Openness Korean Adoptions From Family Lineto Family Life P Hanes H E Kim
Openness in Korean adoptions: from family line to family life
P. Hayes and H.E. Kim
Since about 2000, a limited number of adoption organisations and parent groups
in the Republic of Korea have been exploring how to increase communicative
openness between adoptive parents and their children and between adoptive
families and their neighbours. At least one agency has also developed
structures to facilitate contact between the adoptive family and birth mother.
The effort to increase openness is tied to a philosophy that challenges
widespread assumptions in Korean society by centering its aims on family life
rather than the continuity of the family line. The growth of openness has not
been accompanied by a rise in domestic adoption numbers, but has contributed
to broader efforts to liberalize family relationships in Korea.
Peter Hayes is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sunderland, ADMC,
Priestman Bld., Sunderland SR1 3PZ, UK (E-mail: email@example.com). Hyang-
Eun Kim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Welfare, Kosin University,
Busan, Republic of Korea (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Support has come from ESRC
grant RES-000-22-1840. The authors thank Eun-Yi Jung for her help in researching this
“Openness in Korean adoptions: from family line to family life”
Single mothers in the Republic of Korea face difficult circumstances and many decide
to have their children adopted. Thousands of such children are found new homes each year
in either an international or a domestic placement. Foreign adoptions, however, have become
controversial. In 1989 the government declared that it would progressively reduce
international adoptions and cease all overseas placements in the course of the next seven
years, although in 1994 this objective was modified to decreasing international placements by
stimulating the growth of domestic adoption (J.Y. Chung, 2007). In the twenty first century
the government has instituted a number of reforms designed to encourage more Korean
adoptive parents to come forward, including improved support for adoptive families. Since
2007 the law has required infants available for adoption to be cared for in Korea for five
months, while a domestic placement is sought, before being placed abroad. Alongside
institutions in civil society, the government has also played a significant role in promoting
domestic adoption through information and events. These efforts have increased in visibility
and intensity. News, documentaries, dramas, movies, TV adverts, subway adverts, features
on the radio, internet and in magazines, the involvement of celebrities, all have raised
awareness of adoption and the possibility of adopting domestically.
This public encouragement of domestic adoption sits rather uneasily with
traditionalistic attitudes towards adoption as an intensely private matter. Domestic adoptions
in the Republic of Korea have rarely involved contact between the birth and adoptive families
and have tended to be kept secret not only from those outside the family, but also from the
child. Since around 2000, however, a number of agencies and others involved in adoption
have stressed the benefits that a more open approach can bring and an increasing number of
adoptive parents have become more open. Openness in Korea is conceived principally in
terms of moving along a communication continuum by telling the child and others of the
adoption (Bae, 2004). However, at least one agency branch and a small number of adoptive
parents have also taken the initiative to develop structures to facilitate contact between birth
mothers and adoptive families.
The development of these more open forms of adoption in Korea has an affinity with
the official campaign to increase the number of domestic placements. Adoptive parents who
do not conceal adoptions and who openly discuss adoption issues have the potential to
encourage other parents to consider adoption. A few adoptive parents and birth mothers have
gone further in raising awareness of adoption through media appearances. The principal
impetus behind the transition towards a more open adoption, however, is rooted in a
reassessment of family values. To choose openness in adoption in Korea goes against
traditional norms; it is a deliberate philosophical stance that emphasises the value of family
life, and places less emphasis than is customary upon upholding the family line.
In many respects, the philosophical values that underpin the movement towards
openness in Korea are shared with western advocates of open adoption. The moral basis of
communicative openness in Korea, as in the west, is illuminated by Kirk’s seminal distinction
between acknowledgment of difference and rejection of difference, and his advocacy of
acknowledgment on the grounds of honesty and authenticity (Kirk, 1984). Adoptive parents,
Kirk argues, are pulled in two directions. They want to think that an adoptive family is the
same as a biological family, but they are faced with the reality that their adoptive family is, in
fact, different. Parents can move towards either accepting this difference or rejecting it.
Writing in the context of adoption in North America, Kirk described acknowledgement and
rejection of difference as two ends of a scale, with adoptive parents at various points in
between and often exhibiting both attitudes to some extent. Researchers in the west have
gone on to operationalize Kirk’s distinction between the rejection and acknowledgement of
difference by adoptive parents and correlate these different parental approaches against
outcomes such as levels of family integration and child behavior (Brodzinsky, 2006; Howe &
Feast, 2003). Drawing on the concept of acknowledgement of difference, Brodzinsky has
described communicative openness as the creation of a family environment in which feelings
and thoughts about adoption, particularly those of the children involved, can be freely
expressed and explored (Brodzinsky, 2006). When referring to communicative openness in
Korea, however, our primary focus is on the decision by the adoptive parents to tell the child
and others of the adoption.
A choice akin to acknowledging or rejecting difference faces parents in Korea, but is
much more sharply delineated. Kirk dealt with parents who had all at least told the child of
their adoptive status. In Korea, however, parents have historically maintained as much
secrecy as possible over an adoption, including concealing it from the child. Therefore,
where Kirk’s distinction between rejection and acknowledgment of difference is a question of
degree, in Korea there is an absolute distinction between secrecy and openness. Telling the
child that they are adopted, which is now largely a matter of course in the west, is an obstacle
that not all Korean parents can bring themselves to surmount. The same choice between
being secret and being open recurs in deciding whether or not to tell relatives and others
closely associated with the family. In comparison to the west, discussion of openness in
Korea is somewhat less concerned with how far to respond to or encourage a child’s curiosity
over adoption and how to integrate this knowledge of adoption into daily family life and
rather more concerned with the limits that should be put on who knows the bare fact of the
adoption. Where discussion over openness in the west often focuses on how to tell, in Korea
there is more emphasis on the question of who to tell. Before considering gradations of
rejecting as against acknowledging difference, it is first necessary to understand these more
fundamental choices over who to tell and who not to tell.
