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Book Review: 'The Global Orphan Adoption System' by Dr. Kyung-eun Lee

"The Global Orphan Adoption System: South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development" by Dr. Kyung-eun Lee is an informative and eye-opening explanation as to how so many Korean adoptees have been placed around the world since the Korean War in 1950.

Written as her Ph.D. dissertation, Dr. Lee published this text in English only for international adoptees as the first readers, followed by researchers, and ultimately with a hope that the policymakers of countries will also eventually read the information she has revealed.

As a Korean citizen and being involved in the South Korean government for over 20 years, she only became aware of the severity of the South Korean adoption issue in 2015. Since there is no social dialog on adoption in the country, it was all new to Dr. Lee. But, once she became aware, she started her research for her Ph.D. with completion in 2017. This led her to publish a book in Korean in 2019, followed by the publication of her "Dialogues With Adoptees" series in 2020.

Her activities culminated in this book published in 2021 and led to taking "Dialogues" online on the Korea Times site (that we have also republished). She explains in her lecture with Adoptionspolitisk Forum that the reason she has not published her work in Korean is because this adoption system is a human rights issue so the voices need to first be heard and pushed forward by those who are the victims of it.

Throughout the book, Dr. Lee provides the history of adoption both domestically and internationally not only in South Korea, but internationally as it developed as a human rights issue through the Hague Conventions.

In 1980, the South Korean adoption system was scrutinized heavily, but then forgotten about, much like the Korean War, on a global scale. However, this invisibility allowed the country to develop an international adoption program that systematically created “orphans” to create opportunities for private entities to benefit financially at the expense of thousands of individuals. Despite Hague Conventions being created to protect the rights of children in other countries, South Korea was able to escape being required to adjust their practices, but instead became more skilled at ensuring a steady stream of children, whether actually orphaned or not, to be sent abroad.

“In reality, a majority of intercountry adopted children [in South Korea] are not orphans. More than 90% of them have living birth parents whose consent relinquished them for adoption.” (p. 206)

Dr. Lee suggests that now this system in South Korea is too deeply embedded for the country to be able to stop the international adoption system as an explanation as to why the country has yet to end their exportation of children and continues to be one of the highest senders of their citizens abroad to be adopted. The excuse of the effects of the war are no longer applicable as anyone who has visited South Korea now can see that it is no longer a poor and suffering country.

Through this text, we learn about how human rights are being violated for adoptees.

“Hague Adoption Convention prescribes that children receive information and counseling on the effects of adoption, and this should be delivered in a means that gives consideration to the children’s age and level of maturity.” (p.205)


“Decades of disjointed and flawed child adoption legislation in conjunction with a history of abusing intercountry adoption as a child protection measure have undermined the basic capacity of child protection authorities to such an extent that even searching for missing children can be severely impaired.” (p. 214)

What is key in reading this text is the feeling that adoptees have an ally in Dr. Lee as she states, “For children, the often-hidden cost of finding a new home abroad is the loss of their cultural, social, and emotional ties” (p. 248). This perspective is so often ignored by other actors within the adoption system.

Although it is an academic text, it is an insightful explanation about the adoption system in South Korea as it relates to the rest of the world and human rights issues for the thousands of Korean adoptees sent abroad. No matter how you feel about being adopted or having adopted, this is a worthwhile read to better understand how adoption is seen from a governmental perspective at the expense of the victims of this system. We highly recommend Dr. Lee’s book: "The Global Orphan Adoption System: South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development"!


You can also watch our book talk with Dr. Lee here.


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