Voice of Love or Love Misled?

It’s all over the internet, particularly the online Korean adoption community: a new campaign urging the Korean government to change its current plan to continue to reduce intercountry adoptions each year until 2016, at which point they will end.

Called Voice of Love, the campaign is led by Onnuri English Ministry pastor Eddie Byun, who is based in Seoul, and Hope for Orphans leader Paul Pennington. The campaign is seeking 30-second videos “describing how Korean adoption has blessed your life,” which the campaign will post on its site to deliver a message to the Korean government that intercountry adoptions should continue.

I’m an adoptive parent, and it is absolutely true that my life has been blessed beyond belief through the adoption of my kids, both of whom are Korean. Life without Sweet Pea and Big Guy? Does not compute, simply does not compute.

I know that had they grown up in a Korean orphanage, it is possible that they would have been denied the educations that are giving them the opportunity to craft solid lives, and that their career choices would have been very limited. Korea isn’t always kind to people who grew up without families and lack a hojeok that makes their lineage clear. I wouldn’t wish that on any child.

So why would I withhold my support for this campaign? Because it is misleading. First of all, the magic word popped up in Paul Pennington’s comments – orphan – which simply does not apply in the context of Korean adoption. The vast majority of people adopted from Korean in recent years, certainly since the 70s, aren’t orphans at all. They are the children of unmarried women or of families who found themselves unable or unwilling to care for them for any number of reasons, poverty being at the top of the list.

The reason there are so many children in orphanages in Korea today is because Korean society rejects and discriminates against unmarried women and their children and does not provide sufficient social support for families in need. If these attitudes were to change, a couple of things would happen more frequently than they’re happening today: unmarried mothers who want to parent would be able to find work without fear of job loss if their single mother status is revealed (as this single mother's testimony demonstrates), and more Koreans in Korea would adopt.

I hate the thought of Korean children growing up in orphanages, because I see my own kids in their faces; it is heartbreaking. I’m therefore no longer going to shy away from the criticism that needs to be made very clear to Koreans in Korea and right here in the U.S.: your attitudes about bloodline simply have to change. Confucianism and lengthy history of family homogeneity are no excuse for the discrimination and downright ugliness that is often directed at mixed race Koreans, unmarried mothers and their children. It is wrong, and you need to change it.

I do not judge the good intentions or good heart of Pastor Byun. But I am saddened that he is using his pulpit, which is clearly supported by a considerable following and considerable resources, to perpetuate the status quo. Adoption from Korea is far more complex than any 30-second video could convey. I’m pretty sure that this campaign will have little effect on the Korean government, but will instead serve to further polarize the already polarized Korean adoption community.

I for one have had enough polarized debate to last a lifetime. I’m ready for change, and urge Pastor Byun and everyone promoting adoption from Korea to direct your energy to the real work: changing discriminatory Korean attitudes toward single mothers, their children and domestic adoption, and improving social services for families in need.

For an adopted person's perspective, read this excellent post by Joy Lieberthal.


Marie said…
I agree with you. This is such a complicated issue. Knowing that children in children's homes are not cared for in any legitimate way, in fact that they are abused and neglected make me wish that people would lobby for these children, not for their adoption.
deborah said…
A very moving interview with the single mom. Thank you for a moving article, and for including the link to the interview.
Jane Jeong Trenka said…
Thanks Margie for commenting on this and your pitch for our friends, the unwed mothers and single parents.

Of those "20,000" "orphans" that that this initiative is talking about, most are older children who've been left in orphanages because of economic hardship or after the divorce of parents.

In late December, MPAK (an organization that promotes the adoption of Korean children to ethnic Koreans in the US and Korea) helped change a law that they have been working on for 15 years that automatically cuts the parental rights of parents who have not parented their children for three years.


The law will not go into effect until next year, so those "20,000" are not even "adoptable" yet.

Moreover, those "20,000" are mostly older children, and as we know, the children of unwed mothers are hot commodities because they are young. So I don't think that most foreign adopters want these orphanage kids anyway. They are school-age kids, up to 18 years old, who are walking around fully speaking Korean and who are culturally fully Korean every day of the week, not just on culture camp day!

These two populations of unwed mothers babies and unwed mothers' babies need to be considered separately. There are some unwed mothers' babies currently in orphanages, but their numbers are far fewer than 20,000.