The moral case for structural openness in Korea follows western arguments that
adoption with contact helps to respect the feelings of the birth mothers (McRoy, Grotevant, &
White, 1988; Silber & Dorner, 1990). However, critics in Korea have warned that adoption
with contact may create conflicts over entitlement to the children between birth mothers and
adopters. Entitlement conflict in turn may make adoptive parents insecure over their rights as
an adoptive family (Bae, 2000; Hyun, 2004). A high proportion of children relinquished for
adoption in Korea come from unmarried mothers under severe economic and family pressure
who cannot be assumed to have freely chosen adoption. Between 2000 and 2005 children of
single mothers accounted for 75% to 81% of domestic adoptions, while virtually all children
from Korea who were placed overseas were classified as having single mothers (Overseas
Koreans Foundation, 2006). Of the 3,231 children placed either domestically or
internationally in 2006, 2,901 (90%) were relinquished by unmarried mothers (Ministry of
Health and Welfare, 2007a). This creates the potential for entitlement conflict as the same
liberalistic philosophy of the family that underlies openness in adoption may suggest that a
single birth mother may be under unjust pressure to have her child adopted. Against this,
there is research in the west which indicates that two factors associated with beneficial
contact are where the child has been placed as an infant and where the birth relative has not
previously been the child’s primary caregiver (Neil, 2004; Neil & Howe, 2004). Both factors
characterise adoption with contact in Korea, as adoption arrangements are often put in place
while the mother is still pregnant and the child is placed at or soon after birth.
Liberalization in attitudes towards the family in Korea has not proceeded to the same
extent as in the west. Traditional attitudes that impose pressure to be secretive about adoption
remain powerful, and single birth mothers face hard choices. Despite a shared philosophical
staring point, therefore, the consequences that flow from the practice of openness in Korea
may not necessarily reflect the western experience. To place the philosophy of openness in
its Korean context, this discussion paper covers four areas. (1) It explains how the values that
underpin the philosophy of openness in Korea differ from values that impel adoptive families
to maintain secrecy. (2) It identifies some of the ways in which openness has been put into
practice. This section includes an account of how one agency is pursuing structural openness
that allows contact between birth mothers and adoptive families. It also considers the
experiences of adoptive parents who are engaged in communicative openness. (3) It
considers the movement for greater openness in Korea as part of a broader trend towards the
liberalization of attitudes and policies towards the family. (4) It assesses the prospects of
greater openness in adoption fulfilling the hoped-for objectives of increasing the domestic
adoption of children in need, improving adoptive family relationships and representing a
positive alternative for birth mothers.
SOURCES OF EVIDENCE AND METHODS
Our discussion draws on evidence on openness from variety of sources. In 2007
observations were undertaken at a meeting of adoptive parents arranged through the Mission
to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK), and a meeting of adoptive parents arranged by a
branch of the Social Welfare Society (SWS). The daily routine of a second SWS adoption
and childcare facility was also observed. Qualitative interviews with semi-structured open
questions were conducted with six adoptive parents or families, and with two adult adoptees.
One group interview was conducted with MPAK members. Three members of staff at the
Holt adoption agency were interviewed, as were three agency staff from two branches of
SWS and the facilitator of the SWS parent meeting. One Korean birth family in contact with
a foreign adoptive family was interviewed and the contact observed. Written sources of
evidence including government statistics and publications, adoption agency publications, and
scholarly articles have been consulted, as have popular media outlets including TV
documentaries and newspaper reports. The second author has drawn upon her experience as a
former volunteer staff member in three Korean adoption agencies, as a continuing participant
in the public promotion of adoption in Korea, and as an advisor to a self help group of
adoptive families in South East Korea. Our observations are derived from a synthesis of all
these sources, with written source cited wherever possible.
Adoptive parents who practice a high degree of secrecy are, by definition, outside the
purview of systematic research, as any adoptive family members that identify themselves as
such to researchers are not upholding this secrecy. Korean supporters of telling the child they
are adopted cite anecdotal evidence of estrangements that have occurred when, later in life, a
child discovers the secret of their adoption. However, the child may well not find out that
they are adopted. Comparisons between secrecy and communicative openness,
therefore, rely on the thoughts of adoptive parents who have taken a more open route.
Although this information is one sided, it is not without value. The unqualified enthusiasm
for openness expressed by some parents and agency staff is tempered by a willingness to
admit to problems and to trade-offs by others. This open-mindedness is, in a sense, an
extension of the philosophical ethos of openness. Openness begins with what Kirk (1984)
terms the aim of “authenticity” in acknowledging rather than suppressing the fact of
adoption; the same aim demands honesty and a willingness to be self-critical. Interviewees,
therefore, have been treated as reflective subjects whose perspectives, informed as they are
by their own experiences, carry weight that can provide insight into the claims made for
VALUES ASSOCIATED WITH SECRECY AND WITH OPENNESS
Adoption has been shown to be one of the most desirable alternatives for children
who are in need of finding a place outside their original family (Altshuler & Gleeson, 1999;
Borders, Black, & Pasley, 1998). However, the limited tradition of child adoption in Korea
has focused first and foremost on the adoptive family’s cohesion, continuity, and its
performance of customary duties rather than the needs of the child. In this tradition,
adoption is undertaken to maintain the family name, to pass on family properties, to provide
carers for old parents, and to ensure that memorial services will be held for ancestors (You,
2002). It is a tradition strongly influenced by Confucianism (Lee, 2007). South Korea,
therefore, has a long-standing value system that focuses on maintaining the family line.
