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International Adoption: Lessons from Korea

Since the 1950s, South Korea has placed an estimated 150,000-200,000 children in North America, Europe and Australia. Adoptees, activists and experts weigh in with perspectives on In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, what we can learn from the largest international community of adoptees and the answers that they seek.

Adoption is About Finding Homes for Children

Steve MorrisonStephen C. Morrison was orphaned at age 6 and lived in an orphanage for eight years before being adopted by the Morrison family at 14. He founded the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK) in 1999 to bring about positive changes in the adoption culture in Korea by promoting domestic adoption as well as adoption by Korean-Americans.

While watching In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I was reminded of an incident that happened right before my eyes just a day before I was to leave for the airport to go to my family in the United States. The year was 1970, and I was a 14-year-old boy who was very excited and anxious to go to the United States to be with my new family. In the same orphanage there was a little boy about 5 years old whose name I cannot recall, and he was an Amerasian with blonde hair and Caucasian features. His mother was Korean, and she entrusted her son to the orphanage to be adopted, as she could not keep the boy because he looked different and also due to the fact that he had been born out of wedlock. This fact would have made it extremely difficult for her to raise the boy, as in Korean society there is a strong negative social stigma against children born out of wedlock and their mothers. While the boy was in the orphanage, the mother would periodically visit the boy and take him out of the orphanage to buy some treats for him from neighborhood stores, but she always returned him to the facility. The boy was scheduled to leave for the United States the same day I did. But just a day before we were to leave together, the boy’s mother came and took him away without telling anyone. I watched her take him away, and I thought she was going to the store with him as usual. But they never came back to the orphanage. A commotion followed as the orphanage director and others looked for him around the neighborhood, but they could not find him. So I was sent to the United States without him.

The story of In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is strikingly similar, except that no substitution took place in my case. In both cases, I believe the birth parents made last-minute decisions to stop their children from being adopted rather than face permanent separation. Both parents found it difficult to tell the orphanage directors of their changes of heart after having committed to adoption, so they decided to take their children away quietly without telling anyone. In those days, many parents abandoned their children to orphanages because they had no means to take care for them, and many of those children were adopted abroad.

As for the reasons for the deception in In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I do not believe financial motive was the cause — the orphanage director most likely made the decision not to disappoint the waiting family in the United States, and also he knew the unfavorable conditions that orphans faced in Korea and made a humanitarian decision to give a chance to another girl, an 8-year-old girl named Kang Ok Jin, who became Cha Jung Hee.

Orphans growing up in Korea face incredible challenges as they are subject to strong social stigma. Compared to ordinary children with families, orphans in Korea experience what I call “status discrimination,” as they are not given the same opportunities to get good educations and good jobs. In the old days, 3 to 5 percent of orphans were able to go to college. Although educational opportunities for orphans have increased in recent years, they still fall significantly short of those afforded ordinary Korean children with families. By contrast, approximately 70 percent of Korean adoptees in the United States and Europe receive education to the high school level or above.

The discrimination does not end with education. If a young man with background as an orphan wishes to date and marry a woman with a family, often the woman’s parents reject the man even though the woman loves him. If two men of equal ability apply for the same job, and one grew up in an orphanage and the other in a normal family, the man who grew up in the orphanage usually loses out. Although the social stigma against orphans has lessened greatly in Korea over the years, it still presents a big challenge for orphans growing up in orphanages. Not many orphans are adopted domestically in Korea, as they are mostly older, and Korean nationals tend to prefer adopting infants to keep the adoptions secret. For these reasons, I still believe that orphans should be given the opportunity to be adopted into families in the United States.

In In the Matter Cha Jung Hee, Deann Borshay Liem raises an honest question about how and why a humanitarian effort became an industry worth millions of dollars. However, it is a fact that year 2009 statistics from the Korean government show that approximately 10,000 children became homeless that year. Out of those, approximately 1,300 were adopted domestically within Korea, and approximately 1,100 were subject to intercountry adoptions. That leaves 7,600 children who are either in foster care or in institutions. Even with all the efforts to reunite biological families and promote domestic adoption in Korea, only 13 percent of homeless children have found homes domestically. Although the adoption industry started as a humanitarian effort, saying that it has become an industry seems to suggest that the focus of the adoption business is more on profit than on finding homes for children. Although I am not affiliated with any adoption agencies, I am keenly familiar with all the agencies and their work in Korea and in the United States, and I truly believe that even today the agencies are driven more by the humanitarian need to find homes for children than by a business motive. It doesn’t matter whether a child is a war orphan or the child of an unwed mother in modern times — that child still needs a home.

I believe domestic adoption should be promoted more, and when domestic adoption improves, the need for intercountry adoption will decrease. In the meantime, improvements should be made to the adoption process in order to prevent the irregularities that are portrayed in In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee from being repeated in the future.

 

Steve MorrisonStephen C. Morrison, a senior project engineer at The Aerospace Corporation, is involved with the design and development of the GPS III satellite system. Morrison was orphaned at age 6 and lived in an orphanage for eight years before being adopted by the Morrison family at age 14. He founded the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK) in 1999 to bring about positive changes in the adoption culture in Korea by promoting domestic adoption as well as adoption by Korean-Americans. Morrison received the 2007 National Civilian Medal of Honor from the Korean government for his efforts to promote adoption in Korea and has spoken at many churches and organizations advocating the cause of homeless children. He and his wife adopted a child from Korea in 2000 and are in the process of adopting another child from Korea.





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