Kara Bos, who was adopted by American parents as a child, has gone to great lengths to learn about her biological family; she has posted flyers, made multiple trips to South Korea, and followed DNA leads. Finally, one DNA test identified her biological father, an 85-year-old Korean man who refused to meet her. Desperate to find her biological mother, Bos resorted to filing a lawsuit against her birth father to prove her family status and force him to disclose information about her mother’s whereabouts.
Finally, on June 12, 2020, the Seoul Family Court formally acknowledged that Bos had family status with her biological father. The court’s decision represents a shifting attitude towards Korean adoptees’ right to access information about the circumstances of their birth. For the over 200,000 South Korean adoptees around the world, the ruling in Bos’ lawsuit was a landmark victory.
Upon closer examination, the specifics of the case reveal dark, enduring social stigmas at play. The fact that Bos had to sue her biological father in order to obtain more information about her origins reflects the shame cast upon adoptees and birth parents in South Korea, who have long been socially ostracized by a conservative society that insists on traditional family structures. If South Korean legislators and courts are truly and firmly on the side of adoptees and economically disadvantaged children—as they claim to be—they must do more than simply support adoptees’ right to information. To confront the stigma that has shaped South Korea’s relationship with international adoption thus far, the South Korean government must take action to combat its long history of discrimination against women—especially single mothers—on a larger scale.
Joel Kim Booster, a comedian, writer, and Korean adoptee, once joked that Korea was like the “Grubhub of babies” because of its fraught history with international adoption. The government began to encourage international adoption in the aftermath of the Korean War, which ended in an armistice in 1953 and left the South Korean government and society in shambles. Not only was Korea the first nation to send adoptees to adoptive families abroad, but it is also the country that has sent the highest number of adoptees to foreign families to date.
Under the authoritarian leadership of President Syngman Rhee, the Korean government sought to emphasize the importance of racial and national homogeneity. This ostracized biracial children, most of whom had Korean mothers and US soldiers or United Nations employees as fathers. Because missionaries facilitated early adoptions from South Korea to the United States, many of these children were adopted into predominantly white, often religious families. By 1966, the government enacted a policy that aided four main adoption agencies to expedite adoption processes. This arrangement was mutually beneficial to the government and the adoption agencies, as international adoptions brought in millions to South Korea’s economy.
International adoption rates continued to climb throughout the 1960s and the 1970s as a result of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and a consequential spike in childbirth out of wedlock. By the 1980s, as many as 24 Korean children on average were leaving the country each day to meet adoptive parents in other countries. In a culture that is preoccupied with bloodlines and conventional family structures, these trends resulted in increasingly widespread disdain towards single mothers. Some adoption agencies even put pressure on single women to give up their children by convincing them that their child would have a better, more comfortable life elsewhere. Even recently, 90 percent of women who have given up their children for adoption in Korea have been single mothers.
The government’s unbridled enthusiasm for international adoption only began to change in the late 1980s, when its reputation as “the leading baby exporter in the world” began to clash with South Korea’s projected façade. With its burgeoning cityscape, Seoul, South Korea had made quite an impression on international spectators when it hosted the 1988 Olympics. Yet, South Korea’s history of international adoption did not quite fit into its intended image as a rapidly developing, advanced economy.
To codify this shift in perspective, legislators made amendments to South Korea’s Special Adoption Law in 2012 that created barriers to international adoption at the expense of biological mothers, most of whom are unmarried. This law mandates that mothers must wait seven days before choosing to give their children to adoption agencies, and that they must officially register their adoptions with the state. Though the law has resulted in a decrease in inter- national adoptions, as intended, it has also led to an increased number of abandoned children. The government has only added to the hardships of adoption for struggling mothers while failing to provide the support that they need. The amendments reflect the myopic nature of the Korean government’s outlook on family welfare and show how much work is left to be done to protect single mothers.
Uprooting the social and economic discrimination against single mothers and nontraditional family structures is a crucial step forward for adoption policies. South Korea has the widest gender pay gap in the entire Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with men making a whopping 37 percent more than their female peers. Such discrimination impedes single mothers’ ability to support their children, and government policies clearly have a hand in perpetuating such inequality. The Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association notes that the government provides a disproportionately small amount of child support to single parents per month—less than half of what a foster care family might receive to support a child—which they can only access after proving that they fall under the poverty line. This also reflects the exclusion of working mothers in a society committed to traditional ideals of gender and family.
Familial bloodlines are woven into the fabric of South Korean society, and challenging such deep-seated social conventions is no easy task. However, the government cannot claim to support adoptees while discriminating against single mothers and perpetuating stigmas around adoption. These harmful dynamics constrain true progress towards family welfare and adoptees’ rights, and government policies absolutely must address this reality.
While Kara Bos’ courtroom victory brings her one step closer to the answers that she seeks, there may be further barriers that keep her from learning about her past and her birth mother. Her birth father’s reticence shows just how much cultural progress needs to be made in order to expel the deep shame that South Korean international adoption laws have perpetuated. Without confronting the inadequacies of South Korea’s adoption laws, welfare policies, and attitude towards gender equality, adoptees and their families will continue to face obstacles in finding answers and societal acceptance.