These values are concerned with upholding the quality of the blood flowing through the
generations and maintaining family integrity and legitimacy, with each individual being a
part of a chain between the past and the future (Youn, 2005). A woman who bears a child
outside marriage has no recognised family line. She is seen as bringing shame upon herself
and upon her family, and has blighted her marriage prospects (Lee et al., 1998). Through the
finality of a closed adoption, the episode in the mother’s life can be closed and she can re-
enter the family unit. The same value system imposes pressures on the adoptive family
receiving the child; only by maintaining secrecy can they appear to conform to the norm of
maintaining the family line. These pressures help to explain why adoption in Korea has been
typified historically by the confidential placement with an infertile couple of an infant--
usually a boy who will maintain the family name (Lee, 2003; Lee, 2007). They also help to
explain why 98% of adoptive families continue to choose to report their adopted child as their
biological child when they have the child’s name entered in their family register (S. A. Kim,
2006). Occasionally, adoptive parents will go further and act out a pregnancy to neighbours
and relatives over a period of months prior to an adoption (S. K. Choi, 2007; Moon, 2006).
Proponents of openness call these values into question. They articulate an alternative
moral view of the family rooted in sympathy, rights and trust. The supporters of openness
contend that the pressures placed on birth mothers to have a closed adoption ignore the
feelings of the mother towards the child (Lee, Choi, Kang, & Kim, 2004). Secrecy on the
part of the adoptive family, it is argued, imposes a strain upon family relationships as a good
family life is based on bonds of trust between its members. A secret adoption imposes a
barrier between parent and child that makes the development of such a relationship more
difficult (Sung, You, Woo, & Choi, 2004). Open adoption, at least to the extent of telling the
child, is also supported as a child’s right (Lee et al., 1998). Openness is seen as prudential to
avoid the trauma and sense of betrayal felt by children who find out about their adoption for
themselves (Bae, 2000; Morrison, 2006). Finally, openness in adoption is supported as a
necessary prerequisite to wider political action on adoption reform; for only if parents are
open about adoption within their families are they able to organise as a pressure group to
press for legislative, financial and social changes to promote and support domestic adoption.
PUTTING OPENNESS INTO PRACTICE
One branch of the Social Welfare Society adoption agency has taken a particular
interest in arranging open adoption with contact. The agency operates from a complex of
buildings in the countryside that bring together comprehensive facilities for the care of
infants; a house with a garden and entertainment room for expectant mothers or “little
moms;” rooms where potential adoptive parents can be interviewed and meet with children,
and shared dining areas. The home for expectant mothers is screened, but other boundaries
are porous with children and adults wandering freely around the site. The center cares for
about 100-110 children per year. Not all are in need of adoption and some will return to their
birth parents. Since 2004, when adoption with contact was launched, approximately 200
children have been placed, with 50 children placed in 2006 and 44 in 2007. Children who are
not adopted in the course of a year will remain available for one more year.
Prospective adoptive parents who approach the agency are encouraged to consider the
prospect of contact. The possibilities range from indirect contact and one-way contact via
adoptive family blogs, to a considerable degree of direct contact. There are opportunities for
direct contact through visits and holidays, arranged by the agency, where birth mothers and
adoptive families come together. Contact has been facilitated by an online network created in
2005 for the purpose of establishing an electronic community of birth mothers and adoptive
families. At the highest levels of contact, the birth mother and adoptive family will meet a
month before the birth for the purpose of sharing experiences and feelings. When the birth
mother goes into labour the adoptive mother is present to support her. After the baby has
been born, the child, birth mother and adoptive parents stay together for ten days in a shared
home, or “nest.” Subsequently, direct contact may be made in visits by the birth mother to
the adoptive family--including weekend stays. In the Korean context, this is a novel
approach, as openness has primarily focused on communication rather than contact
Forty-two adoptive families and birth mothers, or 21% of family placements since
2004, have been adoptions with contact. However, so far only ten families have continued
contact after the child has reached the age of two. In some cases the fluctuating
circumstances, changing jobs, homes and phone numbers of birth mothers have created
difficulties in maintaining contact. In others, adoptive parents have terminated contact
because of anxieties over confusing the child and reported anxieties over the psychological
impact of continued contact on the birth mother. The agency director also suggested that
birth mothers might cease contact after they have gained the assurance that their child has
been placed with trustworthy parents.
Beneath the encouragement of openness is the view that the process of adoption
should, as far as possible be a warm one, in other words that it should engage and encourage
sympathetic feelings between those involved. The initial sympathy is for the birth mothers.
