South Korea

Sole custody a common practice

Parental Abduction South Korea

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Table of Contents


Parental abduction and parental alienation are serious and growing problems within South Korea.  And they are linked to related problems such as child abuse and child abandonment.  South Korean family law and associated justice systems were inherited from Japan for historical reasons, with only limited reforms subsequently.  As a result, there is a large degree of overlap between Japan and South Korea in terms of how these issues have festered, so in many cases similar advocacy, education, and legal reform efforts are needed in order to improve the situation in both countries.

In South Korea, sole custody is overwhelmingly common in practice, especially if the divorce was not amicable.  South Korean law technically does allow for joint custody after a divorce, but it is close to meaningless.  As soon as there is any non-trivial disagreement after joint custody has been ordered, the court will revert to sole custody instead. The philosophy is that if the parents couldn’t work out their issues during the marriage, then there is no way for them to effectively co-parent, so sole custody is less confusing for the children.  Unfortunately, this all-or-nothing mindset often leads to the non-custodial parent completely abandoning the children (and evading child support payments).  And even when the non-custodial parent makes every effort to stay in the child’s life, the custodial parent can easily block that, with few consequences.

According to official statistics from South Korea’s Institute of Judicial Policy, after divorce, children in South Korea regularly continue to meet both parents in only about 10% of all divorces in which children were involved.  In 20% of cases, the children only met the non-custodial parent for special occasions.  And in an additional 6% of cases, contact only happened online.  So for 64% of the divorces with children, there was no contact at all with the non-custodial parent after the divorce.

In 2022, there were 93,200 divorces in South Korea, involving more than 60,300 children. Given the no-contact rate above, we can calculate 60,300*0.64 = roughly 38,600 children entirely cut off from one of their parents per year.

Note that the statistics above are for after a divorce has been finalized.  However, as of 2023, no statistics are available for what happens to access while a divorce is in process, which can take years.  It is during this period that domestic abductions are most likely to occur, with one parent illegally blocking the other parent from seeing their children. The practice is known to be common due to the tradition of family law courts awarding custody to the abducting parent and not penalizing the act of taking a child away from another parent. As in Japan, the “continuity principle” applies:  courts are reluctant to change the de facto caretaker of a child, so “he or she who abducts first wins.”  In some cases, the abducting parent then seeks to relocate abroad, making it even more difficult for the non-abducting parent to get their child back.

Children abducted from abroad to South Korea by a parent is also an ever-increasing problem. In some cases, the abducting parent may take a child from a different country without the other parent’s knowledge or consent. This can cause a great deal of emotional trauma for the affected family members, and can make the process of reuniting a child with their other parent difficult and lengthy. In order to combat this issue, countries must work together to develop laws and policies that will protect the rights of the affected children and their parents.  In 2022 and again in 2023, South Korea was cited by the US State Department for non-compliance with its Hague Abduction Convention treaty obligations due to a number of still-unresolved high-profile cases.

Likewise, parental alienation is a common byproduct of South Korean divorces.  Even when the non-custodial parent makes an effort to stay in the children’s lives, the custodial parent may use alienation as a way to make court visitation orders ineffective.  If a child refuses to see the non-custodial parent, then it doesn’t matter what arrangements the court orders.  Consequently, a custodial parent may be encouraged by their lawyers to brainwash the child into such rejection.  Often this is used as an extortion scheme for requesting exorbitant child support payments; at other times, it may be used to bully the non-custodial parent as a means of revenge, or for other unhealthy motives.  Unlike in other countries, where reunification therapy or change of custody may be ordered in cases where such tactics are employed, courts in South Korea generally refuse to acknowledge the existence of the problem.  And even in cases where the courts do find visitation orders to have been violated, the only penalty is monetary (a fine). Beyond the emotional abuse caused by parental alienation, the loss of access (either via alienation or abandonment) may lead to physical abuse or neglect of the child going undetected, since the non-custodial parent is no longer present to provide protection from the custodial parent, step-parents, or others.  In extreme cases, this has led to starvation, torture, and death. 

