7:58 pm - 12/27/2012

Being a Single Mother in S. Korea


By Kim Young-Jin

Kim Jung-in (an alias), a public relations officer, knew it would be difficult to raise her one-month-old daughter alone. But determined to try, she ignored family members who pressured her to opt for adoption, just as they had told her to have an abortion.

“I was confident I could get a job and take care of her on my own,” recalled Kim, 36, of the turbulent period four years ago. “But I needed time to find work and persuade my parents I could do that.”

Time and understanding, she would find, were not on her side.

Kim met her boyfriend while working abroad for a Korean firm. They wanted to marry but her family would not give their blessing without meeting the prospective groom first. After they learned she was pregnant, the man convinced her to quit her job, saying he could support her.

But the man’s business fell through, and with scant resources, he convinced Kim to return to Korea unmarried. Despite promises to follow her, he vanished.

She ended up in Busan with her parents, who shunned her for giving birth out of wedlock – a common response in Korean society. “My mother cooked meals for me, but not for my baby,” she recalled. “My father did not accept me as part of the family. I ran out of places to turn to.”

Choi Hyeong-sook, an unwed mother and activist, plays with her son at a
park in central Seoul, Sunday. / Korea Times photo by Kim Young-jin

Kim may have been alone, but her story is not uncommon in a country where stigmatization and a lack of social services force many women to choose between abortion and adoption. While single mothers have raised their profile in recent years, groups supporting them say that the government must provide them with a safety net and begin to set straight a painful history.

The issue may be set to go under the spotlight as Korea prepares for its first female president, Park Geun-hye, who has promised to improve conditions for women. Support groups say whether Park pays attention to single mothers will be a bellwether of how thoroughly she plans to follow through on this pledge.

As yet, the President-elect’s team has not made specific policies for single mothers and they are not mentioned in its policy book of over 300 pages.

“Right now, they are included in the policies for single parents,” said an official from the policy committee of Park's Saenuri Party, requesting anonymity. “Once the transition committee is launched, it is possible that the issues of unmarried mothers can be discussed there.”

Entrenched attitudes

Choi Hyeong-sook, an unwed mother and activist, plays with her son at a
park in central Seoul, Sunday.

The path for Kim to keep her child was precarious. In need of work, she jumped when she heard of a job in Seoul. But with her family refusing to babysit, she made what she felt was a necessary gamble, leaving the child in the care of an adoption agency, with the promise that if potential adoptive parents were interested, she would be called.

She soon received a text message from a social worker informing her that an adoption had been finalized. “I cried a lot that I wanted my baby, but I was told it was impossible. After fighting for three months I got her back.”

According to Statistics Korea, some 2.1 percent of babies were born outside of marriage last year, the lowest rate among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and well below the OECD average of 36.3 percent.

Some 90 percent of Korean babies adopted internationally are from single mothers, seen as representative of the social pressures facing unmarried, pregnant women.

Han Seo Seung-hee, who works with the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN), believes the attitude stems from deeply ingrained Confucian mores. “Society thinks they are immoral,” she said. The attitude prevails in spite of concerns over the nation’s aging population. Moreover, social stigma against mothers who have children out of wedlock is underpinned by the specific expression in the Korean language referring to them, ‘Mi-hon-mo’, often used a pejorative term.

Lee Jung-hee, a 31-year-old teacher in Gyeonggi Province, said people treated her differently when she decided after breaking up with her boyfriend, the father.

“You can’t tell people at work, or you have to lie to them. It’s like you are a criminal,” she said.

Even at the hospital, where she received care under her insurance program, the doctor “suddenly turned really cold” when Lee said the father might not be present at birth. Other hospital officials asked why she did not go to a care center for single mothers.

“That’s when I realized, if you become a single mother in this country, it doesn’t matter if you have a family, if you have a good job or education, or who you are. You just become the bottom of society. People treat you like crap,” she said.

Han said on the national census, if a woman reports being unmarried, it neglects to ask whether she has children. Others point out that existing cash support reinforces the separation of families and institutional help rather than empowering women to raise their children alone.

