‘The Drop Box’ and the realities of motherhood in South Korea

Pictured above: Pastor Lee Jong-rak and the ‘Baby Box’

A few weeks ago, a trailer for documentary ‘The Drop Box’ made its way around tumblr and other parts of the internet to very mixed reactions. The documentary, in the midst of negotiations for release, is about a place in Seoul set up by a Pastor where women can leave their children. The scheme was already known to many of those who have an active interest in Korean adoption issues and women’s rights but this video definitely brought it to a wider English-speaking audience.

baby box close up

A view of the baby box from the outside.

The Baby Box (베이비박스 beibi bakseu), as it is called, was set up by Pastor Lee Jong-rak as somewhere where the unwanted babies could be left and looked after. Most of the babies the pastor takes in are either disabled or those of unwed mothers. The babies are placed in a hatch at the side of the pastor’s home and then taken in by the pastor who tries to either care for them himself or send them to an orphanage.

The filmmaker, many of the film’s supporters and casual viewers seem to view this as a heroic triumph against the abandonment of babies but is this really an ethical way to look after the best interests of marginalised children?

To understand the role of the baby box you have to understand the general attitude expressed towards unwed mothers and the reality of the situation that most find themselves in. Currently, single parents only receive 50,000 won a month in governmental support while Korean adoptive parents receive twice that. On top of this, there is a deep shame and social stigma attached to unwed mothers. Many women who do want to raise their babies themselves are pressured by their family, friends, the father and his family and by adoption agencies into either giving the baby up for adoption or having an illegal, but widely prevalent and mostly safe, abortion.

In this interview, Choi Hyung Sook, a leader of the Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association (KUMFA), highlights some of the struggles she faced as an unwed mother including having to close down her own shop because her customers found out she was a single mother and refused to shop there any longer. She also talks about the pressure she felt from her family to give up her baby and the discrimination she faces as an unwed mother.

 

This lack of social and governmental support alongside the pressure and discrimination unwed mothers face, make raising a child on their own almost impossible for many. In this situation the baby box may seem at first a viable short term solution for looking after these babies but it raises very serious ethical dilemmas.

While Pastor Lee and his supporters may see the baby box as saving children who might otherwise be abandoned by their mothers to die on the street, there is little evidence that this is what would happen if it were not to exist. It is just as likely that mothers would instead go through the legal adoption system instead and, hopefully, provide adopted children with better access to records of their own family history. This is a human right protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and should not be overlooked. While there have been serious, systemic problems with accurate record keeping and proper access for adoptees in Korean adoption agencies, revisions in the law have been making this process more ethical (Although there is an ongoing battle surrounding this happening in the courts between adoptee and unwed mother activist groups and adoption agencies.)

Another issue with the baby box is that there is no way to guarantee that the mother of the child left in the baby box even wants to give up her child. It would be all too easy for a disapproving grandparent to leave a child in the baby box without the mother’s knowledge or consent (as has happened in the past in Korea prior to stricter regulations.)

Being unable to trace their biological roots and find out about their birth mother and the reasons they were adopted does cause real harm and heartbreak for many adoptees and it is not something to be taken lightly. It can also cause hurt and regret for a mother who may never be able to explain her decision to her child. These are essential factors to take into account when discussing the welfare of these children.

Under better circumstances, with more support and less discrimination, many of these mothers would definitely be able to raise their children successfully and this could potentially help contribute to increasing Korea’s birth rate which is currently the lowest in the OECD.

Contents of a Finnish baby box

Contents of a Finnish baby box

Researching this, I came across a story about a completely different kind of ‘baby box’ which has existed in Finland for over seventy years. The box, which is given to all expectant mothers, is full of the things that a new mother needs to look after her baby from clothes and bedding to nappies and bathing products and on top of that, with a mattress in the bottom, the box itself even doubles as a bed! Mothers also have to go for a check-up in order to receive this box which has led to Finland having the lowest infant mortality in the world.

