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South Korea Debates International Adoption

Since the 1950's, South Korea has sent more than 150,000 orphaned children to live with Western families. That is in part due to a prejudice that many Koreans have against taking in children who are not their own. But a growing number of advocates are calling for an end to international adoption and are trying to encourage Korean families to adopt. Jason Strother has the story from Seoul.

Han Yeon-hee, her husband and their seven children climb into the family's minivan.

Their children range in age from seven to 28. But only one is the couple's biological child.

Han says she adopted six children because she did not want to see any child grow up without a family.

She says even before she was married, she not only wanted to have her own child but to adopt one also. She never thought she would end up adopting so many.

Aside from its size, Han's family is unique because most Koreans do not consider adopting.

At an orphanage in Seoul, about 40 children sit down for lunch.

According to adoption advocates, thousands of South Korean children live in these institutions. Most were abandoned by unwed mothers or parents who could not care for them.

Once a child becomes three months old, the chances it will be adopted are slim.

Chun Soon-gul, is the director of MPAK - the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea. He says prejudice is the main reason Korean families do not want to adopt.

Chun says that many Koreans have this idea that they have to maintain the family bloodline, so it is hard for many people to have an open mind toward adopting children from another family. He adds that many people have prejudices about orphans, thinking they have genetic defects, or their parents were alcoholics or had mental problems.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has relied on Western families, mostly from the United States, to adopt its orphaned children.

But the practice has a growing number of critics.

Leading the opposition are adopted South Koreans, who as adults, have returned to live in the land of their birth.

Kim Stoker, who was adopted by an American family in 1972, represents a group called Adoptees Solidarity Korea. She says the government should try to help unwed mothers, rather than encouraging them to send their babies abroad.

"In lieu of developing its social welfare programs, [the South Korean government] it has become reliant on the international adoption program to take care of some aspects of society, and they never had to develop any kind of social safety net because they have international adoption," said Stoker.

Stoker considers international adoption a violation of not only the mother's human rights but also the child's. She says that is something people from adoptive countries do not understand.

"You know, people have this attitude that adoptees should be grateful," she said. "Grateful for what? Not being raised with the woman who gave birth to me? Should I be grateful that I was taken away from my culture, my language, my fellow, the people who share my race?"

Chun Soon-gul from MPAK says that he too would like to see the end of international adoptions someday. But for now, more work needs to be done to help the thousands of South Korean children who grow up in orphanages. He says without the money or family support to enter university, it is easy for orphans to fall behind.

Chun says that after an orphan turns 18 and has to leave the orphanage, it is very difficult for them to lead a normal life. It is tough for them to find a good-paying job and they end up being pushed to the bottom of society.

Chun says Korea needs to have more families, like Han Yeon-hee's, who are willing to give orphans loving homes.

Back at Han's home, eight-year-old Hannah practices her piano lessons.

Han says she knows it will take a long time for other Korean families to overcome their prejudice toward orphans. She hopes that her family might be able to change attitudes toward adoption.

She says in Korea, there are not any good role models for adopting. She says that people thought adoption was a shame or they kept it secret. She hopes her children can be good examples.

There is evidence that the work of Han Yeon-hee and MPAK might be paying off. Last year, for the first time since international adoption began in South Korea, more children were taken in by Korean families than sent overseas.