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Boxed in: S.Korea child law sees more babies abandoned

Seoul, South Korea | AFP | The young woman laboured up the steps, past brightly decorated walls akin to a child’s nursery, her daughter in her arms. Opening a hatch in the wall, she put her inside, turned around and walked away.

She ran her hands over her head but did not look back, surveillance camera footage showed. She may never see the girl again.

South Korea has risen from the ruins of war to become Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a member of the OECD club of developed countries.

It was for a time one of the world’s biggest sources of unwanted children, driven by poverty, a light regulatory touch, and a culture of racial purity, family bloodlines, and shame.

Around 110,000 South Koreans have been adopted to the United States alone since the 1950s but numbers have fallen in recent years.

Birth rates have plummeted to the world’s lowest with factors such as high child-rearing costs and a workaholic culture affecting the situation.

But the number of abandoned babies has jumped in recent years in the wake of a law intended to protect children.

Now more changes are mooted, for similarly well-intended reasons, that campaigners say could make the situation even worse.

– Buried alive –

The woman in the video footage was among the latest of more than 1,000 to have made their way to a house in a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Seoul.

Converted into a shelter by a small Seoul church, a temperature-controlled chamber built into the wall functions as a baby box, enabling unwanted newborns to be taken in without parents having to identify themselves.

New arrivals — almost 200 last year, an average of nearly four a week — are deposited covered in blood, wrapped in material, sometimes with the umbilical cord still attached.

Pastor Lee Jong-Rak of the Jusarang Community Church set up the facility after hearing reports of babies being abandoned in the open air or in public restrooms, where they risked dying of hypothermia.

“Some teenagers give birth to babies in empty houses or in public toilets. They wrap them in old shirts or towels and bring them to us,” he told AFP.

On one occasion, a young couple brought in a baby covered in dust. The father had been planning to bury it alive, he explained.

“When the father started shovelling earth over it, the mother could not bear it any more and rescued the baby.”

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