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Group of young boys Korea

All About Korea: Facts for Sponsors

If you sponsor — or are thinking about sponsoring — a child in Korea, here are some facts to help you learn about this modern yet complex nation.  

Korea is a country in East Asia, bordered by North Korea to the north, the East Sea to the east, the East China Sea to the south and the West Sea to the west. Because of its natural beauty, temple-dotted mountains, clear waters and serene countryside, the Korean Peninsula has been known as Joseon, or Land of the Morning Calm.

Today, about 82% of the Korean population live in urban areas, with nearly 10 million people residing in Seoul and its sprawling metropolis. As Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul is the home of sleek, futuristic buildings, industry-leading tech firms, an extensive robot museum, K-pop concert halls — and one of the fastest internet networks in the world.

Because of its natural beauty, the Korean Peninsula has been known as Joseon, or Land of the Morning Calm.

But despite the country’s nod to the future, Korea still retains many of its old traditions. For example, the Korean language is written in Hangul, a phonetic alphabet created in the mid-15th century. Koreans still hold firm to their Confucian beliefs that place an enormous value on ancestral bloodlines, meaning that if a woman bears a child out of wedlock, she likely will face shame and discrimination for breaking the purity of her family’s lineage. This stigma against single mothers is one of the main reasons why children continue to be relinquished in this highly industrialized and economically advanced country, creating a continued need for adoption. And while domestic adoption has become increasingly common in Korea, many children — particularly children with medical or developmental needs — continue to need international adoption in order to grow up in a family, not an orphanage.

Holt’s Work in Korea

Holt’s legacy began in Korea in the 1950s, when the Korean War left thousands of children orphaned or separated from their families. Our founders, Harry and Bertha Holt, changed history by adopting eight children from Korea, inspiring thousands of families to follow. Since 1956, Holt International has helped to unite more than 36,000 children from Korea with families in the U.S.

In addition to helping children join loving, permanent homes, Holt International — along with its local partner agency, Holt Children’s Services of Korea — have strived to make life better for those who aren’t able to join families through domestic or international adoption. In 1961, the Holts built a long-term care facility for children with profound medical and developmental needs. At the Ilsan Center, children (and adults) receive everything from physical and occupational therapy and vocational training to life-skills training and help living as independently as possible. Generously supported by Holt donors and sponsors, Ilsan has through the years become a world-renowned residential facility specializing in the care of people with special needs.

Among its many other projects in Korea, Holt supports several mother and child shelters for single mothers and their children, a nurturing foster care program for children waiting to join adoptive families, a babies’ home for families in crisis and a program for young adults who age out of orphanage care. Every year, Holt sponsors and donors provide life-changing support for more than 2,000 children and families in Korea.

Korean children in school

Basic Facts About Korea

Capital

Seoul

Population

51.7 million people (est.)

Official Language

Korean

Area

38,502 square miles, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania

Climate

South Korea has a temperate climate, with hot, humid summers and cold, relatively dry winters. The monsoon season, known as jangma or “long rain,” extends from mid-July to mid-August. During this time, South Korea receives more than half of its annual rainfall.

Religion

Christian, about 28%; Buddhist, roughly 16%; no religion, 56%

Ethnic Groups

With the exception of small groups of Chinese and Southeast Asian minorities, South Korea is an ethnically homogeneous country. 

Type of Government

Presidential republic

National Celebrations

Many Korean holidays are steeped in ancient tradition and bring families together in celebration.

Seollal — or Lunar New Year — is one of the most important holidays of the year. Families gather from all over Korea to pay their respects to their ancestors and elders. They typically dress in colorful traditional clothing, gather to exchange gifts, play games and enjoy traditional foods such as tteokguk, or rice cake soup. The soup’s long, cylindrical-shaped rice cakes symbolize luck, health and long life. During Seollal, children and adults engage in a tradition called sebae, where they bow in respect to their elders. Children receive “pocket money” in silk bags, and everyone exchanges wishes for good health, happiness and success for the coming year.

During Lunar New Year celebrations, children receive “pocket money” in silk bags, and everyone exchanges wishes for good health, happiness and success for the coming year.

Chuseok is a mid-autumn harvest festival that typically lasts for three days. Koreans return to their hometowns to spend time with family and enjoy traditional foods such as songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes filled with ingredients such as sesame seeds and black beans. The songpyeon are steamed on top of a layer of pine needles. During Chuseok, Koreans present gifts to relatives, friends and business acquaintances to show their thanks and appreciation. Family members also visit ancestral tombs to clean the grave sites and leave food offerings in honor of the dead.

Korean Food & Drink

Korean cuisine focuses mainly on rice, vegetables, seafood and meat. Dairy products are rarely eaten. Many Korean dishes are made with staples such as kimchi (fermented vegetables), gochujang (chili paste), doenjang (soybean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce). Other common ingredients include onion, garlic, ginger, sesame oil and gochugaru (Korean chili powder). Rice and kimchi are eaten at almost every meal.

Some common dishes include:

  • Bibimbap, a rice bowl topped with seasoned vegetables, meat and egg
  • Gimbap, steamed rice, vegetables, fish or meat rolled in dried seaweed
  • Tteok-bokki, a traditional spicy street food made of boiled rice cake, fish cake, onions, garlic and assorted vegetables stir-fried in a sweet red chili paste
  • Jjigae, Korean stew
  • Japchae, a savory and slightly sweet dish of stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables
  • Bulgogi, strips of marinated and barbecued beef
  • Samgyupsal, slices of grilled pork belly
  • Samgyetang, chicken ginseng soup
  • Juk, a savory rice porridge often eaten for breakfast

Mealtime Customs

Baby cutting toy pizza

  • A typical Korean meal consists of a bowl of rice, soup or stew and many side dishes. 
  • Bowls of rice are distributed to each person, and other dishes are placed at the center of the table.
  • Chopsticks and spoons are the most commonly used utensils.
  • It’s customary to let the eldest person at the table begin eating first. (No one picks up their chopsticks until the eldest person begins!)
  • Before eating, Koreans often say “jal meokkessumnida” (“I will eat well”) as a way of acknowledging that they look forward to the meal.
  • When Koreans finish eating, they show gratitude for the meal by saying “jal meogeosseumnida”

 (“I ate well”).