According to numbers compiled by Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), the government provides around 1 million won for each child in a family group home facility or an orphanage; and 250,000 won for every child in foster care. Korean families who adopt are supported with a 100,000 stipend. But single parents, including unwed and divorced parent receive 50,000 per month.

Lee, the teacher, didn’t want to be institutionalized in a group home.

“If you stay in such a place for a year, or two, or three, how do you ever start over again? Someone like me ― a professional ― if I get a little support from the government, I can get back on my feet and I am willing to work,” she said.

The monthly support for single parents falls well short of considering unexpected circumstances, Lee learned. Soon after birth, her son was diagnosed with Hirschsprung's disease, a disorder of the abdomen that required surgery.

Through support from KUMSN, she has been able to hire a babysitter, but her son’s frequent illness poses a problem for her work schedule.

Kim Jung-in, the public relations worker, said stigmatization does not stop with the mother. “Most families don’t want to have get-togethers with single mothers and their children,” she said.

Reconciling the past, looking ahead

Jane Jeong Trenka, head of TRACK, said the high percentage of international adoptees that comes from unwed mothers binds the two groups together.

International adoptions from Korea picked up pace during the country’s rapid industrialization under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the late father of President-elect Park. Many such adoptees return to Korea to learn about the country or search for their birth parents.

Some scholars suggest that like other exports of human resources during that era, babies, especially those born out of wedlock, may have been seen as a tidy source of profit.

“The unwed mothers and their children are woven inextricably into the history of Korea's development,” said Trenka, an adoptee.

She said the stories of the families of adoptees reveal a “complete lack of a social safety net and of course patriarchal practices which include intense discrimination by the society and the government against single mothers and their children.”

In recent years, grassroots awareness campaigns have helped bring the issue to light. Last year, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Single Parent Law that by 2015 will ban adoption agencies from owning facilities for unwed mothers, which activists say will reduce the influence of the agencies in the women’s decision-making process.

Groups such as KUMSN say now is the time for the government to devise policies to shore up services.

The advocates say efforts must go beyond Park’s promise to increase cash support from 50,000 won to 150,000 won and bolster housing for single parents.

Activist Han said the government can start by collecting accurate statistics on unwed mothers, because it is believed many women do not report their status. KUMSN urges the incoming administration to consider diversifying housing options, tightening regulations over adoption practices, and providing better education for pregnant, unwed women on their options.

The government should mobilize a public awareness campaign to educate society on unwed women, the group says.

Lee, the mother, says the reasons women like her and their children should be treated as normal members of society are simple.

“I pay taxes, first of all. And then every child has the right to be happy,” she said.

“I gave birth to a kid, and he is going to grow up and work for this country. We can raise these kids and make them happy. People need to be open minded, not just for me, but for the children.”

Source: The Korea Times

Interesting read.  
laeryn 28th-Dec-2012 01:36 am (UTC)
It's sad that things are still like that :|
lightframes 28th-Dec-2012 02:05 am (UTC)
“My mother cooked meals for me, but not for my baby,” she recalled.

That's rough to have to see that from your own family...
amenooto 28th-Dec-2012 06:39 am (UTC)
I'm just kinda speechless right now. I can't wrap my head around a grandma not bothering to care whether their own grandchild was fed or not.
unicornios 28th-Dec-2012 02:26 am (UTC)
I've read about this topic lately and it's very interesting and so sad.
One of the parts that caughts my attention the most is that the Korean government prefers to favor orphanages instead of single mothers. I mean, it is great that they support orphanages but women wouldn't have to put their children up for adoption if they had some sort of support in the first place.
I really don't understand the social stigma that comes with being a single mother in South Korea (and other countries as well, mine included a few decades ago). It is a completely different society than the one I was raised in but I feel that it's as if the woman is less valuable just because she doesn't have a man to "define" her.
Ugh, this pisses me off.
fabledlamb 28th-Dec-2012 02:40 am (UTC)
It was really painful to read about the complete lack of any security net for these women to fall back on.