Given the difficult situation that often faces a single mother, relinquishment is less of a
choice than it is the outcome of a cold logic which more or less necessitates adoption
regardless of the mother’s feelings. The agency aims to create a process that allows the birth
mother to express her feelings and acknowledges their worth. Thus, if a birth mother feels
that she wants contact with the child, this should be respected. Meetings between a birth
mother and the adoptive family are seen as bringing warmth to the exchange of the child and
to facilitate mutual sympathy and understanding, in contrast to an impersonal transaction
conducted wholly through an intermediary. The agency, therefore, sees part of its role as
providing an alternative to agencies where the arrangement of an adoption may have a
rationalistic and impersonal stamp to it, one that does not create space for a mother to explore
her feelings, including whether she might want an open adoption. The recognition of the
worth of the mother’s feelings by the agency represents a different set of values to those
made evident by the limited state support, and by the social and family stigma often faced by
single mothers. By stressing positive and sympathetic feelings, the agency sets itself apart
from censorious attitudes towards illegitimacy.
The organisation is not only opposed to the repression of feelings, but believes that
maternal feelings by the birth mothers should be positively encouraged. Prospective mothers
are shown how to make toys and clothing for their children; diaries and keepsakes are
commended; the ubiquitous presence of infants around the site is seen as an advantage as it
encourages birth mothers to gain awareness of the baby in their womb. These feelings are
fostered partly on health grounds for the baby, for example, by indirectly encouraging healthy
eating, and partly in the belief that nurturing and sustaining positive and tender feelings will
make adoption a better experience for the mother.
Given this policy, it is not surprising that thirty-four or 36% of birth mothers who
have stayed at the facility since 2004 have changed their mind about adoption and decided to
keep their baby. This decision, however, has often placed them in a dilemma. Within the
agency, the mother’s maternal feelings are acknowledged, explored and given weight. But no
matter how warm the atmosphere inside the agency, the economic, social and family
pressures that impelled the mother to choose adoption remain in place (Ou, 2007). Although
her feelings about what she wants to do may have changed, her ability to change her
circumstances has not. Because state help is so limited, family support is vital if the
birth mother is to have a realistic prospect of raising the child. Where mothers change
their mind, therefore, the agency explores the prospect of help from her parents, from the
father of the child, and from the father’s parents. If family support is not forthcoming, then
the mother faces considerable difficulties. The agency director suggests that very few women
at the facility who have gone on to be single mothers have been able to cope successfully
with the pressures they are under.
The move towards greater openness in adoption vis-à-vis society is rooted in a
conscious commitment to good relations within the family. To be open about an adoption
within a family provides the basis for building a trusting relationship between parent and
child. This will foster self-confidence in the child, who will then be better able to openly
acknowledge that they are adopted to others and to feel comfortable about this. Adoptive
parents have been exploring these and other related values through the Mission to Promote
Adoption in Korea. Founded in 1999 by Stephen Morrison, a Korean adopted into the USA,
MPAK epitomises how openness is related to a value system that centers on family life. It
promotes telling and openness to create good parent child relationships. Its members share
information, and provide a support network for adoptive and prospective adoptive parents
and adoptees (Lee, 2006; Dau, Nam, Lee & Byun, 2006). A few individual adoptive parents
in MPAK have extended communicative openness to structural openness by making
preliminary contact with birth mothers to ascertain whether their children can meet them once
they have grown up. One or two have also adopted children with special needs, an
exceptionally unusual occurrence in Korea’s domestic adoption program.
MPAK meetings are attended by both adoptive parents and their pre-school age
children and mix formal and informal elements. In one meeting there is a presentation and
discussion on why it is natural for children to think about their appearance and why they were
given up for adoption, and a discussion about appearing on TV as a way of promoting
adoption. There is also much general conversation, shared food and children’s activities.
The gentle pace and conviviality of the family-centered meeting, in sharp contrast to the
frenetic city life outside, is itself an expression of the value parents set on family life.
Adoptive parents in a second branch of SWS have also been exploring how to develop
strong family relationships based on the values of openness using the exercises and role-
playing of Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (PET). The emphasis of the
exercises is on communicative styles, but the preoccupation of the participants is on the
boundaries of communication. The nine mothers or couples attending the group have mixed
feelings about where to draw the line in being open. Not all had entered into the process of
telling the child about the adoption and of those that had, not all were sure that it was the
right decision. Several parents had found that being open about adoption had been a difficult
experience. Two themes emerged as parents shared their experiences with openness. The first
was that being open caused anxiety to the child and to relationships within the family, the
second that being open with neighbours or with teachers could lead to stereotyping. One
mother explained how these concerns had contributed to her doubts about an open approach:
I asked my daughter: do you have anything you are afraid of. I was shocked when she
wrote down the word “adoption.” If my girl is afraid of adoption, am I right to talk to
her about it? I am proud to be an adoptive parent, but feel bad that my daughter wants
to hear nothing of her background. She especially hated it when I talked about the
history of adoption in her school. So I am confused, should I hide it, or keep talking
In discussion on this theme, it emerged that two children in the group had suffered from
enuresis at school, perhaps because of anxiety over adoption. These feelings corroborate
anecdotal evidence in a report of a summer camp for forty adoptive families that adopted
children sometimes express a desire for confidentiality and suffer disquiet if knowledge of
their adoption becomes widespread (S. S. Choi, 2007). Another parent explained how she
would not tell her neighbours her daughter was adopted because she feared that the child
would be stereotyped, and that she felt that secrecy might protect the child better. This too
concurs with published anecdotal evidence of parental anxieties, including a case report of an
adoptive mother who moved house to maintain secrecy after neighbours learned of the
adoption (Moon, 2006). It also concurs with research that has found that open adoptive
families have problems stemming from the objections of relatives and social prejudice or
discrimination (Hyun, 2004). In one case cited by Hyun, a neighbour who learned of an
adoption commented that the adopted child would place a heavy burden on non-adopted
siblings. In a second, relatives argued that an adopted child was an outsider who should not
inherit wealth from his parents, and suggested that the money should go to cousins instead.
