This article is the 25th 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
“Vincenzo,” a Korean TV drama starring Song Joong-ki, centers on the story of a Korean adoptee who becomes a mob lawyer, after being raised by an Italian mafia family. Despite being adopted to Italy at a very young age and spending most of his life there, he arrives in Incheon International Airport speaking perfect Korean and manages to integrate seamlessly into Korean society without experiencing any culture shock, awkward social exchanges or misunderstandings. The main character’s adoption experience enables the drama not only to create a background that would have otherwise been impossible, but it also sets up a typical emotional plot device related to adoptees: a reunion with the birth mother.
The implausibility of this plot was not lost on one Korean-American journalist who asked to interview me about the fantastical portrayals of adoptees in K-dramas. Having been raised using Korean in her family, she said that she still struggled to speak Korean fluently, and this experience led her to question why Korean entertainment writers and consumers failed to question improbable stories, such as that of “Vincenzo.” She added that Koreans seem to presume that language is engraved in Korean people’s DNA, regardless of their social upbringing. I have also had to ask myself this, “Do we Koreans truly believe in such fantasies, or are we desperately averting our eyes and covering our ears to the truth?” Dramas such as “Vincenzo,” are less about accurate adoptee representation in Korean society and more about catering to society’s indulgence in romanticized adoption myths.
In fact, the depictions of adoptees in Korean films and dramas have become so stereotyped that they border on constituting tropes. In most of these stories, the adoptee is sent to the United States, which serves as a symbol of wealthy western countries, at a very young age. Eventually, the adoptee returns to Korea and encounters some form of adversity. But owing to the adoptee’s enormous wealth or some extraordinary ability, he or she prevails. While there are variations to this plot, with some films having the adoptee rescue his or her birth family or even the nation itself, the overall plot remains the same.
The 2009 Korean hit, “Gukgadaepyo,” or “Take Off” in English (although the direct translation of the original Korean title would be “A Member of the National Team”), is an example of this stereotypical Korean adoption fantasy. In this film, Korea’s winter sports team lacks enough skiers to participate in the Winter Olympic Games, especially in sporting events such as the ski jump. Like a deus ex machina, an American adoptee appears to save the team and enhance the international prestige of the country. The ending scene shows everyone celebrating under the Korean national flag.
Sometimes film mirrors reality. In 2018, Korea hosted the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, and several intercountry adoptees restored their Korean nationality to participate as members of the Korean national team. Seizing on this occasion, the minister of health and welfare designated some of them as promotional ambassadors of the search for origins. Ironically, this ministry was the same one that has kept adoption in the private realm, while permitting private agencies to receive fees from overseas adoptive parents under the guise of child protection. Despite publicly supporting adoptees’ search for origins, the ministry failed to carry out any meaningful changes that would secure adoptees’ rights to accessing their true identity and origins. While one may ask how we can interpret the state’s demonstration of shameless ignorance and lack of accountability. Indeed, this country has a long history of committing such acts.
Korea’s media has played a decisive role in reinforcing this adoption myth by continuously reproducing the discourse and further embedding it in social consciousness. Heavily dramatized stories about adoptees, whether in the form of dramas, documentaries, or news reports, capture the public’s interest, yet this attention wanes as easily as it aroused. What is left is a superficial understanding of the true history of adoption in this country. This adoption myth functions as a source of entertainment for the public, and these stories remain sufficiently shallow to avoid any critical reflection that could bring on a collective sense of shame or blame. Screenwriters and producers will continue using these types of stories as long as they serve as effective vehicles to reap financial gain.
Consequently, the reproduction of the adoptee myth in Korean entertainment silences the voices of adoptees. Instead of representing the complexity of their experiences, adoptees’ lives are reduced to cliches. This treatment is not only deplorable for adoptees, but in the context of human rights discourse, it functions as a form of objectification: adoptees are no longer subjects with their own voices but caricatures for movie plots. They exist in the public eye because people find entertainment in the emotional drama surrounding adoptee characters, but this interest fails to extend to the very real injustices inflicted on actual adoptees.
While we may level criticism against writers, producers, and reporters for perpetuating stereotypes, we must ask ourselves whether these people are the manufacturers of these misrepresentations or if they are merely reproducing what they have already learned. South Korea has been sending its children overseas for the past seven decades. Its laws and system, which have been designed to facilitate this process, are a testament to its long history of adoption. Thus, when injustice becomes the norm, one can violate another’s human rights without realizing it.
By portraying the adoptee as the savior and including an element of the birth family reunion on screen, Korean dramas and movies distort and manipulate the truth of adoptees’ lives to assuage the collective guilt society feels for what it has done to its most vulnerable members. Unfortunately, most adoptees reside outside of Korea and may not realize that Korean entertainment companies continually appropriate adoptee stories to satisfy their viewers. As long as this practice prevails, the adoption myth will remain the predominant adoption narrative in Korean society’s consciousness.
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” and English book “The Global Orphan Adoption System; South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development.”