean.
The mother passed away and left the children with their father. “Unfortunately two years later, their father passed away. He basically had given up on his life,” he recalled and said that that is how he met the kids,황도담 Hwang Do Dam, 황용연 Hwang Yong Yeon, and 황성연 Hwang Syong Yeon.
The children had nowhere to go and the pastor got in contact with the Korean family of the children. He wanted to help secure a safe home for the them.
“The father had nine brothers and I discussed the children with them however none of them were financially stable and in the position to take care for all three children. So decided to bring them to Seoul.”
The children now live in a group home and is fostered by the pastor.
The three of them experienced a lot of challenges as they grew up, being mixed race and African Korean. When they first went to school in Seoul people kept asking questions and this made the children feel unwelcome and unwanted.
“They started crying and begged me to take them back home. I understand that the questions were never malicious and that they just wanted to break the ice. However why did they keep asking that question? Because so we are so rationally homogenous and we fail to realize that there might be people who are Koreans but who might not look like average Koreans.”
The pastor realized that he needed to think of a plan to help them to overcome all these issues they are facing and he suggested to the children that they need to introduce themselves politely to all new people that they meet.
He taught them that they are different that they are special and that they must embrace their individuality and just be themselves.
“They have to say that they have a Korean father, a Ghanian mother and that they were born in Korea and that they were Korean. After that introduction most people say , wow you speak great Korean. I have witnessed incessant hurtful remarks coming from Korean People. So I realized that their black skin color was the biggest disadvantage for them but I told them to turn that disadvantage into a merit.”
They were rowdy and violent kids when the first came to the group home in Seoul, but now they have settle in and they are so gentle said the pastor.
“I asked them what was the cause of the change in their behavior? And they said that they now have goals to achieve.”
“God created us after his own image; whether he/she is white or black, poor or rich, educated or ignorant, old or young, he/she is God's image. When God's image is destroyed, it is God's will to recover it and also it is the right thing to do.”
The pastor then took us upstairs to meet the children. We sat around a table, at Ramyeon, Spicy Korean noodles and I met the three children.
There are no statistics of children that are born in Korea to foreign parents. The births are not registered in Korea. But the children that come to Korea with their parents from other countries are registered as they have to come through immigration.
According to pastor Kim, 20,000 foreign children have been documented that arrived in South Korea with their parents.
South Korea passed new adoption legislation in 2012 which aims to limit international adoption.
Since the implementation of this controversial adoption law two years ago, there have been an increase in the abandonment of infants, Korean as well as mixed race babies.
International adoption and intercountry adoption has been around since the early 1950s. The leading adoption regions in the world was North America, Scandinavia and Europe. This trend in Korea was started in 1954 by President Sygman Rhe. South Korea’s adoption program was started as a solution to the increasing problem of bi-racial children or mix raced children left abandoned by their parents.
After the war which left many children orphaned and without family, various religious organizations and churches got involved in efforts to solve the problem.
The orphanages and institutions were housing more and more mixed raced babies, the so called “dust of the streets”. One parent Korean and one parent from a western country. These children were parented by soldiers fighting in the Korean war and Korea mothers, who had relationships with or got married to soldiers. Most of these babies had American fathers.
What started in the 1950s as a social intervention by religious organizations and the South Korean government after the Korean war turned into a social problem and grew into more of trend and industry.
Korean traditional society and Confucius philosophy have dictated adoption and abandonment of children in South Korea for decades. Purity of bloodline, race and cultural background is still a big part of the Korean culture today.
Children born from mix raced couples or out of wed lock were not seen as being pure blooded Koreans and this fact made them undesirable and unwanted. Branded with a mixed race identity they were not accepted as part of the Korean culture and send away.
International adoption from South Korea went through a lot of changes and policies and interventions by government over the years and once more it is creating controversy with the implementation of the new law.
Adoption. Speaking out.
South Korea has earned a reputation as the “baby factory” since it started it’s controversial adoption program in the 1950s. Since the Korean war 200,000 children from Korean as well as mixed raced backgrounds were send overseas.