In a third, a maternal grandmother urged her daughter to get a job or pursue further study
rather than spending time with her adopted child, an activity that the grandmother pointedly
termed voluntary work rather than family life.
Even where those told about the adoption have had a seemingly positive reaction,
some parents remained doubtful:
I have not told the truth to my daughter, as she is still young. Once I told one of her
teachers. I wanted her to understand the child, but was surprised at the response,
where the teacher focused not on her but on me “Oh!” she said, “You are a wonderful
mum!” So I have not told any other teachers.
In exploring this type of comment, other parents suggested that support for adoption by
those outside the family circle could sometimes be couched in terms of noble parents taking
on a difficult child in a way that did not transcend the negative stereotype of the child as
tainted by illegitimacy. Such reactions are hardly unique to Korea, for example, similar
responses have been reported in England (Lowe et al., 1999). However, the significance
accorded to the family line in Korea may mean that such ideas are more likely to be
expressed. A more overtly hostile form of comment, stemming from the same conservative
attitudes, is that parents who make the assumed sacrifice of adopting an unrelated child but
who then violate the norm of secrecy, are “showing off” by revealing the adoption. Thus,
parents who are open about adoption have been exposed to criticisms that their motives are to
gain praise for themselves at the expense of the child who, it is said, would have benefited
from secrecy but who will now be teased by school fellows and viewed with suspicion by
neighbours (H. E. Kim, 2006). TV appearances, which parents may undertake to try and
promote positive attitudes towards adoption, can also be construed as showing off (Hyun,
OPENNESS AND LIBERALIZATION
The movement towards greater openness may indicate that ideas about the purposes
and structure of the family more generally are changing in Korea. Not only is there a move
away from secrecy and towards openness, there is also a rise in adoption by fertile couples; a
shifting preference from adopting a boy to adopting a girl; changes in government policy to
support adoption including extending the option of adopting to single parents, and a change
in policy from providing hardly any state support for single mothers to providing a modest
level of support. There has also been a shift from virtually no single mothers keeping
children to a substantial minority of mothers raising their children themselves. Other reforms
include the 2008 implementation of a new family register system that is based on individual
records rather than a patriarchal household. Family Relationship Registration now allows
children to inherit the name of their mother and improves the inheritance rights of adopted
children (Moon, 2007). Taken together, these parallel trends indicate the spread of views of
the family that are less tied to traditional norms regarding blood, inheritance, and the rigid
adherence to marriage. Openness therefore, may be part of a more general liberalization in
attitudes towards the family.
The promotion of openness by adoption agencies and adoption groups in Korea has
overlapped with public campaigns that aim to promote adoption and challenge some of the
values and preconceptions that may deter most adults from becoming adopters; one survey of
421 young adults found that 75% would not countenance adoption even if infertile (Baek,
2007). In 2000 the government introduced a range of reforms and has subsequently become
more involved in actively supporting and encouraging domestic adoption, a policy that is tied
to a sense of unease over historically high rates of placements of Korean children abroad.
Since 1954, more than 227,000 children have been adopted, with only around 30% finding
domestic placements (Seo, 2007). In 2006 the government inaugurated an annual “adoption
day” on 11th May and drew up spending plans to promote domestic adoption through mass
communication (Mo, 2006). In 2007, the government enacted the law to prioritise domestic
adoptions over foreign adoptions, requiring all infants to be cared for in Korea for at least
five months before being placed abroad (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007b). Although
Korea is not a signatory of the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, this reform
is in accordance with the Convention principle that international adoption should only be
considered as an option where a suitable family cannot be found for the child within the state.
Since 2007 the government has also started providing allowances for adoptive parents of
children under 13; giving subsidies for the adoption of special needs children; providing
medical insurance for adoptees, and supporting agency counselling programs. It has
made limited provision for adoption leave and relaxed parenting requirements so that
the upper age limit is now 60 and there is no cap on family size. Single parents are now
able to adopt, a notable change in policy given the social prejudices against single
mothers (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007b). These reforms may in themselves serve to
increase openness to some degree as those who access institutional social support or public
services will be identified as adoptive families, at least to state officials (Moon, 2006).
However, the fear that the process and the paperwork involved in an application may not be
confidential has reportedly been deterring many adoptive parents from applying for the
support to which they are entitled (Choi, 2007a).
Alongside these changes have been reforms to support single mothers who
choose to try and raise their children. Babies born to single mothers are the main source of
children placed for adoption. The director of one SWS adoption agency branch estimated
that about 70% of unmarried mothers in Korea are placing their children for adoption
This accords with a 2005 survey of 238 unmarried expectant mothers in 11 facilities which
found that 68% of respondents wanted their babies to be adopted (Ministry of Gender
Equality and Family (Yeosungkajokboo, 2006). Another SWS facility reports that between
2004 and 2006, it housed 362 single mothers, 80% of whom opted for adoption (Yi, 2007).
Many of these birth mothers will have yielded to the considerable difficulties of being
single in a state which has relatively little in the way of a social welfare infrastructure, in a
legal system where absent fathers have been able to avoid their responsibilities, and in an
ethos that is socially conservative. State financial support has been limited (Lee, 2002; Woo,
2007a). There is a lack of state sponsored childcare facilities and there is considerable social
stigma associated with being a single mother (Y.K. Chung, 2007). Under these circumstances
family support is vital, but such support may well be lacking (Kim & Lee, 2006; Lee et al.,
1998). The unmarried mothers in the 2005 survey were asked to name the single most
important support that they would need to have put in place to allow them to raise their child.
