Baby’s first present was a blue passportChoi Jong-mi has no regrets about the choice she made for her child.
“People may point fingers at me,” she wrote recently on a community site at Daum, an online portal. “But I have no regrets for giving birth to my child the way I wanted it. That’s the way I have lived, and I’ll continue to live that way with anything concerning my family.”
Ms. Choi, who speaks very little English, recently had her first child in a Los Angeles hospital, her first trip to the United States. The trip was part of her overseas “birth tour,” which many young Korean mothers are taking so that their children can get a second citizenship, usually American or Canadian.
The procedure cost Ms. Choi a little over $11,000 for a two-month stay, she says. Other women belonging to the community site have said they have spent double that.
Unlike many of those who take the “birth tour,” Ms. Choi says her husband makes only a modest income at a small firm.
“My husband was very supportive, but he said he could only pay $10,000,” she says. “Right away, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. But I told him that it would.”
To cut costs, Ms. Choi, who had no friends in the United States, stayed with her mother’s friend until her delivery date. She says she received four medical check-ups from a Korean doctor in Los Angeles and counted every penny to pay for her medical bills.
She says she didn’t buy medical insurance in the United States either, which would have covered her fee in case she had needed a Caesarian section or emergency help for her or her child. Ms. Choi says the trip was for a “future investment,” which will allow her daughter to receive a North American education for less money than if she were a Korean citizen. In the long run, she says her family plans to move permanently to Los Angeles.
In Korea, parents like Ms. Choi see foreign citizenship as a way to give their children an option to study abroad, learn English and release their sons from military service.
These birth tours have been around for a few years. As society increasingly became distrustful of local educational systems, more Koreans tried to get U.S. citizenship for their children. This allowed their children to go back to the United States to study, which would in turn give their kids an advantage when they went back to Korea to work.
But as the United States has tightened entry requirements for foreigners, many Korean parents are now turning to other destinations such as Canada or New Zealand, even Guam, for tourist visas, which is what most expectant mothers use to go on birth tours.
It’s hard to determine just how many women take these birth tours, as travel agencies decline to reveal how many packages they sell. Oh Si-yoon, a representative of Anemom, a Busan agent for a post-natal care based in Vancouver, is one of them.
“The demand seems to be increasing,” Mr. Oh says. “But a growing number of mothers are finding their own ways to arrange the trip for themselves through friends or relatives, which would make it even harder to know how many go.”
There are roughly 10 agencies on the Internet that are affiliated with post-natal facilities abroad to provide birth tour packages. Some of them offer facilities that can accommodate up to 16 people at a time, like the Larchmont Villa in Los Angeles.
In May 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of Korean mothers were coming to the city, paying as much as $20,000 on medical bills. The article also said there is an expanding network of Korean expatriates abroad that caters to young mothers in Korea, including immigration lawyers and obstetricians.
In the past, because of the high cost, birth tours were only available to a privileged few who could afford it. But as secondary and higher educations have become a greater concern in Korea, even working-class parents are willing to spend the extra money so that their children can study in a foreign country for much less than what it would cost to send their children to local foreign schools or abroad as an international student.
According to one agent who offers birth tour services in Canada, many Korean parents believe they are actually saving money by going overseas.
“You are thinking ahead, preparing for your child 20 years later,” says Wohn Su-hyeon, a birth tour agent at a post-nuptial facility in Vancouver called Granville Health Care. “You are paying $20,000 now. But if you were to send your child overseas to study or to local foreign schools, the cost would be about 10 times greater. You are saving at least 150 million won for your child.”
One major change compared to birth tours in the past is the increased openness by both sellers and participants. At Daum, mothers who have gone on a birth tour, or want to, have formed clubs.
Most birth tour agents used to operate discreetly through Internet sites or by word of mouth. Not anymore.
According to Mr. Wohn, about 10 companies in Korea are publicly promoting specialized birth tours. A local travel agency, which Mr. Wohn is affiliated with, published an ad in a local daily newspaper last week for pregnant women who are interested in having their babies in Canada.
