A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 12/26/2012. Photo: Lee Jung-hee carries her two-year-old son Louis in this photograph taken in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province. / Courtesy of Lee Jung-hee
By Kim Young-jin
Kim Jung-in (an alias), a public relations officer, knew it would be difficult to raise her one-month-old daughter alone. But determined to try, she ignored family members who pressured her to opt for adoption, just as they had told her to have an abortion.
“I was confident I could get a job and take care of her on my own,” recalled Kim, 36, of the turbulent period four years ago. “But I needed time to find work and persuade my parents I could do that.”
Time and understanding, she would find, were not on her side.
Kim met her boyfriend while working abroad for a Korean firm. They wanted to marry but her family would not give their blessing without meeting the prospective groom first. After they learned she was pregnant, the man convinced her to quit her job, saying he could support her.
But the man’s business fell through, and with scant resources, he convinced Kim to return to Korea unmarried. Despite promises to follow her, he vanished.
She ended up in Busan with her parents, who shunned her for giving birth out of wedlock – a common response in Korean society. “My mother cooked meals for me, but not for my baby,” she recalled. “My father did not accept me as part of the family. I ran out of places to turn to.”
Kim may have been alone, but her story is not uncommon in a country where stigmatization and a lack of social services force many women to choose between abortion and adoption. While single mothers have raised their profile in recent years, groups supporting them say that the government must provide them with a safety net and begin to set straight a painful history.
The issue may be set to go under the spotlight as Korea prepares for its first female president, Park Geun-hye, who has promised to improve conditions for women. Support groups say whether Park pays attention to single mothers will be a bellwether of how thoroughly she plans to follow through on this pledge.
As yet, the President-elect’s team has not made specific policies for single mothers and they are not mentioned in its policy book of over 300 pages.
“Right now, they are included in the policies for single parents,” said an official from the policy committee of Park’s Saenuri Party, requesting anonymity. “Once the transition committee is launched, it is possible that the issues of unmarried mothers can be discussed there.”
The path for Kim to keep her child was precarious. In need of work, she jumped when she heard of a job in Seoul. But with her family refusing to babysit, she made what she felt was a necessary gamble, leaving the child in the care of an adoption agency, with the promise that if potential adoptive parents were interested, she would be called.
She soon received a text message from a social worker informing her that an adoption had been finalized. “I cried a lot that I wanted my baby, but I was told it was impossible. After fighting for three months I got her back.”
According to Statistics Korea, some 2.1 percent of babies were born outside of marriage last year, the lowest rate among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and well below the OECD average of 36.3 percent.
Some 90 percent of Korean babies adopted internationally are from single mothers, seen as representative of the social pressures facing unmarried, pregnant women.
Han Seo Seung-hee, who works with the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN), believes the attitude stems from deeply ingrained Confucian mores. “Society thinks they are immoral,” she said. The attitude prevails in spite of concerns over the nation’s aging population. Moreover, social stigma against mothers who have children out of wedlock is underpinned by the specific expression in the Korean language referring to them, ‘Mi-hon-mo’, often used as a pejorative term.
Lee Jung-hee, a 31-year-old teacher in Gyeonggi Province, said people treated her differently when she decided to give birth to her son after breaking up with her boyfriend, the father.
“You can’t tell people at work, or you have to lie to them. It’s like you are a criminal,” she said.
Even at the hospital, where she received care under her insurance program, the doctor “suddenly turned really cold” when Lee said the father might not be present at birth. Other hospital officials asked why she did not go to a care center for single mothers.
“That’s when I realized, if you become a single mother in this country, it doesn’t matter if you have a family, if you have a good job or education, or who you are. You just become the bottom of society. People treat you like crap,” she said.
Han said on the national census, if a woman reports being unmarried, it neglects to ask whether she has children. Others point out that existing cash support reinforces the separation of families and institutional help rather than empowering women to raise their children alone.
According to numbers compiled by Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), the government provides around 1 million won for each child in a family group home facility or an orphanage; and 250,000 won for every child in foster care. Korean families who adopt are supported with a 100,000 stipend. But single parents, including unwed and divorced parent receive 50,000 per month.
Lee, the teacher, didn’t want to be institutionalized in a group home.
“If you stay in such a place for a year, or two, or three, how do you ever start over again? Someone like me ― a professional ― if I get a little support from the government, I can get back on my feet and I am willing to work,” she said.
The monthly support for single parents falls well short of considering unexpected circumstances, Lee learned. Soon after birth, her son was diagnosed with Hirschsprung’s disease, a disorder of the abdomen that required surgery.
Through support from KUMSN, she has been able to hire a babysitter, but her son’s frequent illness poses a problem for her work schedule.
Kim Jung-in, the public relations worker, said stigmatization does not stop with the mother. “Most families don’t want to have get-togethers with single mothers and their children,” she said.
Reconciling the past, looking ahead
Jane Jeong Trenka, head of TRACK, said the high percentage of international adoptees that comes from unwed mothers binds the two groups together.
International adoptions from Korea picked up pace during the country’s rapid industrialization under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the late father of President-elect Park. Many such adoptees return to Korea to learn about the country or search for their birth parents.
Some scholars suggest that like other exports of human resources during that era, babies, especially those born out of wedlock, may have been seen as a tidy source of profit.
“The unwed mothers and their children are woven inextricably into the history of Korea’s development,” said Trenka, an adoptee.
She said the stories of the families of adoptees reveal a “complete lack of a social safety net and of course patriarchal practices which include intense discrimination by the society and the government against single mothers and their children.”
In recent years, grassroots awareness campaigns have helped bring the issue to light. Last year, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Single Parent Law that by 2015 will ban adoption agencies from owning facilities for unwed mothers, which activists say will reduce the influence of the agencies in the women’s decision-making process.
Groups such as KUMSN say now is the time for the government to devise policies to shore up services.
The advocates say efforts must go beyond Park’s promise to increase cash support from 50,000 won to 150,000 won and bolster housing for single parents.
Activist Han said the government can start by collecting accurate statistics on unwed mothers, because it is believed many women do not report their status. KUMSN urges the incoming administration to consider diversifying housing options, tightening regulations over adoption practices, and providing better education for pregnant, unwed women on their options.
The government should mobilize a public awareness campaign to educate society on unwed women, the group says.
Lee, the mother, says the reasons women like her and their children should be treated as normal members of society are simple.
“I pay taxes, first of all. And then every child has the right to be happy,” she said.
“I gave birth to a kid, and he is going to grow up and work for this country. We can raise these kids and make them happy. People need to be open minded, not just for me, but for the children.”