Unwed Mothers and Adoptees: Making the Connection


This August, hundreds of Korean adoptees returned to Seoul for the International Korean Adoptee Associations’ (IKAA) “Gathering.” Every three years, the Gathering brings together Korean adoptees from all over the globe. While some attendees, like me, live in Korea or have traveled here before, for many, it is their first time back to the country of their birth. The Gathering provides an opportunity to connect with other adults who have the shared experience of being adopted while also consists of a research symposium, film festival, workshops ranging from food to DNA testing to flower-making, and an abundance of social events around Seoul.

Noticeably missing this year, however, was a dialogue about the sociopolitical issues of Korean adoption. In a recent article by Minnesota Public Radio News, Kaomi Goetz reported that some attendees of the Gathering had hoped that voices of birth families would also be included in the weeklong conference. Some even wanted a conversation that challenged the existence of international adoption itself. However, in the end, these stories were left missing from the 2016 Gathering.

Going back to the beginning, institutionalized Korean adoption is usually attributed to Harry and Bertha Holt. Hailing from Oregon, the evangelical Christian White couple adopted eight mixed-race Korean children and ultimately founded Holt International Children’s Services. The Holts’ goal was primarily to spread Christianity by raising their children in a Christian home with Christian values. This eventually became a common refrain for adoption. Additionally, the Holts heavily utilized “p roxy [1] adoptions,” a practice where prospective adoptive parents could bypass rigorous inspection as long as they demonstrated strong Christian faith. This method of p roxy [2] adoptions was later criticized by social work professionals and thus the Holts began to adhere to standard procedure. By then, other organizations had established adoption programs, and the institutionalization of transnational adoption was complete.

While it is easy to critique the role of U.S. imperialism in Korean transnational adoption, many people point to the role of the Korean government itself in institutionalizing the practice.  In the mid 1950s, there was no social welfare system for the many children separated from families during the war or babies abandoned because of their mixed-race status. As scholar Eleana Kim notes, “it was not simply the desire of Americans that made these adoptions possible, but also the accommodating role of the first South Korean administration.” The Korean government relied on international adoption as Korea’s social welfare institution during a time where there was a huge need.

The original dominant narrative of Korean transnational adoption was largely humanitarian, an act of love and rescue for children orphaned by the war. The United States invested funding in orphanages for children displaced by the war but this aid eventually ran out: meanwhile,  adoption out of Korea continued to soar for decades after the armistice was reached. While adoption does provide “orphaned” babies and children with (usually) loving families abroad, Eleana Kim reminds us that this system began as an “aggressive modernization policy that leveraged poor Korean families and the lives of their children for national security and foreign policy goals.” International adoption also a way for South Korea to solidify geopolitical ties, particularly with the United States. It evoked sympathy for the nation's plight through the bonds of family that adoption constructed.Additionally, a shift occurred by the mid-sixties from sending mixed-race Koreans abroad to mostly full-Korean babies.

Adoption began in the 1950s and then peaked in the years 1987-1988, the same year that North Korea publicly denounced South Korea during the 1988 Olympics for exporting babies abroad. Since Korea is no longer in a post-war period, it begs the question: why does Korean transnational adoption still exist? The driving factor behind Korean transnational adoption today is the stigma against single and unwed mothers. In a 2009 New York Times article, a Korean single mother states, “Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as immoral and a failure. People treat you as if you had committed a crime. You fall to the bottom rung of society.” This is largely in part because of Korea’s patriarchal, bloodline-centric society. Traditionally, a child can only be registered as part of a family’s registry through the father. Thus, this stigma leaves many unwed mothers feeling like they have no choice but to spares their child and themselves the shame by putting their baby up for adoption.

In addition to the stigma against single and unwed mothers, a structural element is also at play. Even from the very beginning, international adoption functioned in place of a real social welfare system. Currently, the government provides a monthly stipend of $85 to parents who choose to adopt domestically; however, single mothers only receive half of that. This allowance is not enough for most single mothers to support both themselves and a child. Similarly, there is no real enforcement of child support payment, so even if the father is in the picture, little is done to ensure that the mother is being supported financially.

It is also hard to ignore the fact that international adoption is a business. With transnational adoption from Korea averaging out to $30,000 per child, there is a clear incentive for those involved to maintain the system. Adoption agencies financially benefit from a stigma towards unwed mothers in Korea. To eliminate it would wipe out the livelihoods of those working for international adoption agencies. As long as there is foreign demand for babies from Korea, Korea will continue to allow the underlying social stigma and structural injustices to continue in order to provide a supply to meet that demand.

My own mother was unwed when my twin sister and I were put up for adoption in 1994. Our adoption papers tell us that she had hoped to reconcile with our birth father, who did not know about her pregnancy. Though she and our father had another child together, to the best of my knowledge, they never married. I was sure that reuniting with her would illuminate many of the unknowns that I have carried with me throughout my life, but I soon realized that some questions may never be answered.

With language and cultural barriers, asking questions about the past is difficult and at times feels inappropriate or disrespectful. Sometimes it is painful and even angering to accept that the past will always be murky, but part of processing my reunion is learning to hold that loss— that I likely will never know the whole truth of my birth mother’s life. Even recently, the workers at a restaurant we were dining at curiously bombarded our birth parents with questions about why two of their daughters appeared to speak no Korean. The palpable discomfort, especially seen in the pained expression of my mother, reminded me why I have chosen to stop inquiring about the past. Perhaps one day, when my Korean is better or when I feel more comfortable with my birth family, we will find a way to have these difficult conversations.

My first Gathering this summer happened to coincide with my decision to settle semi-permanently in Seoul for the next year. It was a powerful experience to be here during a time when hundreds of adoptees from around the world were converging on the place I now call home. During that week, I was continuously struck by the vibrancy and diversity of our community. In my conversations with other adoptees, a common theme kept showing up: that we would never have met each other, had we not all been adopted. While the experience of being adopted is one that is filled with loss and searching for belonging, it can also be one of collective strength and resilience, of community-building and creating change.


  1. Editor's note: The word has been intentionally misspelled dur to a wordpress technical problem that doesn't allow the word p roxy to be typed properly.
  2. Editor's note: The word has been intentionally misspelled dur to a wordpress technical problem that doesn't allow the word p roxy to be typed properly.