For $22,000 Canadian (19 million won), a mother gets: medical check-ups, delivery at a local general hospital, two months of postnatal care, a return flight, a local guide providing services ranging from airport pickup to getting the baby’s birth certificate and social insurance number, which is essential to obtain Canadian citizenship.
Mr. Wohn says there were roughly 10 inquiries since the ad went out last week, and the callers were mostly in their late 20s and early 30s. Only one out of 10 people, he says, voiced concern about the cost, even though their medical fee needs to be paid in cash before the trip.
Other callers, he says, were more concerned about the sanitary conditions of Canadian hospitals and legality of the trip.
Views of Canada, U.S.
Many countries will automatically grant citizenship to those born on their land, including illegal immigrants. In the United States, such provisions are guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was added after the Civil War to ensure that the descendants of slaves would be entitled to U.S. citizenship.
A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy of Korea says it is not illegal to enter the United States just to give birth to a child there as long as the women can pay for their own medical bills.
“If an expecting mother were to say during her interview that her purpose visiting the U.S. is to give birth to her child, she would not necessarily be denied entry,” he says. “That reason alone is not a reason in and of itself to find someone ineligible.”
The Canadian government also does not see birth tours as illegal, even though the purpose of a visitor’s visa is to allow tourists and those wanting to attend short-term language courses to enter the country.
An official at the Canadian Embassy of Korea says there are no laws against people wanting to have babies in the country, though this could impact the Canadian immigration control in the long term.
But an agent of birth tour to Canada who wishes to be unidentified speculates that the Canadian government is willing to take in foreign immigrants to expand manpower and support the Canadian medical facilities, which have suffered financial troubles in recent years.
Mr. Wohn says he encourages mothers traveling on tourist visas to be frank about their plans with Canadian immigration officials. He says the expectant mothers are not subject to deportation or any other legal complications if they can show proof that they can pay for their medical bill, such as a sufficient amount of cash.
Even if they’re considered legal overseas, birth tours are seen as suspect back at home. Many Koreans who are proud of their nationality consider these attempts to gain foreign citizenship as opportunistic, based on what they see as an unnatural notion of choosing one’s citizenship.
There is also a question of national integrity regarding birth tours, which are seen as unethical by many Koreans. In a country where nationalism is strong, going abroad to obtain foreign citizenship is considered something of a betrayal.
One particularly sensitive issue deals with compulsory military service, which every man must carry out, regardless of class or status. However, Koreans with foreign citizenship are exempt from military duty, prompting critics of birth tours to predict that if rich people continue to buy an exemption for their children, the Korean Army will be made up of only people from the lower classes.
Park Ji-hyun, an obstetrician at Cha Medical Center in Seoul, says patients will ask about the fetus’ gender before deciding whether to go on a birth tour. In Korea, it is illegal for doctors to reveal the gender because many parents have aborted the fetus if it’s female. But Ms. Park says in the cases she’s seen, the patients want to know if it’s a boy so that they can make plans to get him foreign citizenship, which would exempt him from future military service.
As for medical risks, she says, “most patients bring with them the medical reports from here. But even then we can’t guarantee the risks involved, as there are medical complications that can occur at the last phase of pregnancy.”
Among her patients, Ms. Park says, fewer women have expressed interest in birth tours because of a greater awareness of the risks involved for mothers who go abroad without insurance.
Definition of citizenship
Park Hwa-seo, a professor of migration studies at Myungji University in Seoul, sees birth tours as a sign of globalization, based on the idea that citizenship should exceed the meaning of ethnic belonging.
“But it should become more of an exchange, unlike now where we pour cash into their bags,” she says. “It could get problematic when birth tours start to form an industry. They could also bring social insecurity, giving a false impression that American or Canadian citizenships are more superior than Korean.”
But even among those who don’t go on birth tours, many seem to understand how Korea’s problems would lead parents to have their children overseas.
“The whole system makes you question how your life is going to be after 40,” writes a father who says he supports birth tours, at I-mom Club, a Web site for parents. “The unemployment rate is getting higher, retirement age is getting younger, and the economy is getting worse.
“Call me a traitor,” he says. “But you shouldn’t criticize people who are making choices about their own future.”
by Park Soo-mee, Song Hee-jung