January 9, 1999

Korean Money Woes Break Up Families


Filed at 11:33 a.m. EST

By The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- At the Angels' Haven, a home for abandoned children, 5-year-old Ju-hyun made a circle with his arms and boasted to his friends: ``My Mom, too, will come to see me with a BIG, BIG robot.''

She never came.

Ju-hyun's tearful mother left the boy and his 7-year old brother in the orphanage in March. Separated from her jobless, abusive husband, she had been struggling to support her two kids by washing dishes in a restaurant.

``She came to us when she lost that job because of the bad economy. She said she would come and take her children back when things get better,'' said Kim Mi-jong, a caretaker at Angels' Haven. ``Usually, that's the last word we hear from the parents these days.''

How Ju-hyun ended up in the orphanage is a tale of how South Korea's economic crisis is breaking up many families, producing an increasing number of abandoned children.

In the first half of this year, 2,348 children were sent to the nation's 272 welfare facilities, up from 826 in the same period of 1997.

But abandoned or orphaned children looking for homes face two hurdles in South Korea -- a Confucian society that values strong family ties and sees them as ``different blood,'' and a government that actively discourages adoptions by foreigners.

That leaves the nation overflowing with children waiting for adoption, often in crowded facilities.

``The government's quota does not reflect reality,'' said Kim Young-bok at the Eastern Child Welfare Society, one of four agencies licensed to handle foreign adoptions. The quota has forced the agency to reject new applicants.

The government introduced the quota system two years ago after news media and politicians began calling overseas adoptions a disgrace to then affluent South Korea.

From a high of 8,000 a year during the 1980s, only 2,057 Korean children were adopted abroad last year.

``We are in a dilemma,'' said Lee Chang-june of the Health and Welfare Ministry. ``We must get rid of our image as a major exporter of orphans. But people are not adopting children at home.''

Despite a government campaign to make adoptions more socially acceptable, the number of children adopted by South Korean families has remained at around 1,200 annually for several years.

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