At hearing on adoption law, frustration and calls for change

SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) — Local experts and adoptees expressed frustration Thursday on South Korea’s antiquated adoption law they claim lacks child protection measures and keeps encouraging foreign adoption of its children, and urged the government to move quickly to change the situation.

Since the 1950s, South Korea has sent away the largest number of children for international adoption in the world, with over 150,000 Korean children ending up in 20 different Western countries, according to state data. Despite its lengthy history with adoption, the country has yet to ratify a 1993 Hague Convention on child protection because its adoption law, established in 1969, does not meet several preconditions. The accord has been signed by some 73 countries.

“It is an embarrassment that the country has still yet to ratify the convention,” said Kim Seung-kwon of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, who participated in the public hearing Thursday. “It is time we really put our heads together on this issue.”

Aiming for a complete revamp of the adoption law by the end of this year, Seoul’s welfare ministry requested that a group of experts conduct research on the matter. The team, led by Prof. Huh Nam-soon of Hallym University, disclosed the results of its two-month effort at Thursday’s forum.

If the first half of Korea’s modern adoption history was about finding and providing permanent homes for war orphans and children abandoned out of destitution, Huh said, the second half should be about enhancing the adoption system so it can provide child welfare and protection services.

“However, responding to this change has been a challenge for Korea over the years,” the professor said. “There cannot be a law that satisfies all four parties, including the child, the adoptive parents, the biological parents and the adoption organization. What is important is that all parties consider what is best for everyone.”

In 1988, the year the summer Olympics were held in Seoul, Western journalists highlighted Korea’s adoption program as human trafficking and the country quickly became known internationally as an “exporter of orphans.”

Adoption had until then been treated almost as a state secret, in part due to criticisms leveled by North Korea that its southern neighbor was selling off its own children. A cultural emphasis on family bloodlines has also been a major barrier to increasing domestic adoption.

The government has in recent years made new efforts to make it easier for South Koreans to adopt, and as a result the number of domestic adoptions surpassed the number of international adoptions for the first time in 2007. The United Nations has recommended countries make maximum efforts to keep their children in the country.

Nevertheless, around 1,200 children continue to leave the country each year. Critics say South Korea still lacks vital child care services and support for single mothers.

Current law also falls short of providing adequate protection for adoptees, according to experts. Rules limiting access to adoption information have made it difficult for the government to assess whether adopted children are being raised in a healthy and safe environment. Such regulations also deny adoptees the right to find their biological parents when they become adults.

Among the 150,000 adopted Koreans worldwide, about 100,000 are living in the United States, with 45,000 in Europe and 5,000 spread throughout Canada, Australia and New Zealand, according to state data. Some return to their motherland after becoming adults in hopes of finding their birth mother, but face significant challenges in doing so.

Despite an overall agreement among all parties on Thursday on the need to promptly revise the law, a minor dispute broke out between adoptees and forum organizers due to the organizers’ failure to provide English translators.

“I asked twice for translation at the public hearing, but I was turned down,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee to the United States and a member of Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), a nonprofit organization aimed at healing the relationship between adoptees and Korean society. Trenka also complained that the adoptees were not able to voice their opinions on the issue and were excluded from the research.

“The adoptees were never meant to participate in this research — there was not even a box for them to check identifying themselves as regular concerned adoptees, and the survey was put out in Korean, the language least spoken by Korean adoptees,” she said. “We were not intended to participate in helping to form these laws and policies that are about our human rights.”

hayney@yna.co.kr

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