▲ Kim Soon Sil is director of the Hongik Center, the only orphanage on Jeju from which children can be adopted. Photo by Darryl Coote

Since the Korean War, the adoption of thousands of Korean children to foreigners has wounded the pride of the nation due to the importance placed on maintaining a pure bloodline. This Confucian ideology has also been the root of a low adoption rate by Koreans.

“For a long time Korea was very poor,” said Kim Soon Sil, director of the Hongik Center, the only orphanage on Jeju from which children can be adopted. This resulted in a surplus of children who could not find homes within Korea due to the stigma against raising a child of different parentage. She said that those who did adopt would often fake pregnancies to hide the fact, though this habit has declined significantly since the ’80s.

Figures from a census on Dec.31, 2009, showed that almost half (1,125) of all adoptions in Korea last year were to families overseas, with America claiming 75 percent. These numbers show that little has changed over the last decade.

Surprisingly, the Hongik Center, established in 1984, has never sent a child outside Korea’s borders. According to Kim, 70 percent of those adopted stay within Jeju, while the remainder is fostered by families on the mainland.

These statistics may seem impressive, and in some ways they are, but of the 35 children that currently live at Hongik, only 15 are eligible for adoption. “The rest [of the parents] didn’t abandon their rights as parents,” Kim said. Many of the parents who do not waive their rights are young single mothers or families under dire financial restraints who hope to one day be in a situation to properly raise their child. “The majority of the parents don’t come back for them,” Kim said.

▲ Photo by Darryl Coote

Kim is conflicted about the regulation that allows this situation, and said that it is difficult to know whether it is best for the children considering that most are never reclaimed from the orphanage but are also prevented from being eligible for adoption. On the other hand, the possibility that they may one day be reunited with their birth family might be worth the risk, though “one third [of all children admitted to the orphanage] are raised here until adulthood,” she said.

At the Hongik Center, children can stay until they are 20 years of age (22 if they attend university). Of those that remain at the center until adulthood, some are disabled, either mentally or physically, or were not adopted before the age of one, as most adoptive parents prefer younger children. Some in the latter group suffered minor problems such as being underweight that many prospective parents considered indications of future health problems. Male children are often overlooked in favor of females.

“Many parents believe it is easier to raise a girl,” Kim said. She said this has been a consistent trend since the ’80s and is a result of people believing that males are more troublesome than their female counterparts and that “if a child causes trouble ... it is the parents’ fault.”

At the center, re-cords are kept of all those who apply to adopt, citing their preference of age, blood type and even the day they wish to pick up their new family member.

“Some parents want to adopt on a special day, similar to a wedding or anniversary - a lucky day,” Kim said.

Kim said that the importance parents place on their preferences is one of the biggest obstacles adoption faces today. Due to the concern for purity of blood-line that runs deep in Korea, parents want to eliminate as many differences between the child and themselves as possible. In the West, that is not so important, Kim said, but in Korea “it is a really deep-rooted culture that the kids must look like their parents.”

To adopt a child can take anywhere from 15 days to three months from the moment of submitting request forms. During this time, Hongik will visit the applicant’s home to assess economic and environmental factors, as well as educational and emotional support.

To stimulate the stalled adoption rate in the country, the Korean government recently implemented a 100,000 won a month stipend until the adopted child turns 13, (550,000 won for a disabled child) as well as allowing single parents to adopt, plus increased the age at which one can adopt from 50 to 60. “Not many people adopt early in life,” Kim said. “In Korean society, parents want to adopt after trying [to have a baby] for 10 years.” They consider adoption their last resort, she said.

▲ Photo by Darryl Coote

Kim is supportive of the government’s measures to encourage adoption, but feels that they are not enough. During times of economic difficulties, adoption rates plummet and Kim believes that the monthly allowance should be increased. She was also wary of the raise in eligible age limit, fearing that it might not be in the best interest of the adopted children.

To persuade Koreans to consider adoption, Kim said that the first thing to change must be the nation’s perception of adopted children. “Media, dramas and TV have created a negative stereotype about adopted children,” Kim said. She hoped that the negative images would be combated by the government instituted adoption awareness day on May 11.

“May is family month,” Kim said “and May 11 means one family, one adoption.”

The celebration’s purpose is to promote a positive image of adoption. “There will be a lot of events to promote adoption in Korea.”

On a late March visit to the Hongik Center, Park Min Jung, at 20 days old, was the youngest child at the orphanage. She slept swaddled in blankets. Her mother is a high school student, the center staff said, but they would give no further information. The baby girl is currently in good hands at the center, but one can only hope that the orphanage will not become her permanent residence. As Kim said, “The best environment for kids is in a family.”

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