Secrets of birth: Multiple layers of falsehoods in Korea’s birth documents
This article is the 23rd 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. ― ED.
By Lee Kyung-eun
The Netflix documentary, “Wonder Boy,” chronicles the journey of Olivier Rousteing, a transracially adopted French designer, to uncover his true identity. Born under France’s anonymous birth registration system, Rousteing visits with the French child protection authorities who provided him with his adoption file, which offers limited information on his birth parents. He learns of their racial identity, their nationality before coming to France, and everything else except that which set him on his journey: their names and address. According to the “sous X” registration system, a system unique to France, mothers may hide their identity by writing an X on the child’s birth certificate. Consequently, the baby falls under the protection of the state and becomes adoptable. Without the parents’ consent, the birth parents’ identities remain anonymous indefinitely. In Rousteing’s case, the French authorities offered to trace the birth parents and ask them if they would agree to disclose their identities. Despite this attempt, the birth parents declined.
Anonymous birth systems exist elsewhere, such as in the United States. While state governments issue birth certificates, some states will seal the original birth certificate if a person is adopted. Once the court finalizes the adoption, a new or “amended” certificate, which bears the new name and information of the adoptee, is issued.
The secrecy surrounding birth records has led adopted people to demand access to their information and prompted them to initiate efforts to reform the relevant legislation. They argue that current laws unreasonably favor the personal decision of one party, such as the birth parents, without weighing the interests of both parties. Furthermore, they contend that information vital to a person’s identity cannot be regarded as secret, and that any decision to curtail access is beyond the matters of privacy and personal choice. Whatever may come from these legislative efforts, the government owns the original birth records, so providing access is primarily a matter of deciding whether to open the records.
However, Korea’s case isn’t as simple as opening records. As explained in previous articles, intercountry adoption from Korea started with government bureaus establishing an orphan registry and issuing orphan certificates. The true identity of the person, including their familial relations, was erased to complete the process of fraudulently declaring him or her an “orphan found abandoned” for the purpose of intercountry adoption. Therefore, if an adoptee seeks information about their true identity, the official document issued by the Korean government is void and useless.
This “orphan” registry system has frustrated and angered many adoptees, leading them to adoption agencies. Under the assumption that their true documents rest in the agencies’ “unofficial” and “private” file rooms, adoptees have developed a diverse range of strategies to extract as much information as possible from the staff. Some of the tactics have included persistently visiting the agency or begging, pleading and even bribing them by donation.
One must ask, if the government fails to maintain records of a person’s true identity via his or her official birth certificate, then how can one expect a private agency to do better? Based on my observations, in cases of adoptees’ birth family searches, the trustworthiness of the adoption agencies’ records is highly suspect. After undergoing DNA testing, some adoptees have come to discover that they were not actually related to their supposed birth families despite the agency’s claims arguing otherwise. In other cases, the agencies deliberately delayed notifying the adoptees of their test results or attempted to conceal the results. In light of these circumstances, one must consider the integrity of those records inside the adoption agencies. Do they bear truthful information about adoptees? How many of the files were either destroyed or stolen? Were the contents forged or misrepresented or even switched for business purposes? Who can guarantee the reliability and veracity of the records?
Consequently, many adoptees have found that DNA matching companies are the last resort and the most reliable means to search for one’s biological family. In North America and Europe, multiple DNA testing and matching firms provide services for biological family tracing. People can provide their DNA samples to these firms, and their results will be checked within the company’s database to determine whether there are any matches. These efforts have resulted in adoptees from across the world recounting many fascinating stories of finding their birth parents, siblings and relatives.
While DNA testing has provided a breakthrough in the search for origins, the fact that adoptees must resort to such measures reflects the defects of Korea’s birth registration system. Historically, under the feudal Joseon Dynasty, people belonged to clans rather than a country and were registered according to their kinship ties. The head of the clan ruled over family members, deciding their fate. As long as an individual belonged to a family, he or she was protected, and any act of disownment was like a death sentence. Children were not seen as individuals but rather as possessions of the family, and they were expected to act for the preservation and prosperity of their clan. Despite the passing of time, the vestiges of this paternalism remain in Korea’s current registration system; they are evident in current legislation, which still largely depends on the decisions (or obligations) of the parent(s) to register a child.
On account of this, it is not uncommon to see news reports about cases of people discovering that they have never been registered, or instances of individuals (including unborn babies) being listed on multiple registries. In other words, birth registration failures extend beyond cases of intercountry adoptees, which reveals the pervasiveness of the flaws in Korea’s birth registration system.
The prevalence of secret births has been ingrained enough in Korean society to prompt many K-dramas to employ adoption as a plot device frequently. In these stories, the main character discovers that he or she has a birth family and then attempts to restore their relationship. Despite the frequency with which these stories appear in the media, dramas, and even in academic research, people rarely ever question why so many stories about false birth documents exist or why the state has not been held accountable.
Fundamentally, these problems prevail due to this country’s failure to ensure accurate universal birth registration. While Korea’s development into a highly modernized democracy continues to be touted, the fact remains that this country fails to perform an essential function that any developed nation should fulfill: ensuring the accurate legal proof of identity for each and every child immediately after birth.
Lee Kyung-eun (Ph.D. in law) is the director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”