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Update: South Korean Pastor Tends Unwanted Flock

October 8, 2012

September 2012 Reuters photo by Kim Hong-ji shows a South Korean police officer collecting DNA samples from two babies abandoned in Pastor Lee Jon-rak’s “baby box.”

In June 2011, a story the appeared in The Los Angeles Times that captured my attention: the story of a South Korean pastor, who was blessed (although he would only later come to view it that way) with the birth of a child with significant disabilities.  Here’s what I wrote then, with links to an October 7, 2012 article and video updating Lee’s story:

This article by John M. Glionna appeared in The Los Angeles Times last Sunday, June 19, 2011. Here’s a teaser about the pastor in the article’s title:

“…[His son’s] birth caused a religious man to question his faith.

“I asked God, ‘Why would you give me a handicapped child?’ I wasn’t grateful for this baby,” Lee recalled.
He soon came to regret those words. Looking down at his son, helpless and beyond hope, he says he witnessed the preciousness of life. He and his wife decided to work desperately to keep the boy alive…”

In the 25 years since their son was born, Pastor Lee Jon-rak and his wife has taken in thirty two children abandoned on their doorstep, almost all of them significantly disabled. Unfortunately, the article rings very true to what I was told about the plight of children born with visible disabilities in Korea when I visited a Catholic orphange for disabled children in Pusan.

Read the article. And pray for the disabled children of South Korea. This story, a follow-up on my visit to Pusan, and Joy’s and Amy’s stories are still infrequent. And with  the direction International adoption from Korea is headed, they may soon be impossible, except possibly for families of Korean heritage living abroad.”


July 2012 has come and gone and the new laws in Korea designed to protect the rights of children and birth mothers are now in effect. Unlike the rumors afoot in June, 2011, families with no South Korean heritage are still being allowed to adopt Korean orphans internationally under the new law.

However, practically speaking, this has made little difference for Korean orphans born with disabilities because the Korean government continues to reduce the overall number of Korean orphans permitted to leave the country each year. Korean agencies that place children for adoption are responding by rationing those increasingly rare exit permits by assigning them to (relatively) “healthy” children.

The result? While the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare denies any causal relationship between the new laws and the increase in babies found in Pastor Lee’s baby box, this October 7, 2012 Reuters article by Kim Daum finds the number of children has doubled since the new laws went into effect. Most of those babies continue to be children who have disabilities.

This companion Reuter’s video by Julie Noce interviews Lee and shows his ministry in operation.

Believe me: after last week, in which I negotiated three of the U.S. systems designed to “serve” kids like Joy, I don’t approach this story with any sense of western cultural superiority. The U.S. system is far from fixed.

But Joy has options because in the United States, parents choosing to raise children with disabilities by necessity quickly learn how to advocate within systems. Why? Because the U.S. now has had two decades to live with de-institutionalization; there is network of parents who serve as advocate role-models for moms like me.

Korea will have a rough road developing systems that support families of children with disabilities as long as it keeps shuttling babies with disabilities from Lee’s baby box to orphanages. The fact that these children are still being abandoned shows just how few options Korean families feel they have.

Yet, despite the new adoption law, until the Korean government abandons the quota system rationing exit permits, international adoption is an almost impossible option for the babies with disabilities abandoned in Pastor Lee’s box.

How can we respond?
Pray. The first things that need changing are hearts.
Second, consider supporting MPAK –Mission: Promote Adoption in Korea (homepage) and USA blog. MPAK advocates for the rights of children in Korea to grow up in families. I’ve seen MPAK’s work first-hand supporting families who openly adopt in Korea and those who have adopted to the U.S. and it is beautiful work.

With thanks to Liz and Beth for sharing links to the articles.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    October 27, 2012 10:07 am

    I have a question about international adoption of children with disabilities…from many countries, not just Korea. Why, if the children are going to be stuck in an orphanage or mental hospital for life, why are the governments so reluctant to allow international adoption. In some of the eastern European orphanages you hear of teenagers weighing 30 pounds or less. If they don’t want to care for them, why not get them out of the country as soon as possible?

    • October 27, 2012 11:07 am

      Becky, I can only speak to the impressions I’ve formed talking with Korean women who work in an orphanage for disabled young children in Korea. Culturally, kids born with visible special needs are viewed as cosmic judgment visited upon their birth parents for what I suppose we’d call “sins” of some sort. In that cultural milieu, many of these kids, then, are abandoned. While abandoned children were eligible for international adoption in Korea in the 1950’s until think the mid 1980’s, Korea then passed a law designed to protect children (and I’m sure, the government’s reputation, too) from allegations that “abandonment” was in some cases a front for child trafficking. That meant that only kids whose birth families had legally relinquished their parental rights could be placed for adoption. That relinquishment process required real courage on the part of the birth family because it meant owning up to the child’s birth and seeking the help of a placing agency. It seems many birth parents were not in a position to do this, or perhaps did not know it was an option. They chose to abandon the child instead. Because there is so much stigma associated with congenital special needs in Korea, kids with visible differences were abandoned at an unusually high rate. Not legally adoptable, an orphanage was the only option.

      Currently, Korea, working hard to live-down the humiliation of being branded as a “baby exporter” by the western press, has radically reduced the number of children it will allow to leave the country each year for adoption. It seems to me like it has turned into a lifeboat mentality where placing agencies in Korea are rationing those exit permits by giving them to relatively “healthy” kids–kids who have a better chance of growing up as a credit to Korea. (All those’positive’ stereotypes: obedient, intelligent, hard-working etc.) That’s the image Korea wants to project to the world. So even though recent changes in Korean law make some abandoned children technically eligible for adoption, the practical effect is that kids with visible disabilities are still growing up in orphanages because they are being denied exit permits. I wrote about that here.

      The positive is that attitudes in Korea are slowly changing. Koreans are slowly, but increasingly, openly domestically adopting kids with visible special needs. Not at a rate anywhere close to meeting the need. But it is happening. Over the long term, this should help normalize the experience of growing up in Korea with visible differences, hopefully reducing some of the stigma. It will be a tough road. But maybe, eventually, Korean families will feel empowered to raise a child born with special needs.

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