Instead of working for 15 years to "free" "orphans" for adoption, people should have been working harder for 15 years to encourage FAMILY REUNIFICATION and support for people in economic difficulty, as well as public campaigns for the acceptance of divorced and unwed mothers and blended families (where divorced and remarried people raise their children together). That would be better than the situation where the woman has to get rid of her kids so she can remarry some pigheaded guy who doesn't accept her kids from her previous marriage. She has to marry him because she is economically dependent on men -- she has been dismissed from the workplace for childbearing and has been out of the workforce for years, and can no longer get a job with a living wage and therefore has to attach herself to a wage earner to ensure her own survival, and puts her kids in the orphanage to ensure theirs.
Jane Jeong Trenka said…
As you see here, orphanages get about $1,000 in govt support per month per child, whereas an unwed mother gets $50 in govt support. It is an upside-down and backwards prioritization. The child's human right is to be kept with his/her mother.


Orphanage directors are happy to get children because they get more money. They have an incentive to take children easily and keep them there in order to maintain a full orphanage and full funding.

In addition, the child support laws are not enforced by the state. Instead, the custodial parent is supposed to duke it out privately with the other parent and make them pay. Needless to say, that system does not work and subjects mothers to more trauma.

Instead of funding and condoning these practices, we need:

1. Better enforcement of deadbeat dad laws.

2. Gov't support for unwed moms/ single parents

3. Orphanages should actively pursue family reunification. Pick up the phone; use the same police family search that adoptees and every other Korean uses when they cannot trace a family member.
Jane Jeong Trenka said…
PAPs who have the money and therefore the power can be proactive and say:

1. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you remove reservations to Article 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Korea willingly signed.

Do they intend to come into full compliance or not? It has been over 20 years since they signed.

2. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you sign the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption and the adoption meets the standards of international law.

3. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you improve women's rights.

Sisters need their own money! Korea ranks consistently at the bottom of the barrel in labor force participation, wage equality, and earned income.

4. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you show us that you are acting in the best rights of the child by following the internationally recognized principle of subsidiarity: family preservation first, domestic adoption second, int'l adoption third. Walk the talk and put the budget there.

5. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you stop abusing the category of "handicapped" by including mixed-race and premature babies in that category.

6. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you make a concerted effort to develop systems for handicapped children to be supported by their own families.

7. We are not going to adopt from Korea until you create transparent practices and enforce it on the Korean side.

Don't be naive Westerners and think that what is on the paper is real! It is just what someone wrote down. There is a big difference.

How many moms have I met who were counseled to give up their kids for intl adoption SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE they thought it would then be an open adoption? A LOT. How many cases have I heard where the father of the baby was not notified that his baby was going for adoption? A LOT. Doesn't the father have at least the right to know?

8. We are not going to adopt from Korea until loopholes in the U.S. laws are closed that have left some adoptees without U.S. citizenship.

That is real solidarity with the same demographic that your adopted kids will belong to.

9. We are not going to adopt from Korea until we know for certain that birthfamily can be contacted in case our adopted child needs a bone marrow transplant or any information regarding medical problems now or in the future.

That means you know for sure that both parents can be contacted and the child was not relinquished under a fake name. In order to find Koreans in Korea, you just need their name and citizen ID number. The first 6 digits are the digits of their birthdate. (for ex. mine is 720308, meaning March 8 1972).

As a recent YouTube animation I saw said, "My mother has the same right to privacy as anyone else. Relinquishing a child did not enroll her in the witness protection program."

10. We are not going to adopt from Korea until we can feel completely OK about it, instead of kind of troubled and a little robbed and manipulated.

Sorry, Margie, for the comment that turned into a rant ...
Wendi said…
Politics aside... The children need homes. I will not stop adopting from Korea until that need stops. Bottom line.
NanIe Yi said…
Margie, thank you for caring. Living in an orphanage does not automatically make a child an orphan. My brother and I were placed in an orphanage and were/are not orphans with living biological family a few miles away. We have both reunited with our Korean birth family after 30 yrs of being adopted to different countries internationally.
Margie said…
Wendi, thanks for commenting. Hopefully this won't sound too hard (apologies if it does), but if you aren't also asking why the children you want to adopt need homes, you are contributing to the problem.

You may not be able to influence discriminatory Korean attitudes toward unmarried mothers and children born outside of marriage, and you can support the adoptee and mothers organizations in Korea that are working to change them. You can also encourage real dialog, not debate, about adoption from Korea in your adoption community. Dismissing anything that

Wanting kids to have homes and wanting the process of providing them to be legal, ethical, and respectful for everyone involved aren't mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand if ALL of our discussions about intercountry adoption reflect the whole picture.

