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The adoption of children from South Korea has continued since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In 1955, an American couple, Harry and Bertha Holt were so moved by the plight of orphans from the Korean War that they adopted eight children from South Korea and brough them home to live with them in Oregon. This received national press coverage, sparking interest in adopting Korean children among Americans nationwide. As a result, Harry and Bertha Holt created what has become the largest agency in the U.S. specialising in Korean children – Holt International Children’s Services.

Initially, most of the internationally adopted children were mixed-race from American (and other United Nations) military fathers and Korean women. The attitude towards biracial children in Korea was very negative; mixed-race orphans were often referred to as “dust of the streets”. Gradually, putting Korean babies up for adoption became institutionalised and over the course of several decades following the Korean War, South Korea became the largest supplier of children to developed countries in the world. An estimated 200,000 South Korean children have been sent overseas for adoption into primarily white families (about 150,000 to the U.S. and the remaining 50,000 to Canada, Europe, and Australia.) In Europe, Korean children have been adopted by families in such countries as Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. Approximately 3,500 children have been adopted to Australia.

Young Korean girl and boy near a M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, 1951. (U.S. Navy/Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF)

1950 – 1960

Prior to the Korean war, adoption was not common in Korea, and if it did occur, tended to be within the same family. Traditional Korean society placed significant weight on bloodlines and paternal family ties, and children of mixed race or those without fathers were not easily accepted in Korean society. By the late 1950s and early 1960s however, foreign adoptions had become the main social policy for orphaned children. Many impoverished families who could not feed or educate their children placed them in orphanages, hoping it would mean they could have a better life with a family in a western country. Most of the children adopted during this period were older.

Prior to the Korean war, adoption was not common in Korea, but by the early 1960s, foreign adoption had become the main social policy for orphaned children.

1970 – 1980

Industrialisation and urbanisation in the 1960s and 70s saw a change in many social attitudes, including increased divorce rates and teen pregnancies. Unlike the period immediately following the Korean War when most adopted chil=dren were orphans or had been abandoned, the majority of the children sent for adoption during the 70s and 80s were born to single mothers from poor and working class backgrounds. Women were not paid for giving up their babies, but they were often housed until the baby’s birth and had their medical expenses covered. There are four main adoption agencies in South Korea, all closely regulated by the government: Holt Children’s Services, Eastern Child Welfare Society, Social Welfare Society, and Korea Social Service.

The Holt staff in Seoul, Korea in 1957.


The adoption of overseas-born children (by non-relatives), known as inter country adoption, essentially began in Australia in 1975 when orphans from the Vietnam War were sent to Australia. This was known as “Operation Babylift”. The number of overseas-born children adopted in Australia increased from 66 in 1979-80 to a peak of 420 in 1989-90. It then declined to 222 in 1993-94, before rising again to 274 in 1995-96. The net increase in adoption of overseas-born children over the past two decades contrasts with the decline in the number of adoptions of Australian-born children during this time. In every year since 1988-89, the largest proportion of overseas-born children adopted by non-relatives has come from Korea (60% in 1988-89 and 34% in 1995-96).

Inter-country adoption, essentially began in Australia in 1975 when orphans from the Vietnam War were sent to Australia. This was known as “Operation Babylift”.


The Seoul 1988 Olympics was a turning point in South Korea’s adoption history. The Seoul International Olympics attracted the attention of journalists worldwide about many aspects of Korean culture, and much of this attention focused on Korea’s primary export: its babies. Western journalists like Bryant Gumbel of NBC commented that Korea’s primary export commodity was its babies, and articles like “Babies for Export” (The New York Times) and “Babies for Sale: South Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them” (The Progressive), embarrassed the South Korean government. North Korea also criticised South Korea’s adoption program, pointing out that selling its children to Western countries was the ultimate form of capitalism. As a result, the South Korean government delayed the scheduled departure of adopted children before and during the Olympics. Between 1986 to 1993, the number of Korean children adopted by American families began to decrease, from over 6,200 to just over 1,700.

The Seoul Olympics attracted the attention of journalists worldwide to many aspects of Korean culture, much of which focused on Korea’s primary export: its babies.


While international adoptions have long been associated with wars and destruction, in the case of South Korea, the largest number of children were sent overseas after the country had long recovered from war – the 1980s. Since the 1990s, approximately 90% of all children sent for adoption were born to unwed mothers, most of whom were over 25 years old and many from middle class families. Critics of the South Korean adoption program point out that because of the government’s reliance on international adoptions, South Korea’s social welfare programs for vulnerable families and orphaned or abandoned children remain underdeveloped.

Despite Korea’s ranking as the 13th highest GDP in the world and a national concern about low birthrates, the practice of overseas adoption still continues due to the continuing stigma against unwed mothers, lack of support towards unwed mothers, and stigma against domestically adopted children. However, in recent years, single mothers and adult adoptees in Korea have been advocating for increased cultural and government support for Korean single parent families.


Roughly 3,000-5,000 adult Korean adoptees return to Korea each year and there are an estimated 200 living in Korea for extended periods of time. According to Eleana Kim, while adoptees often desire to ‘fit in’ and suppress racial differences in their adoptive countries, they often face discrimination or rejection in Korea due to their Korean appearance but lack of Korean language skills and cultural knowledge. In the past decades, Korean adult adoptees have developed a unique international community, spearheaded by organisations such as GOA’L, created by and for adult adoptees in Seoul, and IKAA, which holds annual ‘Gatherings’ around the world. KAIAN was founded in 2014 to serve the Australian Korean adoptee community, the youngest member of the family of international Korean adoptee organisations.


Deann Borshay Liem & NAATA (2000), First Person Plural.

Kim, E. (2009). The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy.

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