Financial support, selected by 44%, was the most frequent choice, with family understanding
second at 25% and childcare third at 14% (Y.K. Chung, 2007). In Korea, therefore, single
mothers as a category have been under powerful economic and family pressure to have their
children adopted merely by becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
The government has made modest steps to try and ameliorate this situation. Since
2007 the amount of time an unmarried mother can stay in a state funded group home has been
extended from one to two years and single mothers can obtain legal assistance in suing
fathers for maintenance (Yi, 2007). These political reforms appear to be following a trend for
more single mothers to keep their children. Figures from one facility for unmarried mothers
show the number of mothers keeping the child rising from 3% in 1984, to 4% in 1996, to
32% in 2005 (Jee, 2006). According to Woo (2007b), a similar trend has been identified by
the Korean Women's Development Institute, a governmental organisation, which has found
that the overall percentage of unmarried mothers keeping their children has risen from 6% in
1984, to 12% in 1998, to 32% in 2005.
An indirect indicator of a shift towards greater openness in adoption is an
increase in the proportion of couples with biological children adopting, as the addition of
an adoptive child to an existing family suggests motives that center on family life (Kim,
2005). An upward trend in adoptions by fertile parents is apparent in the twenty first century.
In 2001, 22% of adoptive parents already had children. By 2006, the proportion had
risen to 36% (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007a). Adoption into a family with
biological children may also be disproportionately associated with openness. In one study of
32 open adoptive families, 17 (53%) of the subjects had birth children (H. E. Kim, 2006). In a
second study of 21 open adoptive parents, 15 (71%) of these parents had birth children (Koo,
The twenty first century has also seen the continuation of the long-term
transition away from a preference for a boy as an adoptee and towards a girl. One SWS
branch reports that about 65% of prospective parents now prefer girls to 35% preferring
boys. In a survey of the public, another agency found that if they were to adopt a child, 54%
said that they would prefer a girl and only 9% a boy (Baek, 2007). This shifting preference is
reflected in national placement figures that indicate a gradually rising proportion of girls
against boys (Table 1).
Table 1 Domestic Adoption and the Sex of the Child
Year Male No. (%) Female No. (%)
2000 715 (42) 971 (58)
2001 743 (42) 1,027 (58)
2002 632 (37) 1, 062 (63)
2003 543 (35) 1,021 (65)
2004 494 (30) 1,147 (70)
2005 482 (33) 979 (67)
2006 485 (36) 847 (64)
Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007a.
Following Kirk’s reasoning, the increasing preference for girls may relate to increasing
openness. Parents in a secret adoption shape their attitudes according to the typical
preferences of biological parents, who tend to want their first child to be a boy. The transition
towards the acknowledgement of difference, and hence to more open adoption, creates
ambivalence amongst the parents in which the feeling that an adoption will violate patrilineal
blood relationships vies with the desire for family life. As boys pass on the family name,
while girls marry and join another family, the solution is to adopt a girl who will
provide a family life without continuing the family line (Kirk, 1984, 1988). In interviews
with adoptive parents and agency staff, a simpler explanation recurs: girls are more strongly
associated with the joys rather than the travails of family life, as they are less wilful, more
obedient and hence easier to raise than boys. Kirk (1988) rejected explanations that girls
were preferred based on perceptions of their disposition. However, the idea that girls are
easier to raise can be seen as another manifestation of patrilineal ideology. Such an
ideology assumes that it is in accordance not just with convention but also with feminine
nature for a wife to be absorbed into the family line of her husband. Similarly, the
assumption that girls are relatively passive leads to the conclusion that they can be more
easily absorbed into the family. The increasing preference for a girl in Korea, therefore, may
be associated with a more open form of adoption where the focus is on the expectation that a
daughter will bring greater enjoyment to family life during her childhood rather than being
seen as providing continuity over the generations. Open adoption of a girl also represents
less of a threat to relatives concerned about the family line, as a daughter will join another
family on marriage (Baek, 2007; Seo, 2007).
A more direct indicator of increased communicative openness in the twenty first
century is the categorisation of parents as planning to be open, secret, or somewhere in
between when they decide to adopt through the Holt adoption agency (Table 2). Prospective
parents are asked in an interview whether they intend to pursue a secret adoption, an open
adoption, or some form of limited-open adoption. As the terms are generally used in Korea,
a secret adoption will be one where knowledge of the adoption will be concealed from
everyone, including the child, and an open adoption is one that is publicly acknowledged.
A limited open adoption covers a range of circumstances. It may refer to telling only one
or two intimate relatives. It may refer to telling relatives on both sides of the family or, if
one side is anticipated to be disapproving, to just the husband or wife’s side. The figures
indicate a trend towards openness with more couples planning either to be open or to step
away from secrecy and extend the boundaries of openness. The agency reports that the
number of domestic adoptions in which the parents plan to be at fully open has risen from
25% in 2000 to 57% in 2007. Couples planning a wholly secret adoption have declined from
18% in 2000 to 8% in 2007. The agency has also undertaken a survey which indicates that
younger parents are more willing to countenance openness than older parents, indicating that
the trend toward openness in adoption is set to continue (Mo, 2007).
