This is the 14th article of the series on Korea’s policies on adoption. The history of the politics of adoption permanently affects and fundamentally changes the lives of those it touches. The reason we should know the truth of this history is not for contemplating or passing judgment but for moving forward to restore the rights of adoptees.― ED.
By Lee Kyung-eun
In 2018, an adoptee recounted to me a meeting with a group of Korean government officials. They had met to discuss measures to support deported adoptees’ resettlement in Korea. When they sat at the table, the adoptee noticed that on the official’s agenda, deported adoptees were referred to as “people who failed their adoptions and returned to their birth country.” Upon seeing this, the adoptee became infuriated and questioned how these officials could essentially blame the adoptees for their unfortunate circumstances. He said, “It is not the adoptees who failed their adoptions; it is the Korean government that failed to protect its own children.”
These words hung in the air and brought me back to the previous year. Between July and December of 2017, the Korean media had reported the deaths of two adoptees. This news affected me because I had personally known a third adoptee who had taken his life that same year but whose story was never reported.
Philip was born in Korea in the 1970s, but after living in the U.S. for 27 years, found himself deported to Korea in 2012. He had tried to survive here, but it’s not easy for a middle-aged man to suddenly find himself thrown into a “foreign” country. He was not just adjusting to Korea; he was starting an entirely new life in his forties in a country where he did not know the language nor had the requisite educational background and skills to earn a living. Without adequate connections to his friends or family in either country, he struggled over the years, going in and out of mental health facilities until he eventually committed suicide in 2017.
Like Philip, Jan was also born in Korea in the 1970s. Adopted to Norway in 1980 at the age of eight, he chose to return to Korea, settling in the city of Gimhae along the southern coast. He had been on a five-year journey to find his birth parents, which led him to a small orphanage in the city. This orphanage facility was mentioned in his adoption file and served as the only link to his origins. It historically functioned as a “feeding orphanage.” Like many of the child welfare institutions that existed throughout the country at the time, these places provided children to adoption agencies.
Jan rented a small one-room apartment near his orphanage to continue his birth search. However, despite his attempts, he failed to find any new information. He grew depressed and spent his last few months mostly alone before the building staff found him. He had died from what doctors described as excessive alcohol intake.
The third death of 2017 was Joe. He was born in the 1970s and adopted to the U.S. He grew up with a loving family and became an award-winning teacher. In the early 2010s, he returned to Korea to reunite with his birth family who’d been searching for him. However, despite this reconnection, he still could not overcome the unanswered and unresolved questions plaguing him and ultimately took his own life.
Some have argued that focusing on such tragedies undermines the “love” of adoptive parents and harms the “dignity” of adopted people. But can we divide inter-country adoption into such dichotomies? Can we say there is only darkness and light? No life is free from pain or suffering, so why must we judge an adoption as “successful” if it only seemingly lacks such experiences and feelings? So-called optimistic narratives seek to portray adoption as ethical and safe while downplaying the tragedies do a disservice by overly simplifying adoption experiences.
Furthermore, dismissing cases of abuse and suicide as “exceptional” and “rare” ignores the system under which all adoptees were processed. It must be noted that four adoption agencies have monopolized transnational adoption in Korea and employed the same set of practices. In other words, rather than being atypical cases, the so-called “failed” adoptions were conducted under the same procedures as every other adoption.
Over the years, a number of adoptees have shared their adoption records with me, so I’ve examined these issues from a variety of positions ― as a professional, a scholar and a witness. I’ve seen numerous documents from immigration officials from different receiving countries from different periods and from different agencies.
Despite such diversity, the records reveal a surprisingly similar pattern ― a massive quantity of files approved in such a fashion that it seems as though bureaucratic machinery indiscriminately processed cases. There was no evidence that any public or private entity in either the sending or receiving countries conducted individual case assessments or reviews on Korean children to determine whether they were adoptable or should be placed in alternative care. Instead, a collection of Korean government bodies issued orphan-related documents, including the orphan hojuk, orphan certificate, and guardianship certificate (granted to the head of adoption agencies).
Many, if not most, adoptees have questions about their origins and identities. While their individual experiences are unique, their cases remain connected in a sense. Regardless of the differences in their lives, they all began life under the same set of adoption procedures. It can also be said that even today, all of us in this country are connected under the same legal system and laws.
Therefore, rather than turn away, we must confront the uncomfortable truth. We must avoid dividing people’s lives and experiences into darkness or light and success or failure. If we hope to find answers, then we must acknowledge and begin to understand the prejudices and discriminatory actions that, although they happened yesterday, constitute the problems of today.
Lee Kyung-eun (Ph.D in law) is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”