Birth Rates & Bans

Images in this post are from my visit to Social Welfare Society in 2004.

When I was in Korea in 2004, I heard a "rumor" that the South Korean
government, worried about the falling birth rate, was offering tax
incentives for families who choose to have more than two children. This
from the same country where in the previous year (2003), 1,790 children would be sent out for adoption.

So I was curious when I came across this article from the Chosun Ilbo: Korea’s Birthrate Plunges to New Record Low .

It seems the rumors are true.

According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, South Korean women have an average of 1.17 children – the lowest in the world, even lower than Japan at 1.29 and China at 1.8, despite the government-imposed one-child law.

In one article, the director of social policy research at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs was quoted as saying,

“We need to construct the appropriate social and
institutional environment to raise the fertility rate in the country .
. . For example, cash payments on the birth of a child and regular cash
payments for every second and subsequent birth up to the age of 5, and
an expansion of child care facilities."

The Korea Times reports that

Twenty-three local governments are providing one-off
payments of between 50,000 won to 1 million won ($1,000) for every
newborn in families from their second child. Pusan and 56 other cities
are providing higher incentives for families giving birth to their
third child.

Some of the incentives offered in some cities are:

* A one-time 3 million won payment to families for every child after the first
* Giving 300,000 won to foreign women married to Korean men
* A monthly 200,000 won childcare fee to families for their first
child, 300,000 won for their second, and 500,000 won for every child
after the third
* The ward office of Chung-gu, downtown Seoul, along with 70 other
local governments and ward offices nationwide, gives gift certificates
worth between 50,000 won to 300,000 won allowing families with newborns
to buy clothes, diapers, baby food and other childcare supplies.

Hmm. What I’m curious about is whether the government is offering
this kind of support to unmarried, single mothers? Or poor families who
struggle to keep the children they already have?

So even though South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world, and, according to Unicef’s Innocenti Report card the lowest teen birth rates in the world, the country is still sending children out for adoption.

Well, it seems this may be changing, according to the Korean Herald article "Lawmaker pushes ban on overseas adoptions":

As the country’s birthrate keeps plunging, an opposition
lawmaker came up with a desperate measure: an outright ban on
international adoption of Korean children.

Rep. Ko Kyung-hwa of the Grand National Party said yesterday she
plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit adoption of Korean
children by foreign parents outside Korea while systematically
supporting domestic adoption.

"Even as we struggle to counter a dropping birthrate and the aging
population, the number of international adoptions is higher than that
of domestic adoptions," explained Rep. Ko.

"To make a fundamental change, foreign adoptions should be banned
and the government needs to work proactively so that we could raise our
children here."

To promote domestic adoption, the lawmaker also proposed a state
subsidy for the child’s foster care during the adoption process, an
integrated database for adoption agencies and a reasonable adoption
fee, among others.

I’m curious about the reporters choice to use the words "desperate
measure" to describe the idea of banning international adoption. Isn’t international adoption itself the "desperate measure" South Korea felt forced to used back in the 1950s when the international adoptions first began?

Ok, so Made in Korea asked me to pontificate on the "social welfare" aspects of this. I’ll try my best.

I think intercountry adoptions from South Korea will indeed end in the relatively near future. Domestic adoption rates have
been steadily increasing. In the city of Kwangju, for instance, the
domestic adoption rate is now at 50% thanks to a lot of education and
public awareness efforts of organizations such as BACK.

But, as Sun Kyo from BACK discussed with me, it is not just about
babies – it’s about the whole Korean way of dealing with societal
issues. When I’ve been to Korea, one of the things I’ve noticed is that
in the public sphere, there appears to be no homeless, disabled or
indigent people. Where are they?

They are in places such as Ilsan, which used to be the Holt agency’s
orphange but now is an institution for mentally and physically disabled
Koreans. I visited Holt’s Ilsan Center
in 2000 and stayed overnight in the resident’s building – and
immediately thought of what it must have been like for mentally and
physically diabled individuals in the United States before the last two

The thing is, Korea is not really that far behind where we, as the
United States, were just a few decades ago. Young women who found
themselves pregnant were routinely sent to "maternity homes" just as
young Korean women do today. Although the biggest boom in maternity
homes happened in the 1960s (there were approximately 300 homes then),
I was able to find 80 maternity homes in the U.S. that are in operation

I was talking to a colleague just about a month ago, and he worked
in a mental institution back in the day. Even up through the 1980s, he
said, they were inhumane and crude places for people with mental health
issues. It’s a markedly different story today, where the idea is to
integrate children with severe mental and physical disabilities into
mainstream society. I worked for two years doing just that – working in
a residential treatment home for people with schizophrenia – and
helping them be integrated in larger society.

My point is, that I sometimes believe we Americans are quick to
judge and portray Korea (and other countries) as being so behind the
times, forgetting that our own historical practices are only a
generation or two behind us.

And I can’t mention it enough – we are still allowing
our African American children to be adopted to Canada and Europe. How
can we damn South Korean adoption practices, when our own country is
doing the same thing? See:
Foreign Adoption of African-American Babies Grows
Born in America, adopted abroad
Foreigners Adopting More African-American Babies

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

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