A single father's battle to help Korea's unregistered children
“One day, all the diapers and milk formula ran out. My baby had a fever but it was a Saturday night. I knew I had to take her to the hospital, but if I went, it would be the emergency room. I was arguing with myself about whether or not to take her because I wasn’t sure I could afford it. Then I started thinking that she might starve and die if I kept her. I became doubtful whether it was right for me to raise her at all. I thought to myself, ‘I should die. I should just die."
Being a single mother in Korea comes with its own difficulties, but for single fathers, it’s an entirely different story. Before 2015, it was near impossible for single fathers to register their children without the child’s mother, because the law dictated that only a mother had the right to do so.
In the United States, a single parent or a guardian can file for a birth certificate via the hospital, which will fill out a form with necessary information and send it to the health department, but in Korea, the law dictates that “The report of birth of a child born out of wedlock shall be filed by the mother.” So when Kim Ji-hwan’s daughter Sa-rang was born in mid-2013 and her mother abandoned her before she was registered, Kim panicked.
No birth registration means that a child doesn't exist legally. They have no social security number and no access to any of the government’s childcare or welfare policies, not even health insurance. Children under the age of 12 are vaccinated for free, but for those who are not registered, each shot ranges in cost from 10,000 won ($8.80) to 150,000 won. Hospital visits must be paid for out of pocket too.
“For the first six months, everywhere I went told me that realistically, there was no way for me [to register my daughter] and that I had to find her mother,” Kim said. “But I came across a counselor who worked overtime for days to find an answer for me. He told me that he was also the father of a new-born baby and he felt bad. I’m lucky to have met him, because without him, everything would have taken so much longer.”
Because fathers cannot register their children, Kim would first have to file a case to create a new name and origin of family for Sa-rang and then file to be recognized her biological father.
Kim sought help from the Korea Legal Aid Corporation as well as individual lawyers and law firms, but it wasn’t until late 2014 that Sa-rang was officially acknowledged as having been born in the eyes of the law.
“When she finally got her social security number, I felt so sorry. I felt so sorry that it took so long to claim such a natural right. I felt so sorry that she had to fight for something that all other babies got so easily. And it was all my fault that it took so long.”
Kim reminisced back to when he was going through the ordeal and described it as “traumatic.”
He ran fast out of money. He couldn’t apply for government-subsidized babysitting services or send her to a daycare center — because they require a child's registration number —, which meant he was responsible for her care 24 hours every day. Kim was left with few options to earn money and spent the first three months after she was born taking on odd jobs which he could Sa-rang along for, such as delivering parcels via the subway.
“Subway parcel delivery is a good option for elderly people, because transportation fees are free for them, but for me, I was left with just 13,000 won to 15,000 won a day,” he said. “But still, it kept me alive. I told myself, ‘Let’s just hold on until I get her registered.’ Then I was fired after just three weeks because a client, out of the goodness of her heart, called the company and told them they only wanted ‘the guy with the baby’ delivering her packages. I was fired then and there because the company was concerned that it was too dangerous to have Sa-rang with me and didn't want to be held responsible for any accidents.”
According to Naver Shopping, one diaper costs 123 won on average, and a baby typically requires 10 to 15 diapers a day, amounting to about 1,230 won a day and 8,610 won a week. A carton of powered milk usually costs around 30,000 won and lasts less than a week. Kim says he had to scavenge for cheap diapers and formula in damaged boxes that were discounted. It’s best to stick with one brand of powdered milk for the baby, but Kim says that such luxury just wasn’t an option.
“Diarrhea was better than starvation,” he said. “I didn’t wish for any welfare. I didn’t wish for better welfare policies. Welfare was too far away. If my baby could get a social security number, then I could send her to daycare. I will do whatever it takes — work part-time jobs or work at factories. I will do it all, just please give my baby her social security number. It’s the most basic right for a child, but single dads must face this obstacle."
Whenever he found a free moment, Kim took to the streets to hold one-person protests. He made signs on cardboard that read, “Please protect the rights of children [...] These children are forced to live for at least three months to as long as years without a social security number or health insurance.” He stood on the streets of Hongdae, western Seoul, a neighborhood bustling with passersby. His story was soon heard and helping hands reached out.
