[VIEWPOINT]Every child deserves a familyChristmas Day reminds me of the story “The Little Matchstick Girl,” and that makes me think about the lives and future of children today. The most important thing for children anywhere in the world is having a warm and stable family they can depend on. Children in poverty, especially undernourished children, face terrible hardships, but an even more fundamental problem for children is the pain that children without families have to endure. For children, being left alone without a family is at least as bad a misfortune as the sorrow of having no house to live in. So how can we provide a home to these pitiful children living alone without families?
The first thing that comes to mind is our adoption system and the fate of adopted children. Over the past few years, around 4,000 children have been adopted each year to families in Korea and to couples overseas. Since adoption is linked to the tradition and custom of our family system, and legal problems including civil and other laws, it is not something that can be dealt with in a simple manner. Fortunately our response to the adoption problem on a national level is moving in a positive direction thanks to the efforts of government ministries, including the Ministry of Health and Welfare, adoption-related organizations and specialists. The consistent increase in the number of domestic adoptions, which has grown to make up 42 percent of all adoptions, and the innovative improvement in the management of the overseas adoption system, which was initiated by the Overseas Koreans Foundation, are both remarkable advances that should be noted. The establishment of “Adoption Day” reflects these advances.
However, we cannot ignore the reality that overseas adoptions, which began in earnest immediately after the Korean War, still account for the majority of the total adoptions of Korean children, and the adoption of disabled children in particular cannot but depend heavily on overseas adoption. The number of Korean children adopted overseas over the past 50 some years since 1954 exceeds 193,000, according to government statistics. In the first few years, mostly mixed-race children were adopted overseas. But later non-mixed children began to account for the majority once overseas adoptions reached their full scale.
The fundamental principle in thinking about the problem of children without families and adoption is that the happiness and human rights of each child have to be considered above everything else. There is no doubt that, despite this age of globalization, sending Korean children to be adopted overseas puts a burden on our pride. However, we must not forget that being included in a family, whether it is in Korea or abroad, and receiving love and care is the most important thing for orphaned children. Of course, adoption does not automatically guarantee happiness. Susan Soon-keum Cox, vice president of public policy and external services at Holt International Children’s Services, who was granted a honorary citizenship of Seoul last year, expressed this well when she said that adoption is a bittersweet experience. Yet we must not forget that this experience is directly linked to the happiness of the children.
Last October, in commemoration of its 50th anniversary, Holt International Children’s Services hosted an international conference titled “International Action for Children Without Families” in Eugene, Oregon. At the conference, which I attended, the services of Harry Holt and his wife, who played a leading role in the process of bringing many Korean children to the United States for adoption after they had lost their families and homes during the Korean War, were applauded. The conference searched international measures that could be taken to solve the problem of children without families, a problem that is expanding into a worldwide crisis. It was an extremely meaningful experience because it provided me with an opportunity to hear at least briefly about the lives of 100 or so adopted Korean-Americans. While reflecting on the unfortunate lives of many adopted people from the ages of 7 to 57 who were present there, I was unavoidably reminded of the troubled history of our people. But it made me feel extremely proud to see that they had grown into people who cherish the values of family and have not forgotten their Korean roots, often due to the love of their adoptive families and homes. And they did this even though they had to overcome countless hardships in a strange country.
The problems of adoption originate mostly from the failure to maintain a sound family system. Once again, we have to renew the attention of our community to the value of the family, the role of the home as the protector of love and the children who grow there. And we must make an effort so that all children in the world can nurture their dreams within the loving shelter of a family.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo