About Korea > Adoption, Domestic & Overseas

International Adoptions

International Adoptions

South Korea reputedly has the world’s oldest international adoption program. Since about 1955, an estimated 150,000 to over 200,000 children have been sent to mainly North American and Europe, primarily the United States (the large majority), Canada, Sweden, Norway, Demark, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany.

Initially, many of the adoptees were mixed race children fathered by foreign military personnel during and after the Korean War.  But, eventually, fewer and fewer of the adoptees fell into that category. Over time, Korean adoption agencies began to support and/or run pregnant-women's homes and in one instance, a maternity hospital.

One of the reasons there have been so many adoptions out of Korea lies in the emphasis in Korean culture on the importance of bloodlines, which in turns, has resulted in a reluctance to adopt and a serious stigma attached to adopting or being adopted. Some perceived foreign adoption as providing a better life for orphaned or abandoned children than being raised in an orphanage.

Although the majority of Korean adoptees grew up to live happy and productive lives, others did not. The Korean public, on the whole, was unaware of the number of international adoptions from Korea. However, in 1988 the eyes of the world were on Korea as the host of the Summer Olympics. Many adoptive families travelled to Korean with their children to see the Games and learn about the country, while some older adoptees came on their own. People were becoming aware of the issue. In 1991, a film depicting the unhappy life of a Korean adoptee, Susanne Brinks Arirang spotlighted more of the problems related to international adoption of Korean chldren. From the late 1980's on, an increasing number of adoptees were returning to Korean in search of their birth parents and cultural roots.

Because, with adoption, children also acquired the citizenship of their new families, these returnees no longer had Korean passports. Therefore, they had to obtain a visa just like any other foreign national if they wanted to visit or live in Korea. They were subjected to the same employments regulations as all non-Korean workers. In 1999, adoptees living in Korea succeeded through a variety of mechanisms, including a signature campaign, to be recognised as Korean and to be given the same legal rights as all Koreans. As of 3 December 1999, Korean adoptees and other ‘Overseas Korean Nationals’ can receive an F4 visa, which grants them virtually all the same legal rights as Korean citizens - for a period of time and if they can prove they were born in Korea. The children of adoptees are also now entitled to receive an F4 visa. (Note: K4E has been informed that if an individual is also covered by the Status of Forces Agreement - SOFA - s/he will have to choose between continuing under the SOFA and acquiring F4 visa status.)

As it became evident just how many children had been and were still being adopted from Korea, a country who thriving economy was based largely on exports, people around the world started to joke that babies were Korea’s largest export. Both the people and the government of Korea were embarrassed by the situation and decided to set quotas that reduced the number of children allowed to leave the country by 3 to 5% a year.  However, the number of children being adopted into Korean families was not increasing, so the result was an increase in the number of children spending their childhood in orphanages.

The quotas were temporarily lifted in 1998 during the economic crisis, but were reinstated to some extent as the economy improved. However, in recent years, the government has attempted to encourage Korean couples to adopt children and have some small but gradually increasing success, but generally only newborns are placed. New regulations now require that children under 6 months old cannot be adopted internationally.

Korea still hopes to be able to entirely eliminate all international adoptions of Korean children within the next few years.


K4E Editor: We try to make the information on Korea4Expats.com as complete and accurate as possible, so if you notice any errors or omissions in the content above, please let us know at info@korea4expats.com.

Last Updated on 2012-12-11

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