H.R. 1464: The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act



It is a well-known fact in the NGO world that people are suckers for kids, and with good reason; they define our sense of the vulnerable. So it is not surprising that a coalition of Korean-Americans has sought to advance a bill that would ease the adoption of North Korean refugee children.

The bill is an outgrowth of the efforts of the Korean-American community to speak on the North Korean issue in ways that do not inflame internal political tensions; as in all expatriate communities, these differences are sometimes more pronounced than they are in the home country. Humanitarian questions have emerged as a natural focal point on which left and right can agree.

The Korean American Coalition—founded in LA in 1983—started with its T.H.I.N.K (Topple Hunger in North Korea) project in 2008, which now holds annual dinners bringing attention to the issue.  In December, the KCA created the THINKChildren website to educate the public and solicit donations in support of the bill. High-profile Korean-Americans have weighed in, including a video plug by Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy). KoreAm reports that a number of other actors and community leaders have jumped on board, including Daniel Chae, Raymond Chang, Susan Cho, Candy Lee and Tim Lee.

Introduced by Ed Royce, the bill now has over 20 co-sponsors; as the bill is relatively short, we have simply reproduced in its entirety below. In addition to the North Korea interest, there is also a Congressional Coalition on Adoption that has addressed the international dimension of the issue as well.

The bill updates an earlier effort; H.R. 4986, The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2010 (some concerns about that legislation are raised in comments posted here). The bill seeks to navigate the thicket of complex immigration issues we have touched on in previous posts, including the contradictions of “firm settlement.” If a person is “firmly settled” in a foreign country, they cannot gain access to the US under the Refugee Convention unless persecuted in that third country.

The bill seeks to open the door to adoption—and through adoption presumably to family reunification—from “sending countries” where the orphans are either living or even where they are citizens. The bill makes reference to the Hague Convention of 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (full convention and summary here), of which some relevant parties are members (China) and others aren’t (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, where some refugees have also pooled). The bill calls for a number of efforts to identify orphans that might qualify, and to work with potential sending countries as well as South Korea on the issue.

The brief KoreAm piece makes reference to orphans in “South Asia,” but ground zero is of course China. The full set of issues around the bill are complicated and we are of mixed minds whether adoption really addresses them. There are of course real North Korean orphans living in China; children whose parents have died either in China or North Korea. But some of the children in question are what might be called “manufactured orphans.” The children have typically been living with one or even both parents, but then China "manufactures" these stateless children through at least three routes:

  • by failing to give Korean wives of Chinese men and their children citizenship;
  • by forcing North Korean refugee women to flee to third countries “temporarily” in hope of later retrieving their children;
  • or worse still, by throwing refugee women back into the North Korean prison system. North Korea purportedly refuses to take children of such marriages since they dilute  the country’s racial  purity.

Court Robinson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health probably knows as much about the North Korean refugee population as anyone. In a draft report he comes to the conclusion that the population of children born to North Koreans in China or to North Korean-Chinese couples is probably about 10,500.

The most logical response to this problem would be for China to legalize the presence of these refugees and abide by its commitments under the Refugee Convention. The ideal would be to encourage foster parenting or efforts to reunite these children with their parents. Adoption should be seen as a last recourse in the case where parents really cannot be located or—worse still—have become victims of the Chinese or North Korean prison system.

To be fair, the bill does talk about family reunification and we are cautiously supportive that if handled correctly this could provide a channel for taking in more refugees; to date, we have not done a good job on this score. and the US does have at least some experience with the international adoption issue. But the bill is really just another reminder how North Korean--and in this case China--always manage to force you into world of the second best. In that regard, the legislation is in fact deeply depressing.

H.R.1464: North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 (Introduced in House - IH)

112th CONGRESS, 1st Session (April 8, 2011)

Mr. ROYCE introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs


To develop a strategy for assisting stateless children from North Korea, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the `North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011'.


It is the sense of Congress that--

(1) thousands of North Korean children do not have families and are threatened with starvation and disease if they remain in North Korea or as stateless refugees in surrounding countries;

(2) thousands of United States citizens would welcome the opportunity to adopt North Korean orphans living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees; and

(3) the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security should make every effort to facilitate the immediate care, family reunification, and, if necessary and appropriate, the adoption of any eligible North Korean children living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees.


In this Act:

(1) FOREIGN-SENDING COUNTRY- The term `foreign-sending country'--

(A) means--

(i) the country of the orphan's citizenship; or

(ii) if the orphan is not permanently residing in the country of citizenship, the country of the orphan's habitual residence; and

(B) excludes any country to which the orphan--

(i) travels temporarily; or

(ii) travels as a prelude to, or in conjunction with, his or her adoption or immigration to the United States.

(2) HAGUE COUNTRY- The term `Hague country' means a country that is a signatory of the Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, done at The Hague on May 29, 1993.

(3) NON-HAGUE COUNTRY- The term `non-Hague country' means a country that is not a signatory of the Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, done at The Hague on May 29, 1993.


(a) In General- The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens.

(b) Considerations- In developing the strategy under this section, the Secretary shall--

(1) consider the challenges that United States citizens would encounter in attempting to adopt children from North Korea who are currently living in Hague countries and non-Hague countries regardless of their legal status in such countries;

(2) propose solutions to dealing with the situation in which a North Korean refugee child does not have access to a competent authority in the foreign-sending country;

(3) propose solutions to dealing with North Korean refugee children who are not considered habitual residents of the countries in which they are located;

(4) evaluate alternative mechanisms for foreign-sending countries to prove that North Korean refugee children are orphans when documentation, such as birth certificates, death certificates of birth parents, and orphanage documentation, is missing or destroyed;

(5) provide suggestions for working with South Korea to establish pilot programs that identify, provide for the immediate care of, assist in the family reunification of, and assist in the international adoption of, orphaned North Korean children living within South Korea;

(6) provide suggestions for working with international adoption agencies and aid organizations in Asia to identify and establish pilot programs for the identification, immediate care, family reunification, and international adoption of North Korean orphans living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees;

(7) identify other nations in which large numbers of stateless, orphaned children are living who might be helped by international adoption; and

(8) propose solutions for assisting orphaned children with Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers who are living in China and have no access to Chinese or North Korean resources.

(c) Reporting Requirement- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a written report to Congress that contains the details of the strategy developed under this section.

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