RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Some in South Korea are celebrating moms today. Single Mother's Day is an effort to gain acceptance for Korea's unwed mothers, and among their biggest advocates, Americans - the grown children of single Korean women who once gave them up for adoption. NPR's Elise Hu reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)
ELISE HU, BYLINE: A drum circle revs up a crowd for a cause considered radical in South Korea - the right to raise your own child outside of marriage. A crowd of 70 gathers near Seoul's city hall to make noise for single moms.
CHOI HYUNG-SOOK: (Through interpreter) We want the society to accept that unwed mothers are just women as well. They're members of society, and they have a right to be happy.
HU: Choi Hyung-sook helped organize this event. She says choosing to raise her son alone in this tradition-bound society brought such a social stigma that her family cut off all ties with her. And it cost her a string of jobs.
HYUNG-SOOK: (Through interpreter) A lot of people whisper about me at the workplace. And once, I had to quit in four days. It wasn't that I had a problem with this issue. Other people did, and they just kept talking about it.
HU: Single moms are so unwelcome in South Korea that they're forced to hide their pregnancies and commonly encouraged to give up their kids. More than 90 percent of children given up for adoption are born to unwed moms.
SHANNON HEIT: I was horrified by the idea that these women didn't have a choice whether or not to raise their kids, not because they legitimately did not want to raise their kids, but because there was no one supporting them.
HU: Shannon Heit was born in Korea and adopted at age 4 by an American couple. She returned to Korea nearly 10 years ago in search of her birth mother. Heit eventually found her and learned her grandmother had given her up for adoption while her birth mom was away at work. Heit says it was common back then for agencies to forge papers and coerce families to adopt out their children.
HEIT: The idea that someone could try to convince me that my kid would be better off without me just because someone else could raise them with more money is just, like, disgusting.
HU: Heit stayed in Korea and started a family here. Now adult adoptees like her and today's unwed moms are allies.
HEIT: It's not like these are our moms or these are the age of our moms or anything. But adoptees, I think a lot of us think, well, if only there had been someone who had supported my mom, maybe things would have been different.
HU: Korea's international adoption numbers have dropped dramatically since Heit's time. In 1985, nearly 9,000 Korean babies were sent overseas. In 2013, it was 236.
PAIK SOO-HYEON: (Through interpreter) We want to provide the sort of environment so that the mothers - biological mothers - can take care of their children.
HU: Paik Soo-hyeon is deputy director of South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He says additional attention to this issue has led to an expanded budget and an awareness campaign the government's now undertaking.
SOO-HYEON: (Through interpreter) There is no discrimination against unwed mothers within the government, but there are prejudices socially.
HU: But government financial support still favors families that adopt domestically. Adoptive families in Korea get bigger stipends than single moms who keep their kids. Shannon Heit.
HEIT: It's twice as much as other moms get. So - adoptive parents would get twice as much from the government to raise the same child than that child's own mother would get from the government.
HU: Back out at the rally, the single moms say they know removing a cultural stigma takes time. In their push for change, they're coming out of the shadows and making themselves more visible. Organizer Choi Hyung-sook.
HYUNG-SOOK: (Through interpreter) We just want a world where our children could be happy and they know that we've made this choice freely to raise them.
HU: An ask that sounds simple - acceptance for raising their own babies. But the path to getting there is complicated. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.