The government has tried over the past couple of decades to get rid of this reputation by encouraging domestic adoption and providing foster families with financial support and other incentives. Since 2006 the number of domestic adoptions has increased due the governments tough regulations on international adoptions and also the implementation for the new adoption law in 2012.
Many of the children being put up for adoption today are physically- and mentally handicapped children and it is hard to find foster parents for them in Korea.
Koreans, because of Confusion values, regarding culture and bloodline does not adopt or foster children from others and this is a big issue that has played apart in the history of adoption in Korea.
In 1988, Korea was introduced to the world as industrialized democratic country. This image was portrayed to the world in the media in the running up to the Olympic games. At the time is was not only Koreas successes as a growing industrial country and the Olympic games that caught the worlds attention, but the controversial adoption program that was widely publicized.
The media at the time, portrayed the host country of the 1988 Summer Olympics as the leading exporter of children. This drew unwanted negative publicity for the country during a time of the Olympic games.
The criticism of the adoption program in the media reached its peak in 1988. This was a turning point as this program was perceived by Koreans as shameful and measures was taken to try and rid the country of this Baby Factory identity.
As a result of the negative press and the attention the program got at the time, especially a time when the whole world is glued to their TV’s to watch the most prestigious sports event, sending Korean children abroad was temporarily suspended. This was done to try and curb the negative publicity that Korea received at the time.
"Babies for sale. South Koreans make them American's buy them"an article by Mathew Rothschild in the Progressive in 1988 played an instrumental role in the change of attitude towards the program and this article also inspired change.
In the coming years the number of international adoptions was reduced. The negative attention lead to the governments decision to decrease the number of adoptees send abroad and visiting programs for adopted Koreans were implemented.
Currently adoption agencies are fighting a law intended to shut down baby factories in 2015.
The new adoption law and the impact
- Birth mothers will have 7 days after delivery to bond with the newborn and they have the opportunity to change their mind, they can either keep the baby or give it up for adoption.
- Adult adoptees have the right to access their birth and family records
- Focus is on support of single mothers and to give single mothers options and support in such ways that would encourage them to keep their babies and raise them
- Focus would be steered away from international adoptions and more focus would be placed on domestic and local adoption
Because of a paper I can become an orphan
Pastor Kim Hae-sung that is known for his work with migrant workers explained the impact of the new adoption law and how it affects not only Korean babies, but also foreign babies that get abandoned by their parents.
The most important changes in the new law is the care of the babies in the first couple of days after delivery and also registration of the new borns “The new adoption law states that the mothers needs to breastfeed the baby for 7 days to form a bond and if they still want to give up the baby, they can. All babies needs to be registered in order to be adopted. If the parents are under age then the parents of these young people needs to be interviewed before giving the baby up for adoption.”
The pastor stated that the irony of the new law is that more babies are being abandoned, but he feels that the changes are important as it helps adoptees in their search for the parents as there would be proper administration and registration, these lacked in the past, with the consequence that many adoptees now cannot find their parents. " After meeting adoptees and realizing their desperation to find their roots, I realized that this law may not be that bad at all."
Dr. Sunguk Seo an OBGY doctor at Illsan Hospital in Busan works with single mothers and woman that are giving birth.
“For a young lady it is very hard to raise a baby by herself. I don’t strongly recommend that the single mothers should have a chance for bonding. I don’t recommend that. It might be very hard for the young mother after she has bonded with her child to give it up, if the process of adoption is already underway.”
According to Dr. Seo there is a process involved and it starts before delivery. The social worker and the single mother and the mother of the pregnant woman get together and discuss this problem seriously and realistically. “I think this is the best way to solve this problem” Dr. Seo said.
There is the option that after delivery that the mother can change her mind, but before delivery everyone has to get together to discuss the problem and the solutions to the problem.
Dr. Seo stated that mothers are scared to register their babies, these babies can be given up for adoption. The problem is that without registration these babies or children can’t be adopted.
“The law states that babies must be registered the baby has the right to know that these are my parents, this is my name”.
“Mothers are scared, they give false names, babies are not registered”. Dr Seo said.