Social Concerns

Stigma Against Single Mothers

The most vulnerable families in Korea today are often headed by a single parent — particularly a single mother. In 2022, there were about 1.49 million single parent households in the nation, accounting for roughly 6.5% of all households. While Koreans have made social strides in other aspects of daily life, the stigma against single mothers remains strong.

In today’s society, employers may refuse to hire a single mother. She may be unable to gain admittance to college or pursue other forms of education. She may be unable to marry. If a woman chooses to openly parent her child as a single mother in Korea, her child may face a lifetime of shame and discrimination. The stigma is so strong and enduring that many single mothers feel as if they have no choice but to relinquish their child for adoption. “Societal attitudes still create a lot of challenges for both the mom and the child,” says Paul Kim, Holt’s long-time director of programs in Korea. “You can change laws tomorrow, but attitudes in society may take decades to change.”

Learn how Holt sponsors and donors empower single mothers to care for their children in Korea.

Little boy laying on tummy on the ground playing with toys looking up at camera happily.

An Orphan Care Crisis

In the 70 years since the end of the Korean War, Korea has become one of the Four Asian Tigers — a socially and economically thriving nation. But the rate of child abandonment remains high, due in part to the stigma toward single mothers. Up until 2012, a woman in Korea could legally relinquish her child for adoption and still remain anonymous, thus protecting her from the stigma of single motherhood. Many of these children went on to join families through either domestic or international adoption.

But in 2012, Korea passed a law that required birth mothers to legally document the child they placed for adoption in their family’s official registry. The law was designed to provide more legal protections for the birth mother, but once it was passed, the rate of abandonment rose dramatically. “There’s a clear correlation [between this new requirement and abandonment rates] because we saw a spike in the number of abandonments after the law was enacted,” says Paul Kim. “For the mothers, including a child born out of wedlock on their family registry was like a scarlet letter on their record.” 

Fearing discrimination, many mothers felt they had no choice but to leave their child in an orphanage, hospital or public place where they knew they’d be taken care of. But because their child has no formal relinquishment documents, it is very difficult for them to be adopted within Korea — and nearly impossible for them to be adopted internationally.

Learn how Holt sponsors and donors help support children in Korean orphanages and help elevate the standards of care.

Children Aging Out of Orphanages

Over the past 70 years, more than 1 million children have grown up in orphanages in Korea, with 6,000 aging out every year. Once they turn 18, these young adults are released into society with only a $3,000 to $5,000 government stipend — and absolutely no job or survival skills. What’s more, many of these “orphans” are the children of single mothers, who face discrimination because they are viewed as having no family bloodline.

Many aged-out orphans struggle to find jobs, and many face a lifetime of poverty. They are vulnerable to scammers and other predators as well as sex traffickers who prey on young adults with no family ties. Out of desperation, some aged-out orphans turn to crime as a means of survival. But in most cases, they simply struggle to get by in a society that shames them at every turn.

Learn about the Holt sponsor- and donor-supported Bluebird Program, which helps prepare youth living in orphanages to make the transition to independent living.

Children With Special Needs

In Korea, children primarily come into institutional care for two reasons — the stigma against single parenthood, or their parents’ financial inability to care for their special needs. In 1956, Holt pioneered the modern practice of international adoption in South Korea, uniting more than 36,000 children with adoptive families in the decades since. But Harry and Bertha Holt were concerned about the children who were unable to join families through adoption in the wake of the Korean War. Many of these orphaned and abandoned children had profound medical and developmental conditions and needed specialized care.

In 1961, the Holts built a long-term care facility and permanent home for these children near Ilsan, a village northwest of Seoul. At Ilsan, children and adults with special needs reside in a safe and loving environment, and receive a wide range of services to help them overcome the challenges that they face. In addition, dedicated staff provide residents with the tools to enable them to live as independently as possible. Today, the Holt Ilsan Center is recognized around the world for the care and community it provides to people with special needs.

Learn more about the Holt donor- and sponsor-supported Ilsan Center, and read the story of one adoptee who spent his early years at Ilsan.

Holt Sponsors and Donors Support Foster Care in Korea

In the 1960s, Holt pioneered foster care in Korea as a more nurturing alternative for children living in institutional care. Through Holt’s model of foster care, children receive the one-on-one care and attention they need to reach developmental milestones. Many children in foster care in Korea are on track for adoption, and the loving bonds they develop with their foster families lay the foundation for them to form healthy emotional attachments with their adoptive families.

Holt sponsors and donors provide the resources needed for children to stay in foster care in Korea, including nutritional support, monthly medical checkups and individualized medical care or therapy for children with special needs. In many ways, Holt’s foster care exceeds standards set by the Korean government, and Holt’s model has been replicated in countries around the world.

 Learn how two foster mothers in Korea changed the lives of more than 100 Holt adoptees.

Read more stories about how sponsors and donors help children thrive in Korea.   

Korean toddler wearing red eye glasses

Learn more about Holt’s work in Korea!

See how sponsors and donors create a brighter, more hopeful future for children and families in Korea!

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