Kwon Hee-jung, of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, says the 1968 movie "Love Me Once Again" indicated attitudes at the time. It depicts an affair between an unmarried woman and a wealthy married man, and ends with her giving up her illegitimate son to the father's family. "Everyone cried but understood," Ms. Kwon says, "They said, 'It has to be like that. How can a woman raise a child alone?' "
In recent decades, greater individualism has shifted Korea's Confucian value system, she says, leading to a slow change in the way unwed mothers are viewed and how they view themselves. Still, Kwon acknowledges that a stigma remains.
An opinion study early this year by the state-funded Korean Women's Development Institute revealed mixed feelings. The majority of Koreans felt unwed mothers showed poor judgment. Most were also against childbirth outside wedlock, but even more were opposed to abortion. "Right now it's changing slowly," says Kwon. "[T]he social welfare structure is not friendly. There are a lot of women who want to raise their children, but because ... discrimination is so extreme, they end up giving their child away."
Low domestic adoption rates
Adoptee Stephen Morrison, who founded a group promoting domestic adoption in Korea, paints a different picture. "More often than not," he says, "it's the mothers themselves who cannot live with the shame."
According to a government survey in 2005, about 38 percent of women who sent their child for adoption said they would not have done so under better financial circumstances.
The government is seeking to expand the number of state-run, single-parent support centers to 16 nationwide from the current six. But it has gotten flak for its perceived emphasis on domestic adoption.
Adoptive parents receive about $86 per month. Unwed mothers can receive only half that, depending on income level and only if they are not already on state welfare.