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South Korea tries to recall a US adoption

South Korea has taken up a fight for the return of a baby it charges was adopted illegally by a US family. Critics say Korea is just embarrassed by the number of foreign adoptions.

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The bitter legal struggle of an American couple to adopt a Korean baby is touching on nationalist and ethnic sensitivities in South Korea.

The couple, Christopher and Jinshil Duquet, wait at home in Evanston, Ill., to see if they can keep the baby they have nurtured almost from her birth seven months ago while lawyers, officials, and judges consider a landmark case that seems to revolve around national pride as well as Korean law

The Korean birth mother, all sides agree, approves of the adoption, as she did when the baby was born. Nor does anyone doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Duquet, who already have an adopted Korean daughter, now 10, have the resources to provide a loving home. 

Korean authorities charge, however, that the baby was adopted illegally. The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare says the case is a matter of basic principle that tests the power of the government to control adoptions. Attorneys for the Duquet family say the issue is a matter of letting national pride – a deep-seated sense of shame in a newly wealthy nation over the adoption of hundreds of babies every year by foreigners – affect the interests of children who might not otherwise find homes. 

“We’re bringing criminal charges against the people related to this case,” says Lee Kyung-hee, director of child welfare at the ministry. “The baby girl is a Korean citizen and must have the opportunity to be adopted in Korea first.”

Controversy over adoptions from Korea comes at a time of similar sensitivities in other countries, notably Russia, which has banned virtually all adoptions of Russian children to the US. South Korea is not considering such a prohibition but is wary about private adoptions as opposed to adoptions through a recognized agency.

In the case of the Duquets, South Korea claims that the baby was “a child in need of protection” and should have been offered for adoption by a Korean family. Because the baby was adopted “privately,” not through an agency, and then entered the US without a visa, say officials here, she could only stay there temporarily and the adoption is a violation of the law. 

The Duquets claim that a South Korean attorney assured them they were following the proper legal procedures as the couple arranged to pick up the baby days after its birth – a choice that their US and Korean attorneys argue was proper and legal.

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The case has been seen as such a crucial test of Korean law that Ms. Lee flew to Chicago in December to testify in US federal court on the need to return the baby to Korea. A judge last week referred the case to federal officials, leaving it to the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether the baby has to go back to Korea.

But why would Korean authorities fight so intently to bring the baby to the land of her birth when the adoptive family is financially well-to-do and believed they were abiding by proper procedures when they left Korea with the baby?

“In my opinion the Korean government is somewhat embarrassed that we are high among countries exporting adoptions,” says Kim Min-jo, an attorney familiar with the case. “They want to keep the numbers down.”

Sean Hayes, a longtime attorney here, taking on the case for the Duquets, agrees.

“The biggest issue is [that] Korea is not able to get most of the babies who are eligible for adoption into loving homes locally,” says Mr. Hayes. “That makes Korea look bad.”

The statistics bear out the paradox of a culture in which families are traditionally tight knit – eager to help relatives financially, professionally, and socially, but reluctant to adopt babies from outside their own families.

More than 900 Korean babies were adopted overseas in 2011, far below the figure of more than 2,200 just eight years ago, in part because of Korean government incentives to encourage domestic adoption and newly tightened adoption laws for foreigners. But Hayes says the number adopted by Korean families remains steady at about 1,400 a year. "The problem is local adoptions haven't gone up, while foreign adoptions are going down," says Hayes.

Tom Coyner, a business consultant who has written about the case, believes Koreans are increasingly embarrassed by the number of adoptions in view of the success of the Korean economy. 

“There is the presumption that South Koreans can or should be able to accommodate their orphans without foreign assistance," he says. "In terms of collective wealth, South Korea might well assume complete fostering and placement of its orphans. Unfortunately, adoptive parents are often very picky in terms of any real or presumed 'defects' in a prospective adoption, including, in many cases, the education levels of the natural parents."

The result is that many Korean children are not adopted and remain in orphanges that care for them until they reach the age of 18. "Then the orphans are out on the streets to fare on their own," says Mr. Coyner. "These children with only high school educations and no other special skills are extremely disadvantaged." 

Caught in the middle

The current case came to the attention of Korean authorities after the Duquets went to the US embassy here for notarization of a document approving the adoption. The embassy, according to lawyers for the Duquets, said the baby had never had the proper visa for adoption and notified the Ministry of Health and Welfare. 

Jonathan Minkus, another attorney for the Duquets, says the embassy’s action was “cowardly” and that “all these parties have been charged in an international political issue that’s not of their own doing.” Hayes, representing the Duquets in Korea, believes the embassy simply wanted to cooperate with Korean authorities while pursuing broader concerns, notably policy on North Korea.

Mr. Minkus says racism is a factor. “I have been advised that the Republic of Korea is resentful of white Anglo-Saxon Americans adopting their babies,” he says. “The Duquets are caught in the middle of the determination by the Korean government to severely cut back on adoptions by non-Koreans.”

Lee at the Ministry of Health and Welfare emphatically disagrees. “That’s ridiculous, wholly beside the point,” she says.

Rather, she says, “It is so important to us in terms of the child protection system and the safety of the child.” Contradicting the argument that Korean adoptive parents are hard to find, she says that in this case "a Korean couple wanted to adopt the baby” and will bring charges against the Duquets if they ever return to Korea.

A US embassy official says the embassy cannot comment “for privacy reasons,” but notes that “Korea is still one of the largest suppliers of babies to the US.” 

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