Kim revealed that actor Kim Hye-ri reached out to him after hearing his story and offered to take care of Sa-rang for free while he worked. Lawmaker Seo Young-kyo put forward an amendment to the Act on the Registration of Family Relations to make it possible for fathers to register their children if they do not know the mother's name, whereabouts and contact information. The amendment was passed on May 18, 2015 and went into effect on Nov. 19.
However, despite the amendment, which is referred to as “Sa-rang’s Law,” the reality for single fathers remains bleak. The law states that a Family Court needs to confirm that a place of registration and resident registration number [of the mother] are unverifiable. But according to Kim, regional courts all have different ideas on how to make such confirmation. Some judges demand that fathers prove they don’t know any of the three pieces of information, while others are more lenient.
Statistics Korea recorded 7,082 single fathers in Korea in 2019 as opposed to 20,761 single mothers. The exact number of unregistered children is unknown because they are out of legal reach but the closest related data shows there were 261 cases were filed to register biological children in 2016, of which 156 were authorized. In 2017, 147 cases were filed and 108 were authorized, 136 cases in total and 94 authorized in 2018 and 119 cases, of which 83 were authorized in 2019.
Earlier this year another amendment to the Act on the Registration of Family Relations was put forward after a tragic incident involving an unregistered child.
In January an 8-year-old girl was murdered by her mother in Incheon. In Korea, a child born to a married woman can only be registered as her husband’s child, even if the husband is not the biological father. The mother refused to register the child because she was married to a man who was not her daughter’s biological father. The child’s death certificate reads, “unnamed.”
Soon after, the child’s biological father took his own life. In a text to his brother, the father said he couldn’t live with the guilt of not being able to protect his daughter, whose name was later revealed as Ha-min.
Rep. Seo, who put forward the amendment to the act in 2015, was also behind the second amendment which passed the National Assembly on Feb. 26. It allows fathers to register their children without the child's mother “if the mother does not cooperate without justified reasons.” While the concept of “justified reasons” is ambiguous, the amendment is a step in the right direction.
“We estimated that there were almost 100,000 children who were unregistered because of the law before 2015,” Rep. Seo told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Right now, the law states that it’s the mother who has the right to register a child and lays out exceptions of when the father is eligible. That should be changed so that it clearly spells out that both mothers and fathers can register their children. The law was there to protect mothers and children when DNA testing didn’t exist. Now that it does, there should be no reason as to why fathers shouldn’t have the same rights as mothers.”
Unfortunately, Ha-min wasn't the only unregistered child to make headlines this year. In January, a single father beat his new-born baby to death. But because the baby was unregistered, the hospital was unable to perform an autopsy and the father could not face criminal charges. The hospital had to file for a court warrant to perform the autopsy and seek justice for the baby boy.
“Even in death, an unregistered child faces discrimination,” said Seo. “Single fathers were frowned upon in the past and were questioned on whether they had the ability to raise a child. But with ‘Sa-rang’s Law,’ we’ve learned how single fathers have coped and how beautiful their lives are. The world is changing and so is the definition of a family. We need to look at how capable fathers are and the quality of life a child can have. When the law changes, that will lead to a change in society and eventually a change in our minds.”
Seven years have passed since Kim won the legal battle to register Sa-rang. He continues his endeavor to change the law and support single parents both legally and personally, “because it’s for the babies.”
“When a single father or a mother reaches out to me, I see the little baby crying for help and crying for life,” Kim said. “I've watched Sa-rang grow every step of the way — from when she took her first step, when she mumbled her first word and every new challenge she overcame. And because I know how precious and dear my daughter is, I love and cherish every other child there is in the world. There should be no baby who suffers the way that Sa-rang did.”
Kim added, “The meaning of the term ‘normal family’ should be changed. Any family is normal as long as the members are happy. A family with parents and children that abuse each other is not normal. A child raised by a single mother, a single father, grandparents or any other guardian can be just as happy as any other child [from a nuclear family] and we need to realize that.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]