Currently, South Korea also sets the world record for declining fertility rates.  Given that immigration is already being encouraged as a way of reducing the associated population decline, it is inevitable that international and intercultural marriage will rise accordingly.  When combined with abduction and alienation problems, this will create a ticking time bomb for all the children and parents involved.

Indeed, the growing prevalence of parental abduction and parental alienation within South Korea is quite concerning, and more focus needs to be placed on finding ways to combat these issues.

Call For Action

Left-behind parents have started a petition regarding international parental child abduction to South Korea, which you can sign.  There may also be National Assembly petitions inside of South Korea which you can sign for specific issues.

As a responsible member of the international community, South Korea must:

  • Come back into compliance with its Hague Abduction Convention treaty obligations by amending its civil laws and regulations so that all internationally abducted children can be promptly reunited with their left-behind parents
  • Make corresponding reforms to prevent and swiftly resolve domestic abduction cases
  • Implement real joint custody laws in line with other advanced nations, and consider moving to a no-fault divorce model as well
  • Enact clear criminal laws for parental kidnapping (and interference with custody/access rights), and instruct police and prosecutors to enforce them expeditiously
  • Educate court officials about the emotional abuse of parental alienation so that it can be detected and discouraged during custody and access disputes
  • Strengthen enforcement of child support payments in order to discourage child poverty and abandonment, but also make sure that custodial interference is enforced with equivalent strength
  • Properly train and staff judges and other court officials to reduce delays in proceedings
  • Begin collecting statistics on:
    • child abductions during and after divorce
    • children who have lost contact with one or both parents while divorce is in progress
    • court order enforcement success rate
  • Stop treating child abuse and domestic violence as “private family matters”

Family Law


South Korean divorce is fault-based; a couple can only get divorced by mutual agreement or by one of them proving the other to be at fault.  This requirement naturally increases the conflict level in many separations.

The general custody landscape in South Korea can be summarized as follows: when the child is young, the court favors the mother; when the child is older, financial capability may influence the decision. Since joint custody isn’t likely in contested cases, this leaves the non-custodial parent with few rights and little say in matters concerning their child.  This has led to an increase in cases of parental abduction, as some parents feel they have no other recourse when they are denied access to their children. For this reason, it is crucial that South Korea implements meaningful joint custody legislation in order to provide better protection for the rights of parents and children.

South Korean courts are badly understaffed, which leads to slow processing times and large case backlogs.  For the entire country during 2022, there were only 221 custody evaluators available.  Adjusting for population size, Japan’s staffing level for this role is almost three times higher.  In order to make sure that children are not falling through the cracks during custody disputes, South Korea must invest much more heavily in education and hiring for these important roles.

It is widely accepted that there is no meaningful way of enforcing child custody decisions in South Korea. There are multi-step procedures to impose penalties on the parent who is not complying with the civil court rulings, but it is an extremely slow process.  Hence, the non-compliant parent has little motivation to follow the judgment promptly enough to prevent the other parent from becoming cut off from the child’s life. In fact, the court will eventually acknowledge that the child has become accustomed to the current situation, which means there is essentially no consequence for ignoring the court’s custody order.

And direct enforcement of a custody order (going with court officers to retrieve the child) is likewise a deeply flawed process.  In abduction or divorce cases where the child is withheld from the lawful custody holder, civil enforcement is almost impossible except for infants.  For any child who is old enough to speak Korean (even children as young as three years old), enforcement officers executing a custody order are required by regulation to ask the child’s opinion.  If the child refuses to go with the custodial parent, then the court enforcement officer walks away from the enforcement attempt.  This is despite the fact that the judge in the custody case may have already ruled that the child is not yet mature enough to be raising such objections.  Police are not involved in such enforcements (except occasionally as observers, with no power to act), and no child protective services or mental health professionals are involved during the enforcement.  The court enforcement officer normally handles tangible property issues such as repossessions and evictions, and thus has no training in child-related matters, nor any incentive to actually carry out the enforcement successfully.  Thus custody enforcement is viewed as a risky bother to be shirked as much as possible.  As a result, abductors need only carry out an alienation campaign in order to guarantee enforcement failure.  They are aided in this by the slow court processing times, allowing ample time for alienation to take effect before enforcement can even be attempted for the first time.

