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A pilgrimage home: adoptees’ journey to ‘homeland’ in search of meaning of origin and identity

Lee Kyung-eun, standing in red jacket, director of Human Rights Beyond Borders, delivers a speech during a book talk event on her book “The Global Orphan Adoption System: South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development” in the Hague, the Netherlands, in this October photo. Courtesy of Jo Se-young

Homeland visit is not end but beginning of self-exploration

Editor’s note

This article is the seventh in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children’s right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries’ moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.

By Lee Kyung-eun

An adoptee once told me that the journey of an adoptee to their homeland, Korea, is like a pilgrimage. We may interpret this comment in several ways because a pilgrimage has different meanings. Common definitions refer to it as a spiritual journey to a special spiritual site or an exploratory journey to a foreign place in search of inner meaning.

While these descriptions do not cover all the many meanings of pilgrimage, we can find two consistent elements: the journey and the search for meaning. For many adoptees, returning to Korea represents nothing less than a pilgrimage.

When we think of a trip to Korea, it may mean a vacation or an opportunity to experience the fusion of contemporary pop culture juxtaposed with traditional palaces and landmarks. But this isn’t so for adoptees when considering the circumstances under which they return.

Many adoptees have grown up in rural areas of the U.S. and Western Europe, in mostly white areas. Consequently, they rarely see people like themselves. Although they were born in a distant country called Korea, the land remains more of an abstract idea than an actual place. When we think of a trip home, it conjures up images of a welcoming and comfortable environment. However, many adoptees who undertake the journey to Korea are like pilgrims venturing into an unfamiliar place that is their “homeland.”

This journey isn’t just about reacquainting themselves with Korea but about exploring their origins, and this doesn’t end once they’ve reached their destination. On the contrary, many have said their visit to Korea was a life-altering experience. In other words, their pilgrimage did not end in Korea but rather just began. Many adoptees I met in Korea were in the middle of this journey and at different stages of learning to navigate their lives in this country.

In June 2022, as part of a book tour, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and the Hague, Netherlands. In these places, I encountered adoptees going about their daily lives in their adopted land, and unlike in Korea, I was the one who worked to adjust to my foreign surroundings. Although I was a foreigner, these adoptees, who possessed the same fluency, cultural understanding and knowledge as any other Scandinavians, still experienced alienation. For instance, one adoptee said whenever she met strangers in her area, they asked her, “How do you speak Swedish so well?” These types of questions only reinforced her otherness. This land is the only country she knows and she believes she belongs to, yet she is constantly reminded otherwise.

Laws that break ‘divine’ relations between parents, child

I came to Scandinavia to discuss a book I wrote based on my dissertation about the international legal protection of the rights of the child in intercountry adoption, which was the first doctorate thesis in international law on this issue at Seoul National University. Mentioning this last part isn’t an act of self-flattery; on the contrary, I mention this to underline the lack of attention Korea has dedicated to researching children’s rights in international adoption law.

Without going into excessive detail about the thesis, my book explores the state-driven effort to construct and operate the orphan adoption laws and policies of Korea. Although I could not relieve the discrimination these adoptees suffered, the least I could do was to share my knowledge about the laws and policies that governed their adoptions and, in some small way, hopefully, contribute to their search for origins.

Koreans often say that a moral or divine authority defines relations between parents and their children, a bond so strong that human laws cannot break it. This idea is further reinforced by the Korean media, which constantly boasts that Koreans cherish their families more than any other country. I’m sure the readers can already detect the fallacy of this message. As the stories of adoptees in this series have already illustrated, this idea that the relations of Korean families are beyond human laws has been discriminately applied to families this society wants to recognize. When we look further into these laws and the history behind intercountry adoption, we find numerous state acts of human rights oppression and violation perpetrated against children, those too young and vulnerable to defend their rights.

Although my overseas trip wasn’t a pilgrimage, I met adoptees who taught me the true meaning of origin and identity. I learned that the journey to uncover one’s identity and reclaim one’s roots is not only about finding information on an old document or reconnecting with lost birth parents or relatives. Knowing one’s identity is a fundamental basis for protecting and preserving one’s integrity and dignity, and we cannot describe what adoptees must endure as an act of dignity. The fact that they must gather their emotional courage, have enough financial resources, and travel halfway around the world to a land they know little about to find the most basic information about themselves so they may piece together their past, is an injustice.

Adoptees often say that adoption is lifelong, which means that the journey to understand one’s identity does not end once one reaches adulthood. In fact, we can say that adoption spans generations because when these adoptees become parents and grandparents, it’s their children and grandchildren who will continue the questions, “Where do I come from? Where are my roots? What is my identity?” The legacy of intercountry adoption from Korea will last long after the adoption.

Lee Kyung-eun ( is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country,” and the English book, “The Global Orphan Adoption System; South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development.”

The originally published in The Korea Times.

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