The reason why so many babies are not registered is connected to the history of the culture and the Confusion values of Koreans. According to Dr. Seo this is a cultural issue. “They don't want to leave any stigma of them giving birth.”
In schools, school cards show your name and surname and if you are a single mom, the name of the single mom would appear on the school card as registration. The result of this is that many young students and children of single mothers are being teased and bullied by their friends. This is because the other children would know that this particular child is the child of a single parent. Most single moms want to avoid this stigma and the effects of being a child with a single parent has on the child's personal development as they grow up. They avoid this by not registering the child and giving it up for adoption.
“You have to be registered to be adopted and single moms don’t want to live with this stigma."
This new law had some negative after effects and one of them is that more babies are being abandoned and not registered. Then these children end up in care homes and institutions because they cannot be adopted.
This issue does not only affect Koreans but also the growing foreign community in South Korea as more foreign babies are also being abandoned by their foreign parents, mostly single foreign mothers.
August of 2012, South Korea implemented the Special Adoption Act, which was intended to limit the number of international adoptions. The law prioritizes domestic adoptions, and requires all inter country adoptions to be approved by the family courts. The number of adoptions from South Korea dropped in the last couple of years.
On May 24, 2013, South Korea signed the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption.
There is an increase in the babies that are abandoned and being put up for adoption in South Korea. Experts say that this is because the restrictions and the regulations of the new adoption law. Issues relating to his have been widely debated online as well as print.
Many children born to unwed mothers end up being placed for adoption.
According to Dr. Seo from Illsin hospital there is a lot of support for unwed or single mothers. If the woman find herself in this challenging situation she has to search for help. There are a lot of options. “She has to search for help from society and the public system, the baby box is not a public system.”
Dr Seo emphasizes that there needs to be an awareness and that the Korean society needs to be open to unwed mothers and their struggles.
“I worked with several intelligent young mothers after delivering their unwanted babies. Some of them decided to raise up her baby by herself and her own work. Usually these moms give up one or two years later. It was really hard work for them, to continue with small financial support from government.”
What are the options available for single Korean mothers in Korea?
Government support that is 70,000 a month. Abortion is illegal. Then there is the baby box and adoption.
In early stage of pregnancy, many woman decide to get abortions illegally. They search for small clinics.“They are operating here in Korea. There are many clinics. These clinics operate illegally and an abortion can be done for 130,000 won.”
Abortion is illegal the only legal way to have an abortion in Korea is maternal disease. If there are harmful side effects and definite problem to continue the pregnancy for the mother.
“Rape can be easily used in this situation,” so this needs to be investigated before this can be used as a legal reason for an abortion. “After rape there is a post trauma syndrome and that is a kind of maternal disease.” These are the only legal reasons to get an abortion.”
Under that assumption the mother has to ask help from social workers. She has to prove that she was in that situation.
In the case of maternal disease the life of the mother would be in danger, legally. “But there are many abortions these days.”
An example of an effort to solve this issue of unwanted pregnancies and support for single mothers is the welcome baby project in France.
“Every pregnant woman can deliver is she wants, if she decides to deliver and raise her child, the society will begin to support her. France is the best.” Dr. Seo said
In Korea, if you get pregnant and you are a single mother, you can go to the Unwed mother centre, “The government gives money and the centre gives money. You can live there and also eat there.” she said.
At these centers you get registered as a protected patient and that status declare that you don't have the means to take care of yourself and the baby. The government pays the hospital to have the baby delivered about $800 - $1000 dollars.
“Before the delivery, the adoption process is in place and once the baby gets born, the baby gets put up for adoption.”
“If mothers don't want to give up their babies they can go to this special housing facility and for the unwed mothers, they can get a part time job, but usually they have a difficult time making ends meet.”
In recent years, no single mothers that abandon their babies in Busan according to Dr. Seo
“Many young woman today can do something to prevent pregnancy. They are educated and can get information on the internet. Contraception you can buy over the counter and condoms are not expensive.” “There are licensed social workers that assist woman in difficult circumstances.” she said
“We have to handle two aspects of two side of this issue, publicly and personally, we need to build a support system for unmarried and unwanted pregnancies.”