Putting young children in the position of being forced into making such a choice (often while under the direct physical and mental domination of the abductor) is in fact a form of state-executed emotional abuse.  The local courts in charge of enforcement have cited the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child (regarding a child’s right to self-determination) in defense of their enforcement procedures.  This is nonsensical for young children who have been abducted without any understanding of the situation, and completely ignores the other provisions of the CRC regarding the child’s right to have access to both parents, true name, birthplace, etc.  South Korea must immediately replace these absurd enforcement procedures with something closer to common sense, and which protects children from trauma via guidance from qualified mental health professionals.

Other indirect enforcement methods such as fines and detention (up to 30 days) for the abductor are available to try to encourage a “voluntary” return of the child.  This is similar to contempt of court in other countries.  However, the corresponding detention order is entirely under civil law, not criminal, and therefore the police have neither investigative nor use-of-force powers for executing it.  As a result, it is easily evaded by the abductor, and the detention order expires automatically after six months.  South Korea must address this gap by legislating serious criminal penalties for parental kidnapping.

During a contested divorce, the standard visitation schedule granted to non-custodial parents by the court is twice per month (which is at least better than the one visit per month in Japan).  However, the reality is that even this low number is rarely honored due to the ease with which blatant parental alienation can be used to block visits.  South Korea needs to strengthen its laws and policies by increasing the default visitation frequency, recognizing parental alienation and visitation interference as a form of criminal emotional abuse, and revoking custody from parents who persist in perpetrating it.

Nonpayment of child support is another major problem in South Korean society, with ill results for the children involved.  In 2022, the Gender Equality Ministry released a study on single-parent households across the country which revealed that 80.7 percent of them were not receiving child support payments from the noncustodial parent, with 72.1 percent saying they had never received any payment at all.  Civil penalties include suspension of driving and travel privileges, public shaming, and detention up to 30 days (the same as in custody enforcement cases).  However, as noted previously, civil detention orders are easily evaded and thus almost never actually enforced.  After one year of non-payment, criminal prosecution is theoretically possible, but very rare in practice.  Relevant laws need to continue to be strengthened in order to ensure that children of divorce are properly provided for by both parents, and protected from abuse and neglect.  However, such strengthening should apply equally to laws protecting both parents’ access to their children.


Divorce involving one parent who is a South Korean national and the other parent a foreigner can be a difficult situation to navigate. Family courts do not provide an interpreter, and in fact do not even allow for sequential translation during the proceedings (an interpreter may only be allowed to whisper into the ear of a parent who does not speak Korean, which isn’t useful for fast-paced discussions regarding important facts and points of law).  No one records the proceedings (except for answers given by a witness directly to the judge), and thus no transcript is provided after a hearing.  There are no limits on the size of briefs submitted to the court, and briefs may be submitted as late as the morning of the hearing.  Since all arguments (both oral and written) take place in Korean, a non-Korean-speaking foreign parent may be at a significant disadvantage unless assisted by expert lawyers.  And lawyers willing to deal with non-Korean-speakers are quite rare.

Additionally, the foreign parent may also have difficulty seeking legal recourse if the South Korean parent does not comply with the court’s decision. In recent years, there has been an increase in cases of international marriage in South Korea.  In 2022, there were 17,000 new marriages between Korean and foreign nationals (out of a total of 192,000 new marriages), marking a 27.2 percent increase from the year before.  And while the overall number of divorces dropped significantly due to a long-term decline in population growth and marriage rates, the total number of divorces involving foreigners actually increased slightly. This highlights the need for the South Korean government to provide better protection and resources for those affected by international marriage and divorce.

Parental Abduction

Within South Korea’s borders, there is essentially no effective legal mechanism to reliably and promptly secure a parent’s access to the child if the other parent blocks access.  This inevitably exposes children to the risk of parental abduction, no matter whether the children are already living in the country (domestic cases) or after they have been taken away from a different country (international cases).


