The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘Intercountry adoption must be last resort’

Government to improve its birth family search service for Korean overseas adoptees

By Claire Lee

Published : Dec. 22, 2014 - 21:42

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In 2012, the South Korean government established the Korea Adoption Services upon revising its adoption law, which stipulated that infants could not be put up for adoption without their births being registered.

After two years as the agency’s first president, Shin On-han is even more determined to bring changes the nation’s adoption policies, as well as to improve the services for Korean overseas adoptees who wish to find their birth parents.

“We believe transnational adoption should be a last resort,” Shin said in an interview with The Korea Herald in his office in Seoul. “We are also thinking of ways to help those who would like to search for their birth parents.”

Last year, the Korean government signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement to protect both birth and adoptive families. 
Shin On-han. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald) Shin On-han. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

The agreement states that intercountry adoption should be arranged “only when no suitable alternatives exist or can be created in that child’s own country.”

“We understand that ensuring the child’s best interest is most important,” Shin said. “We are first aiming to support birth parents who are struggling to raise their children. The second option would be domestic adoption. If none of these can be arranged, then transnational adoption can be considered.”

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, about 90 percent of Korean adoptees are born to unwed single mothers who are very often stigmatized in Korea. The government will raise its monthly allowance for unwed single mothers next year, from the current 70,000 won ($64) each to 100,000 won.

“I think it’s most important to support single mothers,” Shin said. “It’s necessary to create an environment where a single mother can raise her child with support. No one should feel forced to give up her own child.”

The changed adoption law, which was designed to reduce unregistered adoptions of children overseas, has an unintended side effect. More mothers are abandoning their babies anonymously, fearing possible social stigma that may result from registering births of their infants.

“We believe having a birth certificate is one of the very basic human rights, and that everyone must be registered once they are born,” Shin said.

“I just want to stress that the mothers’ private information is being protected very seriously.”

Shin’s agency is also digitizing some 35,000 documents related to transnational adoptions that have occurred in South Korea since the 1950s, in its effort to help Korean overseas adoptees find their birth parents.

The process is expected to be completed by the end of this month and the digitized documents will be archived in the agency’s database, Shin said.

According to Shin, about 120 adoption agencies in Korea have closed down since the late 1970s, from some 400 in 1978 to 280 last year.

This year, the Korea Adoption Services discovered some 6,149 copies of adoption documents belonging to the now-defunct adoption agencies.

It plans to track down the representatives of seven other shuttered adoption agencies and archive any possible remaining documents ― an estimated 6,000 files ― next year.

Also, inspired by Korean overseas adoptee Sarah Bowling ― who recently launched her own online database that helps birth parents and adoptees look for each other without revealing their identities ― Shin’s agency is planning to offer a similar service.

“I think every adoptee has the right to search, and every birth parent has the right to protect their privacy,” Shin said.

“Even if an adoptee’s birth parent doesn’t want to reveal his or her identity, we will still try to connect them anonymously and let them share as much information as possible ― such as what hospital the child was born in and which region of the country the mother is from. I think this information can still help adoptees learn about their unknown past.”

Of the 1,033 Korean transnational adoptees surveyed last year by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 83 percent said they were interested in finding their birth family, with 71 percent saying they had pursued the search already.

However, only 28 percent of those who searched were able to reunite with their birth parents.

According to KIHASA, South Korea has sent about 165,000 children overseas for foreign adoption over the past six decades.

By Claire Lee (