Kristi, 23, met a South Korean man in the city of Makati, Philippines, through a blind date. “It was love at first sight. We were dating for a few months. Soon enough, I found out he was already married with kids. It broke my world so I decided to end it there.”
But things didn’t work out for Kristi: Shortly after their break-up, she realized she was pregnant. “He told me ‘Don’t worry I’m here for you, I won’t leave you,’ but one month before giving birth, he just disappeared.”
It’s a recurring theme: South Korean men go to the Philippines, have relationships of varying degrees of commitment with local women, father children, and then at one point or another flee back to South Korea severing all ties and leaving the mothers alone with the children.
Kristi is one of many thousands of Filipino women who are left to rear their children alone because of absent South Korean fathers. A number often floated around by organizations and media is 30,000, but there has yet to be a clear count or study on the issue.
Kopino — a portmanteau of Korean and Filipino — is a term said to have first been created in 2004 to refer to a child born to a Filipino mother and a South Korean father — who has often run away.
Kopino children face a number of difficulties in terms of child support, acquisition of nationality and visa issuance. In many cases, the mother — often from a poor background — has no contact with the father, and no knowledge of her former partner’s private details, be it a South Korean phone number, an address, let alone a Korean name. This leaves her to pay all child rearing expenses, even though the South Korean father has a legal obligation to provide support according to South Korea laws.
“He Ran Away”
In a set of email exchanges, Korea Exposé communicated with several Filipino women who talked about their experiences of abandonment.
Esther, 27, said, “I met my baby’s father through a dating app. He was here [in Cebu] on a business trip. He said he liked me and wanted to marry me; he was so nice to me. He said he’d come back, but during his absence I found out I was pregnant. I told him and he said he was so happy. But since, he hasn’t come back, and has stopped contacting me.”
Now three-months pregnant, Esther has scant details about the father of her child. She doesn’t know his job nor where he lives in South Korea. “It’s really hard for me because now I’m pregnant and live alone. My physical condition is not so good but I will fight for my baby.”
Maria, 27, says her encounter with her child’s father was similar. “I was working at a hotel karaoke. One guy came every night to see me. He begged we meet outside the hotel, and over four months we became closer.”
Maria claims her partner said he was in a loveless marriage, and had two children. She claims he told her he had chosen her over his wife and that he would initiate a divorce. Her partner made regular trips back and forth between South Korea and the Philippines, while promising to settle down with her. “His wife found out about the affair, and shortly after, I lost all contact with him.”
South Koreans Dominate Philippines Tourism Landscape
The growing presence of South Koreans in the Philippines has been attributed to a rapid increase in South Korean trade and investment projects since the 1990s with other countries including the Philippines.
Another factor was the arrival of South Korean students, who sought English language and university courses at prices cheaper than in Western countries. In 2014, South Koreans topped the list of foreign students studying in the Philippines, according to the country’s immigration authority.
Nowadays, the Philippines has become an ideal holiday tourism destination for South Korean families due to proximity and the arrival of low-cost airlines — a flight from South Korea to the Philippines can cost as little as 38,000 won ($35) one-way. Not surprisingly, South Korea ranks as the number-one origin of visitors to the Philippines. Some 1.07 million South Koreans visited in the first half of 2017 alone, accounting for nearly 24 percent of the total arrivals.
Sex tourism is also a reason for South Korean men to go to the Philippines, with many websites providing obvious sex tours to the Philippines under the pretext of golf holidays. Earlier this year, a group of South Korean men was busted for buying sex in the Philippines, subsequently named and shamed by local police.
So rampant is the problem of sex tourism in the Philippines that the South Korean Embassy in the Philippines warns would-be sex tourists and organizers they can face up to 20 years imprisonment under the Philippines’ “Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003,” explicitly cautioning that the South Korean law against selling and buying sex may also apply upon their return, even for transactions conducted abroad.
But there are many reasons why Filipino women end up dating South Korean men. “For some, it is true love, while others believe that marrying a foreigner might alleviate their poverty. Some men come for serious relationships, others don’t. I’ve seen so many cases, it’s difficult to generalize how and why they meet. The point is, when the men face some form of difficulty — or simply meet another woman, they just run away,” said Jaehoon Myeong at We Love Kopino (WLK), a Manila-based NGO fighting for the rights of Filipino mothers and their Kopino children.
A Helping Hand
Because many Filipino women don’t know all the details of their South Korean partners, they face obstacles in trying to collect child support. In recent years, several organizations including WLK have been set up to help such women.
Myeong told Korea Exposé that one of the reasons South Korean men run away is that they believe they can avoid the situation by returning to South Korea, taking advantage of the woman’s more vulnerable and financially unstable position.
“The difference between the two countries is that in South Korea if a couple has an unexpected pregnancy, they can easily abort it [albeit illegally] but in the Philippines the mother tends to keep the baby. They see it as a blessing and go ahead with the pregnancy whether or not the father is around. On top of being a very Catholic country, abortion practices and facilities are not advanced,” Myeong added.
One of WLK’s main tasks is to act as a bridge between the mothers and South Korean lawyers, who receive a fee as a percentage of the amount won.
Once the two sides are connected, the mothers provide details to the lawyers who then track down the fathers and file lawsuits. The goal is to claim child rearing expenses but also to confirm paternity through DNA testing. WLK contends that it has helped mothers win compensation though it declined to disclose the exact number.
But many mothers don’t have enough biographical information about their former partners to enable the search. Some of the mothers only know the fathers by their English nicknames. In some cases, men give outright fake names.
In 2015, WLK launched a blog that posted the personal details and photos of men accused of being runaway fathers. The blog caused controversy in South Korea as it allegedly violated rights to privacy. Myeong told Korea Exposé, “We still maintain and update the website. While some people might say there there is a problem, finding the father and protecting the children is more important. We’ve been advised that because the website is for the sake of helping somebody, there is no problem.”
WLK claims that people still contact the organization with information identifying the men, and maintain that they have been successful in finding the fathers: As of December 2017, WLK claims that 39 out of 62 fathers featured on its blog got back in touch with their former Filipino partners in exchange for having their photos and personal details deleted online.
In 1991, South Korea ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates that “State parties shall ensure a child such protection and care as it is necessary for his or her well-being … and shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.” It also mentions that a child has “the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”
South Korean parents also have a legal responsibility to provide support under South Korea’s Act on Enforcing and Supporting Child Support Payment, regardless of the marriage status.
According to Article 2 of South Korea’s Nationality Act, “A person whose father or mother is a national of the Republic of Korea at the time of the person’s birth…shall be a national of the Republic of Korea.” But without contact with their fathers, it is difficult for Kopino children to acquire South Korean nationality, according to WLK.
Korea Exposé couldn’t independently verify WLK’s claim that the Filipino mothers have had their children’s citizenship applications rejected by the South Korean embassy in Manila. Multiple attempts to contact the embassy over the phone and via email went unanswered. The South Korean Foreign Ministry’s public relations representative refused to answer questions over the phone, nor did he reply to an email request for comment.
Meanwhile, the battle for child support continues for many mothers including Esther. “Once my baby is born I will go to Manila and fight for her rights and future.”
Despite being able to help some people, Myeong, a South Korean citizen himself, still feels his contribution to the plight of Filipino mothers and Kopino children is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of suffering his compatriots are blamed for.
“Just as we help one mother, we hear of another. The problem of South Korean men behaving irresponsibly abroad still continues to this very day.”
The names of Filipino mothers have been changed to protect their identity.
Cover image: Filipino mother holding Kopino child (Source: KBS 1 documentary “Searching for Runaway Father“)