While this kind of programme would be difficult and expensive to implement in Korea, would it not be better for people like Pastor Lee who care about the welfare of children born in difficult circumstances to plough their time and resources into solutions like these which would help support both mother and child? Alternatively, would it not also be better to instead offer support and counselling to mothers looking to give their baby up for adoption so that they can make the best decision possible for themselves and their baby?

Pastor Lee appears to really care about the welfare of young children but in a 21st century developed economy like South Korea, is it really ever justifiable to create any kind of scheme which encourages the abandonment of children?

If you want to find out more about the baby box, you can watch this recent SBS Australia documentary:

 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

You can read more about the experience of being a Korean international adoptee, in this piece from adoptee Kyle Carrozza.

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  • http://koreangendercafe.blogspot.kr/ Chelle Mille

    Excellent post and great framing of the baby box issue.

  • Steve Morrison

    I think the writer tries to be honest with his views, but mis-informed on two things. He mentions, “… there is little evidence that this is what would happen if it (Baby Box) were not to exist. It is just as likely that mothers would instead go through the legal adoption system instead and…” There have been many cases of babies being discarded in streets, subways, restrooms, trash bins, left on the door steps, and in many cases murdered. Stories like these are common news in Korea today. A birthmother delivered a baby in a hospital and she walked out of it when she could walk.

    Pastor Lee decided to make this box in 2009 after he saw some of these things happen even before the law, though fewer in those days, to stop this type of dangerous situations by giving birthmother a safe method of abandonment. Also, the birthmothers are not able to take their unwanted babies to adoption agencies without first registering the babies under their names. This is the reason why the number of abandoned babies jumped four-fold right after the law was enacted.

    The writer’s last question “…is it really ever justifiable to create any kind of scheme which encourages the abandonment of children?” is simply wrong. The Baby Box is not a scheme to encourage the abandonment of children. It has saved over 200 babies.

    Let me attempt to explain this logic by using the example of a homeless shelter. Let’s suppose a homeless shelter has been set up in a neighborhood and it gets exposed heavily in the news media, and many homeless people flock to it to utilize the services provided by the shelter. Therefore, one can ask the same type of question. Does the availability of a shelter encourage more people become homeless? I think not. People were already homeless and they sought to find a way, a method to get sheltered.

    Likewise, the availability of the Baby Box does not encourage more abandonments, but rather provides a way for birthmothers that have already abandoned their babies in their hearts, but just didn’t know how to unburden them as they could not give up their babies at the agencies as the law forbids them to accept the babies without first being registered.

    • Mike tyson

      Very well written.
      I agree completely.

  • Parkjongseon

    What a brave woman in the interview!!!!! What a inhuman society is South Korea with life and living! The adoption agency’s make a lot of money to send the children abroad! $ 60.000 is normal fee for a child!

    But there are 200.000 korean adoptees worldwide, they understand the unwed mothers!

    An Adoptee from south korea

  • Laurie Duffy

    It seems that babies are being abandoned. That is a fact. It is impossible to know if having the baby box has increased that number. Of course the whole thinking and education needs to be overhauled so that there is no stigma attached to being a single mom and support needs to be given to the mothers. I see what Mr. Lee Jong-Rak is doing is picking up the pieces (every child matters) so that the children currently uncared for receive care.

    • http://beyondhallyu.com/ Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

      What is a fact, and a far more pressing one, is that far more babies are being abandoned BECAUSE of this box. How is that a good thing? (The numbers are here in this article: https://journey2motherland.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/move-upstream-build-families-not-boxes/ )

      I understand Pastor Lee has good intentions but the outcomes are not good. There is no evidence to show that the number of infanticides has increased and so if this box didn’t exist the likelihood is less children would be being abandoned and either would be being put through the legal adoption process (and therefore have more government protection and access to more information about their heritage) or being looked after by their own mothers.

      If people really care about babies in vulnerable situations they should be supporting and encouraging their parents to do the best by them not to abandon them.