When Park Song became pregnant some five years ago, the father of her child changed his number and stopped responding to her messages. The 32-year-old was unmarried. Her mother had passed away, and her father was ill. She had nowhere to turn for support.
“All of the mother-and-baby shelters in Seoul were full at the time,” the 32-year-old told The Korea Herald.
“I had to go to a pastor’s house in Busan, and later moved into a shelter in the same city.”
When her son, Si-hoo, was born, she managed to track down his father and messaged him. His response was, “You should give him up for adoption. We are not ready to have a child.” Park cut him out of her life for good.
“I became so angry so I lied to him,” she said.
“I told him that I had already given the baby up for adoption, and that he should be kind to others for the rest of his life because somewhere out there his child is alive, raised by someone else. I hung up and never called him again.”
Park is one of South Korea’s many unwed, single mothers who still face discrimination and social stigmatization. As single motherhood continues to be a taboo in South Korea, and failing to pay child support is not a criminal offense, many unwed mothers suffer financial difficulties and lack of social and emotional support in child care.
A 2012 study showed that 83 percent of all single parents in Korea never received any child support from noncustodial parents. Only 4.6 percent of them filed lawsuits. Even among those who won their cases, 77.33 percent said they never received any money, despite court orders. As of this year, some 80 percent of all Korean single parents are women.
Following the release of the 2012 study, the Ministry of Gender Equality set up an agency that collects overdue child support for single parents in 2016. The agency said it has collected 27.5 billion won ($25.5 million) worth of overdue payments in the last three years.
But Park said she could not benefit from the agency’s service because of a rather unexpected reason: She didn’t know her ex’s resident registration number.
Unlike divorced single mothers, those who have never been married have to prove the biological connection between their child and the father to the courts in order to get child support from them.
And according to Park, this could take years, or could even be impossible. Many fathers refuse to take paternity tests, or simply “disappear” by changing their contact number.
Without her former boyfriend’s resident registration number, which is similar to national identification numbers in other countries, the Child Support Agency was unable to help her, she said.
Park, who initially did not want to speak to the father of her child, later changed her mind, as she felt more support from both of the parents would help her son in the long run.
“I even went to the police station and asked if they could help me in tracking down my ex’s resident registration number,” she told The Korea Herald.
“The officers told me that unless he is charged with a criminal offense, they cannot give out his identification number. It is so easy for men to get away from their responsibilities, while many unwed single mothers have to give up their lives to raise their children alone, often without any support at all.”
More than 210,000 Koreans signed a recent online petition that demanded the presidential office to implement a law that makes it mandatory for all noncustodial fathers -- including those who were never married to the mothers of their children -- to pay child support.
In response, the presidential office said that ways to introduce new measures to better protect vulnerable mothers and their children would be reviewed.
Park said financial difficulties, as well as a lack of social and emotional support, have been hard to deal with. Very often, her son would be the last one to leave the day care center among all the children because although Park tries her best, it is often hard to get off work on time -- and she has no one else to pick him up for her.
On days when Park is late, Si-hoo would wait for his mother in an empty classroom alone with his teacher.
Once, he did not want to go to day care because he did not have hanbok, a traditional Korean garment, and everyone else in the class would wear it on the day.
“I wish I could get him hanbok, but with my financial situation, it’s not easy. And it breaks my heart,” she said. “Once, I arrived at the day care center really late. I kept apologizing to the teacher, repeatedly telling her ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ She was visibly annoyed and didn’t even make eye contact with me.”
Things were tough when Park was ill and needed immediate medical attention.
“I had to leave my son at a Catholic convent with nuns when I had to get emergency throat surgery,” she told The Korea Herald. “I couldn’t find anyone else to take care of him when I had to be in the hospital.”
Choi So-mi, another unwed single mother, said failure to pay child support should be criminalized.
“Physical abuse is not the only form of child abuse,” she told The Korea Herald.
“Neglecting your child’s needs by not providing any financial support is also a form of abuse. I don’t think people realize the seriousness of such irresponsible behavior. They will only realize once the specific act is criminalized. I don’t know why children have to get hurt for not having a father (and being children of single mothers), when they didn’t do anything wrong.”
On May 5, which is Children’s Day in South Korea, Park plans to do face painting with her son, while Choi, whose son Han-gyul is 6, plans to participate in a marathon.
“As much as it is hard to be a single mother, I have to say it is my son who keeps me going,” Park said. “My son is the most important thing in my life.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org