Jane, I tried to comment yesterday from my phone and failed - THANK YOU for this information, I need to roll it into a post. Marie, Deborah, NanIe, thank you for commenting!
Sue G said…
Very articulate. I hate liberalism that says do not judge culturally relative mores which cause human suffering. We have to draw the lines. We have to cry foul where we see it, in our own cultures and in others too. We just have to or there is no hope.
Anonymous said…
Many AP's want to hear the voices of adult adoptees only to the extent that it benefits them to understand issues in raising their transracial adopted child. AP's are the ones who NEED adult adoptee's to understand issues that will affect their adopted child's future life. Adult adoptees are NOT the ones asking AP's to yearly conferences. When you don't support adult adoptee rights/adoption reform,then the goodwill and voluntary willingness of adult adoptees- that AP's really are dependent on -comes to burned bridges to a wider adult adoptee community and ends up hurting AP's the most.
Margie said…
Anon, thanks for commenting. I think your comment may be referring to the KAAN conference, which indeed seeks the participation of adoptees, as well as first parents (from Korea and the U.S.), adoptive parents, Koreans and Korean Americans. KAAN's Advisory Council includes adoptees and adoptive parents. So although I don't disagree with what you say about some adoptive parents, presuming KAAN is the conference in question here, I have to say it's not quite accurate to say APs are doing the inviting. The call for proposals goes out to the general public at a certain time, and everyone's welcome to submit a proposal. Everyone is asked to help with their expenses, and everyone is welcome to ask for KAAN to bear them.

As for APs essentially exploiting adoptees to help them parent their children: I definitely have seen this, and it's wrong. To me it's very clear: adopted people owe nothing to the adoption community, which should be grateful for their involvement when they choose to offer their experience.
Anonymous said…
Adult adoptees are not the ones asking AP's to their yearly conferences.

I did not write that AP's specifically asked ONLY for adult adoptees,that may have been your inference. I stated the opposite- Adult adoptees do not seek the attendance of AP's at their conferences- IKAA,GOAL,Bureau Racines Coréennes - to name a few. It's a very simple concept to understand. Sometimes things are made obvious when you state the opposite of what occurs.
Margie said…
Apologies for misunderstanding. I would just say that the every conference has a purpose - those you mention serve the adoptee community exclusively, KAAN seeks to bring everyone who lives or experiences adoption from Korea together. Simply two different purposes.

I help with registration for the conference and thought these stats might clarify. These are from the Atlanta conference last summer:

37% adoptees
24% other Korean-Americans
19% adoptive parents
7% siblings and partners of adoptees
7% adoption professionals (agency reps, social workers)
2% birthfamily members
4% other (exhibitors, etc.)
Anonymous said…
I agree that adoption from Korea or any nation/adoption in general is complex and cannot be simplified in any way. However, I wonder is there a way to raise awareness of the many kids who are in the orphanage system in Korea who are older and with possible special needs to be considered for adoption and get away from the "infants" that are usually thought about when people think about adopting from Korea? We are a KA family and are in the process of adopting a 5 year old from a special needs orphanage and have seen that there are so many special kids there who would love to have a family. Maybe I'm being too naive?
Anonymous said…
The mission of MPAK is to encourage adoption in Korea and the pastor also clearly states that that is best for everyone. Their whole point is that Korea is not prepared at this point to care for all of these children and that until they reach that point, international adoption is a good thing in the midst of a difficult and complex situation.
Margie said…
Anonymous, I agree with you regarding MPAK's mission, and personally do not disagree with efforts to promote adoption in Korea while Korea is coming to grips with its lack of support for single mothers and their children, financial and social in the form of acceptance of single mothers and their children and an end to discrimination against them.

However, Pastor Byun and MPAK aren't speaking out on behalf of single mothers or promoting the preservation of their fragile families.

You made the following comment: "Korea is not prepared at this point to care for all of these children."

Why is that? Because Korea doesn't have the dollars? As the world's 14th (13th? they're somewhere around there) largest economy, I'm not buying that excuse.

Or is it really because Korea won't bend its social structure? Korean women who become pregnant outside of marriage are discriminated against to the point of being unable to find work or keep the jobs they find. Their children are discriminated against as well. I believe that Korea just doesn't want to have to deal with this reality, and intercountry adoption became a great way to avoid it.

I understand how many American and European adoptive parents believe they are doing the very best thing by adopting Korea's unwanted children. But if you're not asking why those children are unwanted, and speaking out to end what put them in that situation, you really do become a part of the problem.

Every social change is preceded by a time of confusion and upheaval. It will be this way for the change needed in Korea that will make intercountry adoption unnecessary. Many things must change for this: unplanned pregnancies must be prevented, particularly with young women and teens; attitudes toward domestic adoption must be improved so more Koreans adopt; discriminatory attitudes and practices toward single mothers must end; social services must include single mothers and their children.

Until then, yes, there will be children who need homes, and I as an adoptive parent believe that it can be appropriate to seek homes for them abroad. However, intercountry adoption should never be promoted on its only; reputable organizations should always promote family preservation and speaking out on behalf of single-mother families at the same time.

Sorry to rail on. I guess what I'm saying is that a holistic approach is needed, and I don't see too many organizations promoting one.

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