It is very difficult to get the statistics and exact numbers of births and children that get abandoned because of births that are not registered due to the stigma that is attached to being a single mom. “All the stats are there at the buro of statistics, but it would not be accurate because some people don't report births and don't register as unwed mothers. We have to add our guess, there is no way to know.” She added
There seems to be no long term strategy for this issue. Korean economy and society developed to rapidly to mature and to deal with all the social issues that is faced by the society.
According to Pastor Kim there are 1.7 million migrant workers in Korea.
These workers came to Korean because Koreans avoid the 3D jobs, the jobs that are difficult, dangerous and dirty.
“The Korean society wanted labor, however these workers are not just working machines but rather people” the Pastor said. “ As people they go on dates, have relationships and sometimes end up having babies.”
Most of these foreign workers cannot afford to raise a child, especially if it is a single mom and they often find their way to the pastor in search for help and support.
With little or no support that is available to single foreign mothers, they are left with the decision to abandon their child.
“To take care of the mother and the mental state of the mother is very important. I want to persuade the mothers to keep the child and raise the child with the help of the organization,” the pastor said. “In case the mother does not want the children the best solution is that the centre must fight to amend the law so that these children can be legally recognized in Korea.”
The pastor again mentioned the cultural stigma that is attached to single mothers.“A lot of Korean people think that it is unusual for a single parent to raise his or her children by themselves as single parents and also if unwed parent raises his or her child or children they are very much stigmatized and shunned.” This stigma is nothing new as this is part of the history and the cultural make-up of this society.
“That needs to stop.”
“That the children born in those conditions and the single parents are important needs to be socially, culturally and legally recognized. We shall continue to fight to change the law and make necessary policies.”
Abortion was an option for woman in the past and according to the pastor nowadays it is virtually impossible.
On Friday night, 15 November, a young mother from Cambodia arrived at the church looking for support. She wanted to give up her baby. Her partner from Sri Lanka, left her. The two of them, Sophia and Rose was deserted. Sophia, a low income factory worker, was left to work and take care her child on her own.
“Those migrant workers with unwanted pregnancy must go through tremendous mental stress and possibly might think of extremes because they cannot handle the realities. So I wanted to build a place where they can come in and feel comfortable enough to talk about the pregnancies and their plans for the babies. We have translators available for them and also they will get pre-natal care for free and we have a group housing for the mothers and the babies and also a nursery for the babies only if the mothers do not want to be involved.”
Sophia came to the right place.
Sophia was taken care of that night by the pastors and members of the church, she had support and we were only allowed to speak to her the next morning before nine.
We had 15 minutes before they were taken away by the members of the Church on the Sunday morning.
Sophia has been working in Korea for a couple of years in a factory in a village outside Seoul. She faced some very challenging circumstances when she became pregnant and after the delivery.
“Children that are born to migrant workers are not recognized by the Korean government as Korean citizens, even if they are born in Korea. They are not Korean children. Unlike Europe, North America a child must have at least one national as a parent in order to have Korean citizenship” the pastor said
“These children do not have legal status, citizenship or health care. If the parents are married the child gets the national citizenship of the parents, but in a situation where the child gets abandoned, the child has not citizenship, no registration papers, no birth certificate and no home.” Pastor Kim noted.
“The worst case is undocumented migrant workers who get pregnant I believe.”
These children are left with no name, no nationality. They are nobody. They cannot be adopted. They are just abandoned.
Just because the child is born in Korea does not make the child a Korean national.
Pastor Kim's believe that there would more of these girls and babies in the future. No matter how many there will be their organization will help those in need without the governments resources or help. He hopes that his work will guide and lead the Korean government to recognize these kids legally and that the government would follow the UN children's rights chart.
I love you my baby
“In front of one church a baby box appeared, it is a kind of hazard because leaders of the church announced that they are doing some work, a baby box, so the mother that are suffering with an unwanted baby get the idea to send their baby to this baby box in front of the church.” Dr. Seo
This very controversial issue gets discussed daily as this operation by pastor Lee Jong-rak in Seoul is illegal. “The government does not recognize it as it is seen as an illegal operation. However people realize it is better to have the child than to abort it.” says pastor Kim of Global Sarang.
