Hundreds of babies are abandoned each year in South Korea, prompting a pastor to build a special baby box for them to be left in.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 21:30

When an alarm goes off at Pastor Lee Jong Rak's home in Seoul, South Korea, it means another baby has been abandoned for him to look after.

The children are left in his purpose built baby box by desperate mothers, who feel they are no longer able to look after the youngsters themselves.

David Brill looks at the sad stories of women wanting to escape the stigma of having children out of wedlock, and the heartwarming work of Pastor Lee in caring for them.

Up to 18 babies are abandoned each month in the box attached to his house, to be looked after by Pastor Lee and his team of volunteers until more permanent arrangements can be made.

But it's a challenging job; new laws on registering births are making it more difficult to find adoptive parents, and some are critical of Pastor Lee for making it too easy to abandon unwanted children.

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Every once in a while here at Dateline our video journalists are fortunate to meet some truly inspiring people. Our next story fits that bill exactly. David Brill has been in Korea where a pastor has devoted his life to caring for society's outcasts, many of whom are babies only a few months old. More remarkable still is the way they are delivered into his loving care. Here is David.

REPORTER: David Brill

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): Baby, baby! Baby-box, baby-box.

It's a moment Pastor Lee Jong Rak has experienced many times. The arrival of a new bundle, a new born left in his purpose-built baby box. In South Korea hundreds of unwanted babies are abandoned every year. Many are dumped on the streets.

PASTOR LEE JONGRAK (Translation): Jesus, she is beautiful.

This little girl is one of the lucky ones.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): Hello.

Pastor Lee's two storey house doubles as an orphanage, a noisy and chaotic place filled with love. Helped by a handful of volunteers the pastor and his wife care for 18 children and young adults, most have mental or physical disabilities. All were abandoned. The couple have adopted 10 as their own, as many as the authorities will allow.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): The prejudice against disabled people is severe. People neglect them. They find them repugnant. They don't treat them with respect. They don't treat them as human beings. I can see that if they had gone elsewhere, they would have died, I am glad they have come here, I'm so thankful that I am able to help them.

SEO LEE JONG, VOLUNTEER (Translation): This little one loves it when people touch her like this; she loves the human touch, she loves piggybacks too.


Volunteer Seo Kee Ja introduces me to Seul, who has lived here since she was eight.

SEO LEE JONG (Translation): She is 20 years old this year, she looks like baby, right? She can't do anything by herself.

REPORTER: Without Pastor Lee what would happen to somebody like this girl here?

SEO LEE JONG (Translation): She would probably have gone into a government facility. It would have been difficult for her.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): I was a little late today, eh? I am sorry my son.

Pastor Lee's labour of love began nearly three decades ago with the birth of his disabled son Eun-Man.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): It was through this child that it all started. After my son fell ill, he had to go to hospital for 14 years. For almost 14 years we practically lived at the hospital. I remember there were kids in hospital without their parents, so we had some of those children from that hospital come into our care, and that is how we started.

As his orphanage grew, Pastor Lee became concerned about the number of unwanted babies being abandoned. In typical style he decided to do something about it.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): The baby-box was set up in December 2009 and we had our first baby arrive in March 2010. When you open the door of the baby-box, a light turns on to show where they're placing their child. There is also a bell that rings when the baby arrives.

Up to 18 babies a month end up in the pastor's arms. This footage shows the arrival of one of them. The young mother is a high school student unable to care for her son. She carefully places her baby in the box, a life changing event that takes a matter of seconds.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): "œI'm in year 12, I have made a simple mistake that I cannot bear or handle."

Sometimes notes are left with the babies. They are heartbreaking to read.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): "œI am very sorry - I know leaving my baby in this baby-box is wrong. I will bear this guilt for the rest of my life. I am sorry, I am sincerely sorry."

REVEREND KIM DO HYUN: He has a fantasy that what he is doing is the only solution but I don't believe it.