Under South Korean civil and criminal law, the concept of parental abduction is ill-defined, so the law of the jungle applies instead.  During custody disputes, parents are encouraged to launch a preemptive strike by abducting first to establish de facto custody, which is usually later confirmed by the court.  Since the police and other authorities will usually treat this as a private family matter and try to avoid getting involved, the left-behind parent may feel that self-help is the only viable option, attempting to take back the children with assistance from family or others.  The children caught in the middle suffer terribly as a result.

Celebrity Chef Case

A notable self-help case occurred in 2023.  Previously, during a divorce between two well-known restaurant owners, the father was granted sole custody of young twin daughters, and the mother was granted only visitation after being convicted of various crimes.  However, during a visit, the mother abducted the daughters and refused to let the father see them for many months.  In response, the father attempted to exercise his rights of custody by taking back the daughters in a self-help fashion.   He was stopped by the police after the mother resisted vigorously.  To resolve the situation temporarily, the police split up the twin daughters, sending one with the father and the other with the mother. 


South Korea joined the Hague International Convention on Child Abduction, and promptly enacted the “Hague International Child Abduction Convention Implementation Act (Law No. 11529)” in December 2012.  This law entered into force on March 1, 2013.  The South Korean Ministry of Justice was designated as the country’s Central Authority under the treaty, with the Seoul Family Court having jurisdiction over all Hague cases.

However, due to the fact that South Korea failed to faithfully implement the Hague Abduction Convention during 2021, it was listed as non-compliant with its treaty obligations in the 2022 annual report from the US Department of State, and then again for a second time in the 2023 annual report.   Per these reports:  “Specifically, Korean law enforcement authorities regularly failed to enforce return orders in abduction cases.  As a result of this failure, 50 percent of requests for the return of abducted children under the Convention remained unresolved for more than 12 months. On average, these cases were unresolved for two years and ten months.…While courts in the Republic of Korea ordered the return of children under the Convention, decisions for return were generally not enforced, including one case that was pending for more than three years as of December 31, 2022. There were two cases (accounting for 100 percent of the unresolved cases) that have been pending for more than 12 months in which law enforcement has failed to enforce a return order. Additionally, left-behind parents can spend months in legal proceedings seeking to enforce the return order, resulting in delays to return. Unless the taking parent voluntarily complied with a return order under the Convention, judicial decisions in Convention cases in the Republic of Korea were generally not enforced, which contributed to a pattern of noncompliance.”

The report also mentions significant judicial delays affecting compliance:  “…cases were generally pending with the Korean judicial authorities for over one year. Additionally, while courts in the Republic of Korea ordered the return of children in Convention cases, the need for multiple enforcement proceedings resulted in delays.

South Korean courts are notoriously slow and understaffed, and international abduction cases are not treated with any special urgency at all, despite the expediency requirements of the Hague Convention.  As a result, they proceed at the same sluggish pace as divorce cases.

The South Korean Ministry of Justice entirely refuses to get involved in the enforcement of Hague decisions or the safe return of children to their home countries; all responsibility for this is placed on left-behind parents and their lawyers.  The Ministry of Justice fails to perform any coordination role between various police units, court enforcement officers, and others.  Its capability for locating children is limited to sending police to check already known addresses; it refuses to direct police or prosecutors to undertake their own searches or criminal cases.

Despite the enforcement problems, it should be noted that in making their Hague return decisions, South Korean courts have generally been careful to honor both the letter and spirit of the Convention.  However, in ambiguous jurisdictional cases, they tend to favor a South Korean parent unless a valid court order from the foreign country is recognizable (meaning the South Korean parent was given a properly-noticed opportunity to argue in the foreign court but still lost the case together with any appeals).  Given South Korea’s very stringent requirements for international service of process, getting such a court order recognized may be very difficult for the left-behind parent. 

According to Seoul Family Court, since joining the Hague Convention, 49 Hague child return cases (children abducted from other countries) have been processed by South Korea through October 31, 2022. Statistics are not available on how many of those resulted in returns, nor how many remain pending or unenforced.  And statistics for abductions to other countries from South Korea are also unknown.

