41 M ok Kyoung-hwa moved into a home for unwed mothers in Seoul in the final month of her pregnancy. She was 32 and her fiancé had recently broken off their engagement because, as she later found out, he had met another woman. Her pregnancy was a secret from everyone apart from her mother and the father of her child, who had told her to get an abortion before breaking off their engagement. That made entering the facility an especially dif- ficult and degrading experience. Today, her memory of that time is enough to evoke in- tense emotions. “When a woman is pregnant, it’s a very cel- ebratory thing, and people always ask the woman if there’s anything they can do or if there’s anything she needs,” Mok says, her voice shaking. “When they’re in labor, other moms receive bouquets and lots of friends and family members come to congratulate them. But us? No one comes to congratulate us.” In Korea, a high percentage of unwed mothers give their babies up for adoption, a practice that has now become expected. Mok is one of a growing number of women who are choosing to raise their children on their own while combating social conventions that for years have encouraged women to give their children up for adoption. “At the very least, people shouldn’t be point- ing fingers at us,” Mok says. “And because unwed moms don’t want to hear that kind of blame, they stay quiet. That’s what hurts the most.” KoreA’s internAtionAl Adoption industry Unwed mothers’ advocates argue that adoption agencies hold unchecked power over vulnerable unwed moms who come to them for help, as many of them have nowhere else to go. These women receive little sup- port from the government, their families or the public, causing an increasing number of ex- pectant mothers to enter government homes and shelters, including those run by adoption agencies. Last year, 34 percent of mothers listed economic hardship as a reason for re- linquishing their parental rights. Choi Hyoung-sook gave her son up for adoption in 2005, but days later decided to reclaim him. When she turned to an unwed mothers’ home run by Holt Children’s Ser- vices of Korea for help, however, she was en- couraged to give up her parental rights. “When I went in for counseling, they told me I first had to sign the adoption consent form before they would talk to me, even though I was still thinking about what to do,” says Choi. The practice is illegal, but was one of many routinely used tactics by agencies at the time to encourage relinquishment. The agency also told her she could meet her child and have correspondence with him when he was older, in contrast to domestic adoption, which is usually carried out in se- cret. She says she’s since learned that the “talk about reunion was a lie” — a bargaining point used by the agencies to encourage re- linquishment. According to Shannon Heit, the volunteer coordinator for the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association, “Half of the unwed mothers’ facilities in the country are current- ly run by adoption agencies, which is a clear conflict of interest. Many of the unwed moth- ers homes run by adoption agencies only ac- cept mothers who are giving up for adoption or mothers who have a higher likelihood of choosing adoption (mothers who are younger with no family or support network).” In the fallout of the Korean War in the 1950s, 90 percent of all adoptions involved mixed-race children, but by 1970 most adop- tees were entirely Korean in ancestry. By 2012, at least 90 percent of adoptees were the children of unwed single mothers. This shift happened around 1970, and the government responded by directing funds toward private maternity homes, creating a system where a lack of social welfare left few options for unwed mothers outside of adop- tion. Meanwhile, the prevalence of adoption relieved the government of needing to come up with a more lasting solution. By the 1980s, the agencies had started engaging them- selves in profit-making activities and real es- tate investments, and were running their own delivery clinics, foster homes and temporary institutions, explains Korean Studies schol- ar Tobias Hübinette. “Since then, a growing number of maternity homes for young, unwed mothers have been the main source for new- born and healthy babies,” he says. Meanwhile, the cost of international adop- tion has steadily Increased. It’s estimated that together the four agencies collect an average of $35 million per year, according to Eleana Kim, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. “Adoption policy has become a seemingly permanent solution to what was, at the time, considered an emergency situation. What was supposed to be a humanitarian effort to rescue mixed-race children and war orphans became the largest and longest-running adoption program in the world.” Weighing the options Mok decided to have her baby in a govern- ment-subsidized unwed mothers’ home, but because she had plans to raise the child her- self, none of the 33 unwed mother facilities in the country at the time would accept her, and only two of them even returned her call. Unwed mothers who relinquish their chil- dren for adoption are able to stay in these fa- cilities for up to two years, with the option of a six-month extension. Women who choose to raise their children on their own, howev- er, must vacate the facilities after one to two years to make space for new residents. When they leave, they confront a whole new set of problems. Despite the support pledged in the Single Parent Family Support Act in 2007, finan- cial aid from the government continues to be minimal. The act claims to provide expenses for education and child care, as well as legal and counseling services. At present, however, unwed mothers with children under 12 years old and who earn less than roughly 1.2 mil- lion won a month are provided 70,000 won a month by the government, while parents who adopt receive almost three times as much. Mok says most mothers don’t meet this re- quirement because the calculation includes income and possessions such as a car or house, as well as their parents’ wealth, even if they aren’t receiving parental support. Their other option is to put themselves below the poverty line, currently measured at 980,000 won per month. She says most moms try to stay within the gap. Although fathers are required by law to pay child support, the lax enforcement and ‘When a woman is pregnant it’s a very celebratory thing, and people always ask the woman if there’s anything they can do or if there’s anything she needs. When they’re in labor, other moms receive bouquets and lots of friends and family members come to congratulate them. But us? no one comes to congratulate us.’ mok Kyoung-hwa, KumfA president