This article is the 30th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children they had sent away through adoption would return as adults with questions about their true identity and origins. 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
In early summer of 2021, I sat with The Korea Times’ digital content editor. We had met on the terrace of a small cafe in Seoul to discuss starting a new column series. That warm and sunny day stands out because it was the first moment this series’ journey began.
Since 2017, a few like-minded individuals and I have been devising different ways to bring greater public attention to the need for fundamental changes in the laws and policies related to child protection and adoptees’ access to origins. Despite our attempts, we fell short of achieving a meaningful impact on Korean society. These memories lingered in my mind as I spoke with the editor.
Although a number of adoptees’ accounts had been published over the years, I felt that the missing element was a common thread weaving these individuals’ narratives together. While each adoptee delivered a captivating story, they shared one collective experience ― being sent away by a system designed and maintained by Korea for seven decades. I wanted to give space to adoptees to talk about their experiences but to also incorporate broader discussions, a dialogue, on the underpinning laws and policies that affect these experiences. And most importantly, I wanted to frame adoptees’ grievances for what they truly represented ― human rights violations.
This task was anything but easy, especially considering that in this country, adoption-related issues are dismissed as part of the past. Even some of the most renowned leaders of civil society groups scoffed, “If this is really a human rights issue as you’re insisting, then where are all of these 200,000 rights-holders? Why are they invisible and their voices silent?”
I eventually came to realize that I was going in circles, not just by doing the same thing over and over again, but also treading water dealing with social networks so closely knit that they have evolved into their own isolated world. In there is a tightly guarded circle of international law experts and scholars. Then there is the social circle where only the Korean language prevails, and anything spoken in another language is disregarded. There’s also the small circle of those who believe that they know what is best for adoptees and act upon such beliefs.
This observation isn’t entirely a criticism because, like anyone, I feel safe and comfortable in these circles. But as long as I remain satisfied in that comfort zone, then I’ll remain there without ever reaching beyond those borders.
Korean society never thought that adoptees, whom it sent away decades ago, would ever return and start posing serious questions about their true identity and origins. This society never imagined that they’d want more than just a “homeland tour” or “cultural experiences.” It’s for these reasons that Korea remains ill-equipped and ill-prepared to engage adoptees in a dialogue.
Consequently, I’m confronted with a sense of urgency to build solidarity and alliances with adoptees, those stakeholders with a direct interest, to collaborate on initiating changes in this country, but the speed and impact in which we may undertake this effort is tempered by our geographical distances. Most adoptees live outside of Korea and do not hold citizenship, so they remain an invisible group unable to partake in meaningful change for themselves.
Therefore, I started this series by trying to reach that audience by delivering the facts and conveying the matter in a language that they can understand. We need to dismantle the status quo in which so much information critical to informing adoptees about their rights remains in a language inaccessible for most of them. For far too long, those laws that have directly impacted adoptees have been passed without their knowledge or input due to a lack of translation into languages other than Korean.
Therefore, publishing articles in The Korea Times presented the most appropriate means to facilitate participation with the inclusion of guest adoptee writers and to disseminate rights-related information to adoptees overseas. I initially recruited some guest writers, but as the series progressed, adoptees from around the world volunteered their own stories. The only criterion I had was that the right to origins underpins the content. As I read the submissions, I noticed that despite the different perspectives and arguments, the right to origins as a universal human right resonated throughout the articles.
To date, this series consists of 30 articles: half were written by me and the other half by guest writers, 12 of them being adoptees and one, Seo-vin, being the child of an adoptee couple. Seo-vin’s article was particularly compelling and ranked as the top story of the site. Some adoptees had mentioned that they hadn’t given much thought to any identity crisis that their own children may endure.
Ultimately, the aim of “Dialogues with Adoptees” is to illustrate the relevancy of adoption-related issues and remind society that these matters extend beyond just adoptees. The historical causes that sent thousands of children away rippled across society and reverberated through time. Today, as the country prioritizes raising the fertility rate to cope with the lowest birthrate in the world, one must ask whether this problem is solely a fertility factor or a human rights issue. For more than half a century, this country has regarded the lives of certain children as numbers that it could objectify and commodify. Because the ghosts of the past continue to haunt us today, we should not cease our journey for reform for this generation and the next one to come.
I welcome everyone to share their support and solidarity by revisiting this series on the Dialogues with Adoptees, a separate section that The Korea Times developed. This move represents the first time that a Korean media outlet, whether in English or Korean, has dedicated space to this issue, and I look forward to expanding it with the next series in the near future.
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.”
*This article was originally published in The Korea Times