Table 2 Planning for Open Adoption
Year No. of No (%) No (%) No (%)
couples planning open planning planning
adoption limited-open secret
2000 527 134 (25) 296 (56) 97 (18)
2001 617 156 (25) 370 (60) 91 (15)
2002 552 130 (24) 349 (63) 73 (13)
2003 521 136 (26) 318 (61) 67 (13)
2004 534 165 (31) 301 (56) 68 (13)
2005 434 185 (43) 205 (47) 44 (10)
2006 390 160 (41) 188 (48) 42 (11)
2007 466 266 (57) 162 (35) 38 (8)
Source : Adapted from interview with Holt, 2008.
Two caveats into the figures should be made. First, it cannot be assumed that the
parents who intend to pursue a limited open adoption definitely intend to tell the child. The
boundaries of openness do not always radiate outwards from the child; some parents
may decide to inform trusted relatives of the adoption, but not the child. Second, the
Holt figures on planning for openness may overstate the actual level of openness amongst
adoptive parents as the interview is conducted at a pre-adoptive stage with an agency that
encourages parents to be open. This may bias responses towards those that the agency hopes
to hear. Despite these caveats, the trends in the Holt agency survey provide a strong
indication of a growing willingness’ to be open, and suggest that the public campaign
promoting adoption has had a significant impact upon the thinking of parents.
ASSESSING THE PROSPECTS OF OPENNESS
Proponents of openness in Korea hope that a less secretive approach to adoption
might (a) increase the number of domestic adoptions for children in need, (b) improve
adoptive family relationships and (c) represent a positive alternative for birth mothers. The
issue of openness and adoption numbers can draw on quantitative evidence that allows
comparison over time. Questions concerning the quality of family relationships and the
feelings birth mothers are much more difficult to address in comparative terms as many
adoptive parents and almost all birth mothers maintain secrecy in a way that places them
outside the field of systematic research. It is, however, possible to make some tentative
responses to these latter questions by considering how the philosophy of openness is related
to other family priorities and to the broader process of liberalization in Korea.
There is no statistical evidence that the increase in open adoptions has increased the
number of children placed. Domestic adoption numbers have stayed more or less static
between 2000 and 2007. The figures shown in Table 3 suggest that if anything the trend is
slightly down. Indeed, the domestic adoptions recorded by the Ministry of Health and
Welfare peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s at a time when adoption was almost entirely
conducted in secret (Overseas Koreans Foundation, 2006). The figures for 2007 in particular
indicate that restrictive government policies toward international adoption have had a
considerable impact with little corresponding increase in domestic numbers.
Table 3 Twenty First Century Adoptions
Year No. (%) adopted No. (%) adopted Total
2000 1,686 (42) 2,360 (58) 4,046
2001 1,770 (42) 2,436 (58) 4,206
2002 1,694 (42) 2, 365 (58) 4,059
2003 1,564 (41) 2, 287 (59) 3,851
2004 1,641 (42) 2, 258 (58) 3,899
2005 1,461 (41) 2, 101 (59) 3,562
2006 1,332 (41) 1, 899 (59) 3,231
2007 1,388 (52) 1,265 (48) 2,653
Source : 2000-2006: Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007a; 2007: unconfirmed government
If Korea’s current rate of domestic adoption is compared with states where there is a
somewhat higher rate of adoption of children in need as a proportion of total population,
perhaps the most pertinent difference is not that the adoptive parents are more open, but that
more of them are willing to consider adopting a range of children, including older children
and children with special needs. In England, for example, government figures state that 3,300
looked-after children were adopted in the year ending March 2007. Of these children, 1,050
(32%) of were aged five or more (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2007).
Most children in Korea for whom adoptive homes are found are very young. According to
Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, 83% of children adopted in a domestic adoption in
2006 were aged less than one year and 94% were under three years (Bogunbokjiboo, 2007a).
Comparison of figures for domestic and international adoptions of Korean children also
suggests that more parents from foreign states are open to a wider range of children.
Between 2000 and 2006, only 2% of the children adopted who were classified as having
special needs, including being born prematurely, were placed domestically. In 2006, for
example, 12 special needs or premature children were adopted domestically in Korea as
against 713 such children who were placed abroad (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2007a).
Openness is primarily concerned with the relationships of those within an adoption
triangle and the relationship between these people and other members of society; it does not
relate directly to the issue of how to extend the range of children that prospective parents may
consider for adoption. However, openness is a necessary prerequisite to extending the range
of children that parents will consider adopting, as it is hard if not impossible to keep the
adoption of an older child a secret. Despite the lack of statistical evidence that openness has
increased adoption numbers, therefore, it remains possible that greater openness is preparing
the ground for a future increase in the types of children for whom it is possible to find
adoptive homes in Korea.
To adapt successfully to adoption with contact, or to tell the child and others of the
adoption, represents a challenge to the dominant ethos that it is of cardinal importance to
maintain the family line, with all this entails in terms of blood inheritance and legitimacy.
Adoptive parents who are pursuing a more open form of adoption are coming together to
explore the boundaries they should put on communicative openness. Parents express mixed
feelings on the extent of openness, with some contemplating whether they have gone too far,
partly because of the reactions of relatives and neighbours, and partly because of the concerns
felt by the child. In deciding to follow an open route, therefore, adoptive parents have to
forgo what might be seen as advantages of a closed and secret adoption: the avoidance of
stigma and the appearance of fitting in with established norms.
