This article is the first in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity.
By Dr. Kyung-eun Lee
If you are from South Korea and have had the opportunity to live and work in either the U.S. or in a Western European country, you may have come across a situation where someone says to you, “Oh, I have a friend whose brother/sister was adopted from Korea”, or alternatively, “Do you know that our boss/friend has adopted a child from Korea?” Or you may have approached a person whom you thought was a native Korean, but after starting a conversation, discovered that this person has a very western family name and has said to you, “Oh, I am adopted.
In English-language literature, there are many books written on the subject of adoption, encompassing such diverse topics as: individual memoirs by adoptees or adoptive parents, investigative reports on unlawful and unethical adoption practices, birth family search stories, and so on. Many of the authors of such books are of Korean ethnicity.
In Western countries, there are many stories that connect Korea to the narrative of transnational adoption. Why? Because Korea is the country that has sent the largest number of children out of the country for adoption. The length of the period in which Korea has been involved in transnational adoption is more than 68 years and the total number of adoptees is estimated to be over 200,000. It is a singular record in the world history of adoption.
However, these facts are hardly known to ordinary people in Korea. It is partly because most adoptees do not physically live in Korea, and they are rendered invisible and inaudible within Korean society. It is also partly because Korean society turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the uncomfortable truths of its adoption history, for fear of being labeled a “baby exporting country.”
Here’s a story about what occurred at an International Gathering of Korean Adoptees event held in Seoul in the early 2000s. The organizing committee invited Korean government officials to the gathering, and one of them attended, met with the participants who had flown thousands of miles to the meeting, then asked the assembled adoptees, “Why are you coming back? We sent you abroad wishing you well, so why are you coming back to this country?” This episode frankly revealed the mindset of Korean policymakers.
Korea’s adoption system was set up to facilitate the sending of children out of the country. This goal has been deeply and long-embedded within the legal framework and government system. In short, Korea had been unable to anticipate that the children it sent out would return to this country when they became adults. Nothing was set up to meet the needs of adult adoptees as they returned to their country of origin.
Why do adoptees return? Because it is human nature to seek the origin of their existence. Most human stories of minority groups in various parts of the world begin with the firm understanding of their own origins and identities. This grounding in their roots is necessary for diversity to flourish in their own lives.
From the late 1990s, the Korean government began to provide adoptees with programs such as motherland tours, Korean culture camps, and Korean language programs. However, the government did not intend to begin the dialogue with adoptees for the purpose of mutual understanding, with a genuine heart and a serious mind.
For more than six decades, Korea has been sacrificing the norms of essential human rights in order to facilitate the adoption business and to keep adoption within the private realm and outside of the provenance of government responsibility. It will not be an easy task to overcome such a legacy. If we are really determined to fix the issues at hand, we should confront the truth ― however uncomfortable it may be.
In many surveys regarding the policy needs of adoptees, the right to know one’s origin was selected as the highest priority. The origin of a human being encompasses one’s true family name, one’s own name, birthdate, and birth place, as well as one’s nationality, ethnic background, race, culture and language. There are of course other factors. The knowledge of one’s origin is the source of one’s sense of belonging and the foundation for establishing one’s identity. People build their life upon the fundamental foundation of this sense of belonging and upon knowing their identity.
I had also been one of the people who, before I talked with adoptees, did not understand that this knowledge of one’s origin is a fundamental human right, nor why it is so important. Adoptees, especially from Korea, are deprived of the means of knowing their true identity. Through the systemic adoption procedures of this country, the government deliberately erased the biological family relationships and original names of the children, and issued false birth certificates classifying children as abandoned orphans, omitting any identity of their parents. Local government officials even signed papers that certified that the child was a “legal orphan,” so that he or she could be adopted abroad. These false papers were the essential visa documents for Korean children to facilitate their immigration to western countries.
Any human being has the right to know where they came from. One’s identity is not just a crisis that a person undergoes in adolescence, but is a lifelong desire that cannot be satisfied by anything else. Growing up with a happy adoptive family or establishing one’s own family are not replacements for an adoptee’s right to knowledge of their origin.
In this series of the dialogues between adoptees and Korean society, we are going to discuss the elements of origin, for example: one’s birth parents and family, one’s name, nationality, birthplace, language, culture, food, etc. In searching for the meaning of one’s true identity and origin, we may be able to understand better why this right is so important for Korean adoptees. Why do we need such dialogues? Because we are human, after all.
Lee Kyung-eun is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”
Originally published in The Korea Times.