Korean adoptees unite and push South Korean government to protect adoptee human rights | Contributed by Brenna Kyeong McHugh, Kara Bos and Kim Thompson (Winter 2021 issue)
On Monday, January 18, 2021, South Korean President Jae-in Moon was hosting a New Year’s press conference. A reporter asked him what the government was doing to prevent child abuse, in light of the recent death of a 16-month-old toddler, Jeong-in, who allegedly suffered months of abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents in Korea, and died in October 2020 of injuries related to the abuse.
After unveiling a new set of guidelines to protect children from abuse, Moon went on to say that the government also needs to improve the nation’s adoption system. He declared, “Even after adoption, the adoptive parents need to check if the adoption is working out for them. So, there should be complementary measures allowing them to cancel the adoption, or if they still want to adopt a child, they should be able to change the child,” he said. His comments, broadcast live on television and YouTube, immediately stirred controversy, in particular the statement that adoptive parents “should be able to change the child” if dissatisfied for any reason. These comments center adoptive parents as the primary parties whose rights need protection, rather than on the human rights and dignity of children in the South Korean adoption system.
In response to these dehumanizing statements made by Moon regarding adoptees, a small group of Korean adoptees took to social media, and using the hashtag, #NotAThing, created a petition to demand an apology from Moon, requesting that he acknowledge that he delivered an insensitive and negative message in his statements about adoptees.
The adoptees’ group then created the petition and social media movement, #NotAThing, to raise awareness and recognition of the human rights of domestic and international child adoptees. This group is going viral with messages against the wrong and insensitive messaging about adoption from the South Korean government, and are in support of addressing the systemic and ethical issues in the domestic and international Korean adoption industry. We are also in support of more vigilant enforcement of South Korean laws and practices designed to protect children during and after being adopted.
The controversy around the murdered adoptee Jeong-in was one of two major events related to domestic adoption in South Korea that recently hit world headlines. The first one was a single mother who put her child up for sale on the Korean form of Craigslist for 200,000 KRW (about $175). The media went crazy, and adoption lobbyists even tried to justify her actions, saying that the South Korean government has made child registration mandatory, thereby creating an “obstacle” for women to anonymously give their child up. Adoption lobbyists have championed the cause of changing laws in order to make adoption more accessible, and have demanded that the law that makes child registration mandatory be retracted.
The South Korean government sent out a somewhat positive message and promised to reform support for single parents. However, there has been no response to the issue of how a 27-year-old woman resorted to listing her child for sale. The media confirmed that the father was unwilling to take responsibility for supporting his child. However, the following questions remain unasked and unanswered: Where was her family, or at the very least, social services, to support her in the helplessness she felt; and what kinds of mental health resources were available for her?
Articles have stated that she resorted to these desperate actions three days after giving birth at a postnatal center, and that she had planned to enter a single mother’s facility after being discharged. It is not difficult to imagine, if even to some small degree, the utter despondency she was experiencing. She was pushed to this desperate action and cry for help due to the lack of societal understanding, the immense stigma surrounding unwed mothers, and the lack of social welfare services that should have provided her with the minimum financial and mental health resources to enable her to care for her baby and get her through the immediate crisis.
South Korea has been exporting children since 1953, due to this kind of social stigma. South Korea’s international adoption program emerged due to the biracial children who were born to foreign (mainly American) soldiers and Korean mothers during and after the Korean War. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the most children were leaving the country to be adopted abroad, those high numbers were because of the refusal of the society to accept unwed mothers.
In 1986, over 8,600 Korean children were processed for adoption, and sent to adoptive families in various countries, primarily the U.S. Over 14,000 Korean adoptees were raised in Minnesota alone (two of the six Korean adoptees in our task force were adopted to and raised in Minnesota.) Today, the stigma of being a single mother, and the rejection of single mothers in South Korean society is still the main cause of international and domestic adoption there. When will this structurally change? When will the stigma surrounding unwed mothers end? When will the preservation of first families be prioritized over the practice of shaming and excluding unwed mothers and their children?
The January 2021 murder of Jeong-in can be found on social media under the hashtag #sorryjeongin. There were many follow-up stories about this 16-month-old girl, murdered by her adoptive parents eight months after being adopted. Her injuries were so severe that when the TV network SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) tried to replicate how she died in their investigative documentary, they concluded that the force of the blow that ruptured her pancreas was as severe as a boxer landing a very heavy blow. SBS also showed how the police failed to investigate Jeong-in’s case after several people, including daycare center workers, filed reports indicating domestic abuse in the months in advance of her murder.
