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Army Lt. Col. Kenneth McDorman and his wife, Lynn, already had two adopted children from the States when they decided to explore Asian countries for their third child.

Because they are stationed at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, they thought rearing a South Korean baby while still in its native country would be convenient both physically and culturally. A little research and a few conversations later, they decided to switch gears and look at China instead.

“We had talked to several people and learned that it is difficult to do while you are here,” McDorman, the public affairs officer for U.S. 8th Army, said recently. Instead, 18 months later, the McDormans welcomed a Chinese boy into their home. Nathan, now 26 months, joined Peter, 8 and John, 6.

Adoption by an American family living in South Korea is possible and legal, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

But it almost never happens.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said it’s been at least three years since an American family adopted a Korean child while living on the peninsula.

For decades, American and South Korean adoption agencies have worked together to help those living in the States streamline the adoption process, an emotional, financial and physical journey that typically can take two years to complete.

Within this long-standing system, each agency and representative knows its own part of the sequence, as does each representative, from application forms and legal requirements to home visits.

But an American couple applying for adoption while in South Korea throws a wrench into an already complicated mechanism, according to Lee Myung-woo, who is part of the overseas adoption staff at Holt Children’s Service Inc., in Seoul. The South Korean agencies worry about home visits and language barriers, according to Lee. They also worry about follow-up if the family is in the military and transfers during the first few months of the adoption.

In 2006, Americans applied for almost 1,400 immigration visas for Korean children adopted into families in the United States, according to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. That number has fallen in recent years, in part because the South Korean government is encouraging more domestic adoptions.

Even with a smoother process in place to adopt from China, Nathan’s arrival took 18 months, McDorman said. One hard part was finding a government-approved person to complete the home study who could navigate South Korean and U.S. needs.

And, of course, much of the process involved patience. “You just have to have a loving heart, patience and determination,” he said. “I highly recommend it. The benefits far outweigh all the trouble and what you have to do to make it happen.”

The McDormans hope to adopt one more child from China in the near future. This time, they say, they are hoping for a girl.

U.S. adoptions of South Koreans

The number of immigrant visas issued for South Korean adopted children has fallen in recent years, according to the U.S. State Department. The numbers have dropped in part because of a South Korean law change in 1997, according to the Holt Children’s Service adoption agency in Seoul. That law limited adoptions to involve only children from unmarried parents.

Also, the South Korean government encourages more domestic adoptions and has a new slogan — “We are raising our kids in our hands and hearts” — to promote that idea, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare in South Korea.

The following numbers are based on fiscal year statistics, Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 for each year:

2006: almost 1,400*2005: 1,6682004: 1,7732003: 1,8172002: 1,7862001: 1,868

*exact number not available yet

Source: U.S. State Department

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