At the end of the day, it takes 2 to make a baby so not supporting the woman who's raising your child is one of the most irresponsible things to do as a man, even if you're no longer in a relationship with the child's mother. But of course all the blame is put on the women and I can only imagine what a horrible experience it must be for them to be shunned by their own family, by friends and doctors and basically the whole society.

I don't have high expectations but I hope the Korean government will make the necessary changes to improve these women's situation. What else is a state basically there for than to take care of the well-being of all of its citizens (like the mother said in the last two paragraphs)? There is so much that could and should be done for these women but all they get is the option to get an abortion, an adoption or be put into institutionalized homes for unwed mothers... I hope their situation will improve soon, there is no reason single mothers and their children should be left alone like this!
dubukat 28th-Dec-2012 03:05 am (UTC)
this makes me cry. I have a Korean friend who had to take the adoption route in the past. She is pregnant again with another unreliable man that may flake out on her. I wish I could be there to help but I cannot here in the Midwest. It hurts so much that it it so cut and dry. She really hasn't any choices.
purekpopology 28th-Dec-2012 05:47 am (UTC)
It's so sad that single mothers are treated this way.

I also wonder how many mothers are in unhappy marriages just to avoid this kind of treatment :(.
baroness 28th-Dec-2012 10:06 am (UTC)
a lot, and often there's physical abuse involved
kurdoodle 28th-Dec-2012 05:48 am (UTC)
This is absolutely horrible. I hope this gets fixed soon >_
muzegrey 28th-Dec-2012 06:03 am (UTC)
Park Geun Hye's administration doesn't care about single motherhood. They are the people who want more babies shipped off and more women covered up and shamed for being responsible people who take care of the kids.

And all of this is still true and isn't changing any time soon.
jasmineakaiumi 29th-Dec-2012 01:38 am (UTC)
I was thinking the same. So sad and frustrating.
izabera 28th-Dec-2012 06:46 am (UTC)
The grandparents refused to babysit when she went for a job interview to support herself and her child?! wtf
baroness 28th-Dec-2012 10:05 am (UTC)
interesting read. and kinda infuriating too.
i was raised by a single parent as my parents divorced when i was six, and i always excelled at school etc. even if many of the attitudes that i got because of my family background were really... well, weird. makes me so mad.
staaan 28th-Dec-2012 12:33 pm (UTC)
fuck this shit, my mama did more for me than my flop father ever could

sometimes i legit forget how much some people hate on single parents :(
pikapika217 28th-Dec-2012 02:20 pm (UTC)
this is just AWFUL! I could never imagine my grandmother not caring about me or my brother or my own mother not caring whether or not my little brother's kids were cared for. Bless this woman
lee_chikin 28th-Dec-2012 02:26 pm (UTC)
Han said on the national census, if a woman reports being unmarried, it neglects to ask whether she has children
It certainly is a well-thought census, uh?

Every child has the right to be happy.
You are using complicated words, woman. I'm not sure the politicians can understand you.
chibiyunie 28th-Dec-2012 05:40 pm (UTC)
So fucking sad. Why would a mother not be capable of raising a child on her own?

I was raised by a single mother (my father died when I was three) and I grew up to be the normal functioning 20 year old I am today. Even though my country is not as bad as Korea, I remember when we had to apply for a middle school and the people there automatically assumed there was something "wrong" with me since I grew up without a father.

dipropylene 28th-Dec-2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
This is sad :(

I'm side-eyeing all the families turning their backs on a family member who just happens to be a single mother.
failingxsmiles 28th-Dec-2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
i really enjoyed this article. really informative and hits really close to home, being a child of a (once) single mother.
piratesswoop 28th-Dec-2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
failingxsmiles 28th-Dec-2012 10:43 pm (UTC)
yes, the king. love your icon.
piratesswoop 28th-Dec-2012 09:52 pm (UTC)
ugh the way these women are treated is just awful :| the stigma against single mothers is so gross

that bb is so cute though :3
This page was loaded Jul 23rd 2019, 5:19 am GMT.