Many churches and organizations have been thinking about and discussing the issue, weighing up the all the issues in their discussions and most have decided not to continue with plans to implement more baby boxes not only for Koreans but also for the growing migrant population.
There were talks at Illsin hospital but after discussions the idea was also discarded. “A year ago a pediatrician here was thinking about doing baby box work at this hospital, but we discussed this seriously, the bad aspects of the baby boxes, the baby box can provoke the woman's bad desire to abandon their babies. They want to avoid their responsibilities to take care of their babies.” Dr Seo of Illsin hospital said.
Pastor Kim of Global Sarang in Seoul was planning to open a second baby box in October this year according to reports in the press.
“There is a baby box in Korea and that is place where unwanted babies can be received. What we are planning to do is not a baby box but a comprehensive centre where we will provide guidance and counseling for migrant workers with unwanted pregnancies, and help them from the beginning of pregnancy to the delivery as well as help raise the baby if they want to do so, and finally if they cannot take care of the baby, the center will take the foster role.”
“Korean people pride themselves of being racially homogenous and the cannot fathom the fact that there would be Koreans all over the world with different color skin and that speak different languages. The world is changing and we need to adapt to it.” The pastor answered when asked about his personal opinion on the issue.
“As a person and not a pastor…it is the right thing to do to accept an unwanted child instead of abandoning or aborting it.”
The plans to open of the first baby box for foreigners has changed. “At first I was going to run a baby box for migrant workers, several adoptees came to see me and asked me whether I had ever asked about the rights of these abandoned children.”
“They were adopted abroad when they were babies and they came back to Korea to find their roots, however they did not know where to start as there was no record.”
After his conversations and discussion with many adoptees the pastor has changed his mind about opening a baby box. Instead he will open a centre of support for migrants that face difficulties. He said that he realized that taking care of the mothers and their mental condition is much more important.
“I do not believe that these kids should be aborted, abandoned or killed after birth. In that respect the baby box is definitely needed. The baby box is needed but taking care of the pregnant mother from the beginning of the pregnancy to the delivery and to the upbringing of the baby is more needed.” the pastor said
The comprehensive centre that Pastor Kim is planning, due to open soon, is a housing centre, a nursery and a counseling centre. This will be a place that comprises of all the assistance that migrant workers might need. It will serve as a crisis management centre for migrant workers with unwanted pregnancies.
Baby box. Speaking out.
The number of mixed race babies being abandoned in South Korea is on the rise. These numbers have increased so much that a pastor has decided to open a baby box for foreigners.
This plan has since developed into a Multicultural centre that would take care of the needs of single foreign mothers and children from mixed race backgrounds.
Currently there is only one baby box in Seoul.
Korea as a country is not prepared for the social welfare problems that comes with the increase in migrant workers in the country.
Registration of births, stigma, cultural identity and free choice is at the core of this story. There needs to be debate about the social welfare issues.
Efforts should be made to encourage a change in attitude of people that sees ancestry and bloodline as the most important part when it comes to raising a family.
Be brave. Speak out.
Information for unwed mothers
Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association
Local advocacy groups and service organizations
Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association
Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network
InTree: Unwed Moms for a Changed Future
Unmarried mothers’ shelters
718-35 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Korea
479-13 Uijeongbu2-dong, Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi-do, Korea
1753-10 Daeyeon-dong, Nam-gu, Busan, Korea
128-1 Beomeo-dong, Suseong-gu, Daegu, Korea
445-12 Sotae-dong, Dong-gu, Gwangju, Korea
Little Moms' Nest
Bosan-dong, Naju, Jeon-nam, Korea
Group homes for unmarried mothers and their children
955-20 Geomsa-dong, Dong-gu,Daegu, Korea
66-29 Unsu-dong, Gwangsan-gu, Gwangju-si
1216-135 Daeyeon-2-dong, Nam-gu, Busan
Ministry of health and Welfare Korea
Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A.’L)
Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK)
Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK)