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In South Korea, international adoption as a solution to social problems

A passport photo of a South Korean adoptee.

A passport photo of a South Korean adoptee.

Monday was “Single Mother’s Day” in South Korea, an unofficial event meant to raise acceptance in the tradition-bound country for women who raise their children alone. It’s also a reminder of the role that various social stigmas have played in another notable aspect of Korean society: international adoption.

South Korea was the first country to begin sending babies abroad in large numbers. The process began in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Korean War, as a way to remove “GI Babies” from the population — the mixed-race children of US soldiers and Korean women.

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“Koreans have this myth of racial purity, they wanted to get rid of these children. Originally international adoption was supposed to be this race-based evacuation,” says Arissa Oh.

Oh is a historian at Boston College and the author of the new book, “To Save the Children of Korea,” that looks at the motives behind the rise of Korean-US adoptions. She says that politics was at work on the American end, too. “Americans started to adopt from Korea partly for Cold War reasons,” she says, “as a way to prove patriotism and win hearts and mind.”

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By the early 1960s, GI babies had receded as an issue, and South Korea began using international adoption to solve other social stigmas — first as a way to remove poor children and later, as South Korea grew more affluent, as a way of dealing with out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The number of Korean babies put up for international adoption soared through the 1970s and 1980s, and peaked around 9,000 in 1985. The trend really started to reverse following the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which drew a lot of negative attention to the outflow of Korean babies.

Today only about 200 Korean children are adopted abroad each year, and other countries, like China and Ethiopia, have picked up what South Korea started. But while international adoption may be less prevalent in South Korea than it used to be, but it still influences Korean society. Adoptees are active in the “Single Mother’s Day” movement, and Oh says that many are working to change the laws and norms that, decades ago, led their birth-families to send them away.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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