A child’s birth should be a joyous occasion, but little Sa-rang barely received a welcoming upon her entrance into the world last year.
Within days of her birth, she was abandoned by her mother and was left under the sole protection of her father, who had just been discharged from military duty.
Raising a child out of wedlock is a herculean task for anyone, but for 37-year-old Kim Jun-ho, it was borderline torture, as he had no assistance.
“I couldn’t send her to day care because I had no money, nor could I tend for her 24/7. Each day, I had to look for jobs that I could do while carrying her in a stroller,” he said.
“What’s worse was that I couldn’t even register her birth.”
While the father’s role in child care is rapidly changing, there is also a darker side, in which unprepared single dads are omitted from government support.
Korean law stipulates that a child born out of wedlock must be registered by its mother. When the mother is unable to register her child, a doctor or a midwife who assisted in the labor, or a relative living with the mother may put the child’s name down, but not the father.
Since the biological mother of Kim’s baby had disappeared without a trace, Kim’s hands were tied. While Kim fought a legal battle with the state to get his daughter registered, the baby was left without any form of legal protection, not even medical insurance.
A simple trip to the doctors would cost Kim some 35,000 ($35), roughly 10 times the cost of a visit with national health insurance. When he rushed her daughter to the emergency room, he had to pay 200,000 won.
“Anywhere in the world, the state would be obligated to protect a child. But in this case, she didn’t exist on paper. She was under the protection of a man with no job, no money and no credit ... In some sense, she was a refugee in her own country.”
Finding it difficult to hold down a job with a baby, he eventually gave up on paying off his debts, and ended up having to sell most of the things he had.
His last resort was begging on the street, and he said he was “actually lucky,” making 50,000 won in an hour at the time. With the money, he bought a can of formula and diapers, allowing the two of them to get through the day.
After 14 months, Kim finally got a court order allowing him to register his child. What he felt, however, was far from pride or a sense of accomplishment. It was grief and guilt for being unable to provide for his daughter.
Kim runs a blog to help other unmarried single dads who have trouble registering their children. He said he hoped to ensure his endeavor would not be for nothing by helping other people in his situation.
Lee Yeong-ho, director of the Single Parent Family Support Center, said one of the biggest troubles faced by single parents was social prejudice and being alienated from their family and friends.
“Whether it be pity or disapproval, people look upon them (single parents) differently. Sometimes their families are ashamed of them,” she said.
As of 2013, 9.4 percent of households in Korea with children were single parent households, an increase from 7.9 percent in 2000. Lee said the percentage of families with single dads are about one-quarter of the number of families with single moms, but the figure is consistently growing.
“Some single dads build a wall against the outside world. Rather than hiding, they should reach out and seek help,” she said. “It is important for single parents to realize that they not are alone in facing their problems.”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)