South Korea's Baby Mill

Despite having one of the world’s lowest birthrates and the 14th-largest economy, South Korea is a major source of infants adopted internationally each year.

As the country has grown richer, its total fertility rate has fallen to the lowest level in the industrialized world, from more than six babies per mother in 1960 to 1.15 today, far below the accepted replacement level of 2.1 per mother, according to figures supplied by the World Bank. Despite that, there seems little impetus to keep its adoptable children at home. Many factors are at work that lead to South Korean babies being adopted, both domestically and abroad.

According to the Korean Ministry of Health, an estimated Korean 220,000 babies have been adopted by parents in 14 receiving countries since the global child diaspora began in 1955 when an American couple, Bertha and Henry Holt, adopted eight at one go.

The Americans continue to lead in adoptions. According to the 2011 Annual Adoption Report to the US Congress, of the 2,047 foreign-born children adopted by US families from October 2010 to September 2011, 734, or 36 percent were from Korea. Worldwide, China was next, followed by Ethiopia with 1,727 and Russia with 970.

These numbers show that adoption is not simply a matter of a poor family being unable to care for a baby and therefore placing the child in the care of a family with more resources. A stubborn taboo against childbearing out of wedlock and single parent families is a major reason for the lingering prevalence of adoption. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in 2010 one third of adoptees were born to unwed mothers.

Despite its impressive economic development, South Korea is still in many ways a conservative country. On the national census distributed in South Korea earlier this year ‘cohabitating unmarried couple’ wasn't among the options provided in the living arrangement category. Although more young South Koreans are choosing to live together before marriage (in part to share high housing costs), they often keep it a secret from family and coworkers.

There have been continuing objections to the high adoption rate, regarded by some a “baby mill,” with adoption agencies supporting homes for pregnant women in an industry that generates some US$20 million a year. All agencies pay foster mothers to care for the infants, and provide all food, clothing and other supplies free of charge. They also support orphanages or operate them themselves. Along with advice from 'counselors' at the agencies, this system not only makes the process of giving up a child easier, it encourages it, according to one study.

Nor, say international critics, is it particularly healthy for the adopted children, who tend to grow up alienated from the new society in which they live. According to a 2002 Swedish study, Korean and other international adoptees are highly overrepresented in suicide, suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues.

Accordingly, earlier this year the National Assembly passed a measure delivering big changes to the country’s adoption regime, making adoptions subject to court permission, requiring counseling on child rearing by the biological parents, requiring them to agree to the adoption only after a week from birth, and other reforms. Adoptees are to be given the right of access to information regarding their adoptions.. The backgrounds of prospective adoptive parents must be vetted for evidence of criminal behavior.

The low rate of population growth is a threat to continued prosperity. According to a March 2011 study by HSBC, South Korea’s workforce will contract by 32 percent by 2050, which would reduce annual growth by 1 to 1.3 percentage points from 2020 through 2050.

More and more South Koreans are retiring and it is feared there will not be enough people of working age to care for them, which will place strains on the country’s welfare system. There is a lack of welfare measures to assist the elderly.

Many young children in South Korea are traditionally cared for by their grandparents while their parents work. But the rising cost of living is driving more middle-aged women into the workforce and giving them less time for familial responsibilities. Women in their 40s and 50s are being pushed into the labor force by the rising cost of living, according to data recently released by Statistics Korea.

The employment rate among middle-aged women stands at 59.3 percent in the April-June period, the highest level since the third quarter of 1992, when the rate peaked at 60.1 percent. The data showed that female workers in their 50s totaled 2.09 million in the second quarter, up 72 percent from the same period a decade ago when it stood at 1.21 million.

Life is also tough for single parents in South Korea. A study in 2008 by Statistics Korea showed that the average income among single-parent households was just W1.82 million a month, 56 percent of the average W3.22 million a two-parent household made. Unless a single parent happens to be very well off, it is unlikely that they will be able to afford the high priced education that is increasingly important for young South Koreans to succeed.

The South Korean administration has made steps to complicate the process of international adoption and encourage domestic adoption. To some, the image of a country that exports babies for adoption is shameful.

In 2005 a set of measures was introduced to ease the burden for domestic adoptive families. The government made it compulsory for foreign adoption agencies to first seek adoptive parents in Korea while the child is still less than five months old. The government also pays parents a monthly childcare allowance.

In 2007, the national government set a quota to limit the number of adoptions and other measures intended to make adoption less likely. Birth registration became mandatory and adoptees were granted easier access to their birth records, along with the introduction of a seven day period during which mothers may think over the decision of keeping or putting their newborn up for adoption, according to the Korea Herald newspaper.

While steps to discourage adoption may lower the total number of adoptions, it will do nothing to address the factors that lead South Korean mothers to give up their children. At 7.5 percent, South Korea's welfare spending to gross domestic product average is less than half the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. In a June 2011 report entitled "A framework for growth and social cohesion", the OECD called on South Korea to increase its welfare spending by 100 percent or more.

As the reasons for the high rate of adoption are complex, critics say, an imaginative response to the situation is needed to update thinking on the nature of parenting, along with more effective government programs to ease the burden of caring for the elderly and educating children. The adoption reform bill passed earlier this year, is a step in that direction.