Of those 49 return cases, the origin country is known in some cases:


Statistics on non-Hague cases are not available.

US Cases And Public Protest

Two notable cases of Hague abductions from the US to South Korea were anonymously referenced in the State Department non-compliance report above, and together with other cases, provided the basis for South Korea’s listing as non-compliant.

In the longest-running unresolved case, Jay Sung (Korean name 성재혁) is a naturalized US citizen father (originally from South Korea) who had his son abducted from the Seattle area by his South Korean ex-wife in 2019. Sung obtained multiple court orders in both countries for his son’s return, including a finalized Hague decision from the South Korean Supreme Court.  However, despite the fact that the mother’s actions were illegal under the Hague Convention, she was never prosecuted, and their son has yet to be returned to his father due to South Korea’s failure to enforce its own Hague return decision. Sung’s case has highlighted the need for reform in South Korea’s laws on parental abduction and has been cited as a prime example of why the country must improve its enforcement mechanisms for Hague Convention cases.  And in fact, the same flawed enforcement rules prevent successful child recovery enforcement in domestic cases as well.

In a very similar unresolved case, John Sichi (another US citizen father) had his son and daughter abducted by their South Korean mother from San Francisco in 2019.  In this case as well, the children have been ordered to be returned home to the US by courts in both countries, again including a finalized South Korean Supreme Court Hague decision.  However, the children continue to be held illegally in South Korea due to a lack of enforcement.

In response, Sichi started a “treadmill protest” in Seoul in October 2022, walking on a treadmill in public at multiple locations around the city in order to raise awareness about the issue and visually demonstrate the lack of progress (walking in place).  He has continued this for over eight months, walking more than 600km in total.  His protest has already spawned further activism within the country; these related protests involve South Korean parents cut off from their children as a result of both abduction and alienation.

The South Korean media has taken notice, and has covered the protests and related issues with strong and sustained interest.  Newspapers such as Law Times, Kookmin Daily, Chosun Biz, Ilyo Sisa, JoongAng Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo America, Financial News, Korea Pro, Korea Times, and Korea Herald published articles on the protest and South Korea’s failure to comply with the Hague Convention. Among them, JoongAng Ilbo published an Op-ed article by Michelle Bernier-Toth, Special Advisor on Children’s Issues from the US State Department, calling for the resolution of the long-pending cases by the South Korean authorities.  Major broadcasters SBS and MBC have also covered the stories on South Korean TV, along with MBN and the YouTube channel Asian Boss.

Overseas media outlets such as Fox News, The San Francisco Standard, NextShark and Yahoo News have also reported on these Hague child abduction cases.

Australia Sequential Abduction Case

In another notable case, a South Korean mother abducted her daughter out of South Korea to Australia in 2016.  The South Korean father filed a Hague return request in Australia, and the Australian courts promptly ordered the child returned to South Korea and the father.  However, the South Korean Ministry of Justice did not ensure that the child was handed over by the mother when their flight landed back in South Korea, so the mother was able to reabduct the child inside of South Korea, eventually leading to the child becoming alienated from the father.  In this way, a properly handled international abduction case in Australia was botched by the South Korean authorities, turning into a domestic abduction case.

This case shows a stark contrast between how child abduction issues are dealt with in the two different countries.  Whereas Australia successfully enforced their court order to send the child back to the South Korean custody jurisdiction, failures in the South Korean justice system meant there was no way for the father to secure child custody or access afterwards.

Precedent-Setting France Case

Another international abduction case has also received significant attention.  In 2014, during divorce proceedings in France, a South Korean father abducted his daughter back to South Korea.  The French mother attempted to get the daughter returned to France through civil enforcement, but failed.  At that time, although France and South Korea were both already Hague signatories, they had not yet become treaty partners with each other, so the Hague Convention did not apply.  However, after five and a half years, the French mother was finally able to successfully recover her daughter via criminal prosecution against the father.  During this time, the daughter had completely forgotten the French language, and had become alienated against her mother, but full reunification was eventually successful.