Reverend Kim Do Hyun runs KoRoot, an organisation that helps adoptees find their birth parents. He claims mothers are being persuaded to abandon their children.

REVEREND KIM DO HYUN: His baby box system itself is a separation system between child and mum. He's too enthusiastic about what he is doing as saving children, saving lives. But his idea and mind is so narrow, that's why he can't see the other side of society.

REPORTER: The Big Picture?

REVEREND KIM DO HYUN: The big picture, yes.

I'm about to see for myself how the baby - box works.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): Baby? Yeah. Oh! Oh. So beautiful, I think the mother tried caring for the baby; she looks about one month old.

Left with the baby is a bag with fresh clothes and a simple note with her birth details.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): Less than one month old, she was born March 24. I think she has pooed. Look, she's got a dummy.

The babies that come here to me are the ones who'd otherwise die. Some come naked, some come with their umbilical cords still attached, so these babies come from dire situations. Without the baby-box, these babies would die.

There are huge social pressures at play. In South Korea's conservative society the idea of a perfect family is prized and having a baby out of wedlock is seen as deeply shameful. Women who fall pregnant out of marriage can find themselves being pushed by their families to have abortions or put their child up for adoption.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): There are teenage single mothers who buy drugs to kill themselves and their babies. What do you do? You have to save the mother and the baby. I tell them to come to me.

CHOI SEUNG-EUN (Translation): Eun-chong, give mummy a kiss? I missed you.

As a newborn Eun-chong was abandoned by his mother and spent two years in Pastor Lee's care. Just a week ago he was taken in by a new foster family after a long and exhausting process.


CHOI SEUNG-EUN (Translation): The adoption process is very complicated because the law actually precludes Eun-chong from adoption. He is alone, he has no parents, no one to check his formal identity, no official documents and no-body knew where he came from so he can't be legally adopted.

Choi Seung-Eun and her husband have found tough new adoption laws frustrating. They are designed to reduce the number of South Korean babies adopted abroad. But they involve much more rigorous screening of prospective parents and require all children to be registered at birth.

CHOI SEUNG-EUN (Translation): I understand why they make adoptive parents go through such strict examinations but for the child, the waiting process is extremely difficult.

Although he is not yet adopted Eun-chong is lucky. But given the new complications many other abandoned children like him face a life in state care.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): There are 3700 kids that are stuck in orphanages because they're not getting adopted.

With desperate mothers often unwilling to register unwanted babies Pastor Lee's baby box has never been busier.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): They give them up, the law forces them to. Before the new adoption law we used to have one or two babies come in and three at the most. However, since the new law in August 2012 17 to 18 babies per month have come through the baby-box. That's a significant leap.

MIN HYUN JU, MP: Throwing away the baby in the baby box without registration - that's a crime. They should keep in mind, they should know that.

The authorities take a dim view of the pastor's baby box. They've ordered him to shut it down. Min Hyun Ju is an MP who has been closely involved in the revision of the adoption laws.

MIN HYUN JU: Whatever choices the parents have, they must register their baby to the government. That's not the parents' right. That's baby's right. Their human right.

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): If people say the baby-box is illegal then we can make it legal. There is nothing illegal with saving someone's life. God bless this baby's future, and let her be protected, nurtured and healed in Your name. This baby has to leave soon, so I prayed for God's blessing on her. I prayed for God's guidance in her life and that she will grow to become an influential person in the world.

REPORTER: What will happen to this baby now? Will it be adopted or not?

PASTOR LEE JONG RAK (Translation): The baby will be taken to the children's hospital to get medically examined. If the baby is healthy, it will be sent to an adoption agency at once, it'll be sent to the orphanage. The baby has already been abandoned once - she will be sent to a different place and then to another; and this really breaks my heart. I hope the baby can find happiness soon and find adoptive parents. It saddens my heart. Bye.







Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

14th May 2013