Parents in open and secret adoptions cannot be assumed to be pursuing exactly the
same outcomes or at least to have the same priorities. In assessing openness, therefore, it
makes more sense to talk of the different consequences that flow from choices, rather than
identifying causal outcomes. The shift towards openness amongst adoptive parents is related
to a reorientation of values that place family life, and creating positive feelings and honest
relationships within a family as its foremost concerns. The objectives of maintaining the
family name and the appearance of a blood relationship recede in importance, for rather than
seeing a child in terms of the long-term continuation of a family line, children are viewed
more immediately for the enjoyment they can bring to a family, as individuals and as
children. The distinction between this attitude and the attitude of parents in a secret adoption
should not overstated, as the desire to keep up appearances in a secret adoption is certainly
not incompatible with a concurrent desire for a close and fulfilling family life. However,
there is an irreducible difference between a family relationship in which an adoption is
acknowledged and one in which it is kept secret.
The importance attached to the family line in Korea makes it a critical parental duty to
pass on the family name and blood down the generations. Maintenance of the family line
strengthens and is strengthened by social disproval of illegitimacy and is linked to a political
system that places primary responsibility for care onto the family. This helps to explain why
a typical child placed for adoption is a baby relinquished by a single mother. Western studies
of birth mothers who have relinquished babies under pressure of circumstances have found
that some feel an abiding sense of loss and grief that impersonal treatment in a closed
adoption appears only to exacerbate (Else, 1991; Howe, Sawbridge & Hinings, 1992). The
innovative efforts of an SWS branch to create structures to facilitate adoption with contact,
and to recognise and value the worth of the maternal feelings of birth mothers, are a humane
attempt to ameliorate their difficult situation. However, it is an open question as to whether
birth mothers in the program who are encouraged to develop feelings for a child but who
nonetheless relinquish them through a sense of necessity are better off than those who--
perhaps in a more impersonal agency--repress maternal feelings.
The hopes of at least some birth mothers rest not so much on the possibilities of
contact, but on the possibilities of keeping the child. Here the significance of openness lies in
its role in liberalizing attitudes toward the family in Korea, so that raising a child as a single
mother becomes a more viable option. As long as pressure to maintain secrecy remains
powerful in Korea, parents who are being more open are making a deliberate choice to be
different, a choice which has a social impact. Communicative openness, once it extends
beyond the immediate family, raises implicit questions about whether the family line is really
so important to family life. Structural openness challenges the widespread ideas of shame
and of censure that are associated with illegitimacy. Those who are practicing open adoption
in Korea, therefore, are not only exploring how best to create family relationships in a way
that respects the rights and feelings of all parties, but are also a part of a broader attempt to
reform attitudes and policies toward the family.
Liberalization of political and social attitudes towards the family may be gradually
changing the complexion of adoption in Korea. Domestic adoption is actively encouraged by
the state and the administrative structures and spending policies that have previously
reinforced traditional attitudes towards the family are starting to be reformed. In this context,
there are the beginnings of structural openness and the spread of communicative openness.
At least one adoption agency now gives birth mothers the opportunity of having continued
contact with their child. Expectant mothers who use the agency are encouraged to express
maternal feelings rather than suppress these feelings, and can, if they wish, keep in direct or
indirect contact with adoptive families A minority of birth mothers who decide to have their
children adopted through the agency choose this route, and a small number are in continuing
contact. At the same time, a limited number of support groups of adoptive parents are
meeting to discuss communicative openness in the context of family life. These groups are
exploratory, as openness is relatively new in Korea. The parents involved share experiences
of being open about adoption. They have a range of views over the boundaries that should be
placed on openness.
In accordance with conventional social expectations, the typical mode of adoption in
Korea has been closed and secretive. Adoptive families maintained the appearance of a
biological family; birth mothers appeared to move on and start afresh. In both cases the
blood of the family line was made to appear intact. The move towards open adoption
embodies a philosophy of the family that is, in some respects, antithetical to this traditional
social ethos. For unmarried birth mothers a closed adoption focuses only on re-establishing
the appearances of not being a mother, even if this requires the suppression of the mother’s
feelings for the child. Structural openness presents an alternative way forward for an
unmarried birth mother, one that respects the feelings she has for the child. Advocates of
communicative openness contend that parents who keep adoptions as secret as possible to
maintain the appearance a family blood relationship weaken the relations of trust between
parent and child. Communicative openness focuses on the value of fully honest family
relationships as an alternative to upholding of social appearances through secrecy. Open
adoption in Korea, therefore, calls the social expectations that have made adoption closed and
secretive into question. Those who have engaged in it have looked inwards to reconsider
values associated with a good family life and family relationships. A number of parents who
have chosen to be open have also looked outwards to the public arena to support domestic
adoption and the liberalization of attitudes towards the family.
Openness in adoption has an affinity with the government campaign to raise
awareness of adoption, as the public focus on presenting a positive image of adoption
challenges the social conventions that would keep adoption secret. This campaign may have
already modified social attitudes given the indications that a rising number of adoptive
parents are going beyond secrecy. Domestic adoption numbers, however, have not increased,
so the campaign may also have created a gap between public rhetoric supportive of adoption
and deep seated social attitudes that continue to problematize the adoption of a child
unrelated by blood. As long as these social attitudes continue, adoptive parents face the
dilemma of how to go beyond the secrecy that places a barrier between them and their child
without inducing anxiety in the child over the adoption. As children whose adoption is
widely known grow older, and as structural openness, perhaps, starts to expand, further
research may help to identify the extent to which the movement for greater openness reflects
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