This case set a precedent, confirmed by the South Korean Supreme Court in 2021. Although the relevant criminal law remains very ambiguous and rarely used, under some circumstances parental kidnapping and related emotional abuse may be recognized as a crime.  This is an encouraging development for getting the issue treated with the seriousness it deserves.  A documentary has been released about the entire abduction case from start to finish.

Parental Alienation

Parental alienation in South Korea is generally ignored, or indeed considered as an expected result of divorce, despite its devastating impact on the affected children and their parents. There are few statistics available on the issue, but it is believed that the number of children being alienated is increasing. Fortunately, in 2023, a new PA Korea organization was formed to work on raising awareness of this issue and to provide support for those affected. An important next step will be for lawyers, judges and lawmakers to take a stand against parental alienation and begin advocating for legal and policy reform on the issue.  Major South Korean broadcasters such as KBS have already covered the topic during in-depth broadcasts, but much more media attention is needed in order for public awareness to develop (a necessary precursor for societal change).

It should be noted again that parental alienation and abduction tend to go hand in hand.  This is especially true in South Korea due to the way enforcement procedures work.  After an abduction, the taking parent is motivated to quickly alienate the child against the left-behind parent.  That way, even if the left-behind parent manages to get a custody order for the return of the child, it will be unenforceable if the child rejects the left-behind parent at the enforcement site.  And there will be no child psychologists or other qualified professionals present to help the child understand what is really happening during the enforcement.  Likewise, if the left-behind parent doesn’t obtain a custody ruling, then the abductor can use alienation in the same way to prevent any visitation attempts from succeeding.  The abductor will probably also be afraid of re-abduction during any visits, so preventing visits altogether is likely to be one of the abductor’s goals.


  1. Secure your passport: Ensure that your passport, and your child’s passport, are securely stored and that they cannot be accessed by anyone else. In the US, consider enrolling your child in the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program. Other countries may have an equivalent, or even stronger measures such as exit controls.  However, you should be aware of the fact that if the potential abductor is a South Korean national, it’s possible that they can request a South Korean consulate in your country to issue a South Korean passport for your child at any time without your consent.
  2. Know your rights: Familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations of your country regarding parental abduction and international travel. Since South Korea has been found non-compliant with its Hague Convention treaty obligations, you can argue in court that your children should not be allowed to visit South Korea due to the significant risk that you may not be able to ever get them back.
  3. Stay in contact: Make sure to keep regular contact with your child and to stay up-to-date on their whereabouts.
  4. Educate yourself: Learn about the risks of parental abduction and the resources available to you if it happens.
  5. Seek help: If you believe your child may be in danger of abduction, contact your local authorities and any relevant organizations that may be able to help.
  6. Create a plan: Develop a plan for what to do if abduction does occur, including who to contact and what steps to take.
  7. Get a court order: If you don’t already have a custody order in place, you will have a much harder time stopping your child from leaving or getting your child back in case an abduction occurs. In many countries, filing a lawsuit (e.g. for divorce) will automatically cause a temporary restraining order to kick in, preventing your child from leaving. However, this could also unnecessarily escalate a volatile situation, so proceed with caution, in consultation with an expert in family and international law.

Missing Child

If your child goes missing in South Korea, it is important to take immediate action. The first step is to report the incident to the local police and to contact any relevant organizations that may be able to help. Additionally, if you are not Korean, you should also contact your country’s embassy in South Korea, as they may be able to provide assistance and resources. There are a number of organizations in South Korea that work to help reunite missing children with their families, such as the Missing Children Korea Association and the Korean National Police Agency’s Missing Persons Bureau. Furthermore, there are a number of online resources available that can provide information on missing children and parental abduction. Taking all these steps can help to ensure that your child is quickly and safely returned to you.


Missing Children Korea Association:


Phone:  +82-2-6454-8500


Korean National Police Agency’s Missing Persons Bureau:


Phone:  182 (inside Korea)


International Center for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC):



Thanks to John Sichi & Jay Sung for drafting this country page!