Holt Children Services, which was in charge of her adoption, made an official apology, but shirked any form of responsibility. Holt officials stated only that that they had followed all procedures mandated by the government. There were three house visits, including two that were conducted immediately after reports were filed about suspected child abuse. According to the JoongAng Daily newspaper in South Korea, Holt asked the adoptive parents to take better care of the child and made multiple phone calls afterwards requesting another visit, but were rejected. Holt also asked the Gangseo Child Protection Center, which has investigative power, to take action, but nothing was done. To this day, government and private agencies are pointing fingers at one another, but for Jeong-in it is too late– her precious life has been snuffed out.
As the uproar continued, petitions were posted on the website of the Blue House, South Korea’s seat of government, demanding that the adoptive parents be prosecuted, convicted and given harsh sentences. A petition demanding the responsible parties be found and held accountable attracted 200,000 signatures in one day.
It was in connection with these events that President Moon made the unfathomable statement about how adoptive parents should be able to “change the child” during the adoption process. This resulted in a second immediate uproar across South Korean society, catalyzed by the fact that his press conference comments were live-streamed on Youtube. The majority of people recognize that exchanging a child in the middle of the adoption process is wrong no matter the reason, and that, if changing one child for another is even being discussed, it means that many errors were made by those responsible for placing the child from the beginning of the process. Moon’s party defended his comments, stating that they were taken out of context, and that he was referring to what those in the U.S. know as the foster care system.
However, even if this was the case, how could the president of South Korea, a former human rights lawyer and longtime politician, be so inarticulate? Adoptees, adoptive parents, and everyday citizens have been outraged at the mere notion that he could compare a child in an adoption process to a commodity that can be exchanged.
The ongoing awareness and petition campaign #NotAThing was started by a small group of Korean American adoptees across several countries, including Minnesota-raised special education teacher Brenna Kyeong McHugh, along with Allison Park, Kara Bos, Cam Lee, Patrick Armstrong, Kevin Omans, Richard Peterson, Valerie Reilly (graphic designer), and Sarah Monroe (videographer). None of us are doing this as members of a specific organization. We are individuals who have been brought together in the cause of speaking out against these insensitive comments. Our group is also pushing for change in the decades-long struggle of securing adequate adoptee rights in South Korea.
We make up the core team that has launched #NotAThing (#물건아니야 or mulgon-aniya) –a social media movement to create online viral support in recognizing adoptees as human beings and not commodities. We aim to use our righteous anger about adoptees being viewed as commodities as the momentum to facilitate and demand an apology from President Moon. We will also demand a meeting with Moon administration decisionmakers to create effective change in improving the human rights of adoptees, and elevate their position in South Korean society. We are doing so through a petition at: www.change.org/wearenotathing.
We recognize that an apology is not enough to prevent another child like Jeong-in from being beaten to death. That is why the meeting with President Moon and others who can facilitate structural change is the real reason behind the campaign. Our goal is to create a way for advocacy groups and adoptee voices to be a part of reforming the current adoption system.
The Korea Herald and Korea Times are both interested in promoting our campaign, and in elevating our voices. Online and front-page headlines may bring our campaign to the forefront, but will it be effective? Will it garner enough support to get the attention of President Moon?
As of January 30, 2021, we only have 2,500 signatures on our petition. There are more than 220,000 Korean adoptees throughout the world, so although 2,500 is a lot, it is not an overwhelming representation of adoptees’ strength of numbers. We are counting on Korean adoptees in particular, as well as other adoptees, adoptive parents, family members of adoptees, and adoption supporters to show their strength and solidarity. Anyone who wants to show support is encouraged to sign our petition!
A special message for Korean adoptees: We would encourage you to not just “like” our movement, but to become our movement by making your own video and letting your voice be heard. Too many of us adoptees have been silent long enough. Jeong-in had her voice silenced because of the silence of others. Let us raise our voices together and let us be heard, so that no other adoptee is ever silenced again. How can we expect the average person to care about adoptee rights or the fact that adoptees should not be seen as commodities if even our fellow adoptees do not support us?
Time is of the essence, so we can only hope and pray for support to increase as #NotAThing continues to spread, and as more adoptees and others share and make their own videos of support.
Please join us in ensuring that current and future adoptees are seen, heard, and protected. Help us to create the appropriate accountability and care in the South Korean adoption system that will ensure that if an adoption is processed, it is done correctly the first and only time. We, and many others in the adoption community, want to ensure that the adoptee’s human rights are represented and protected, and that all adoptees can grow up in homes with responsible, caring and loving parents.