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'Feeling Like We Belong': U.S. Adoptees Return To South Korea To Trace Their Roots

South Korea was once the largest source of children for international adoptions. The U.S. became their main destination. Some Korean-born adoptees feel distant from both the country of their birth and the country where they were raised, but in recent years, many have gone back to build ties with their birth families.
Grace Heejung Kim for NPR
South Korea was once the largest source of children for international adoptions. The U.S. became their main destination. Some Korean-born adoptees feel distant from both the country of their birth and the country where they were raised, but in recent years, many have gone back to build ties with their birth families.

In September, Seattle resident Barbara Kim celebrated Chuseok, the Korean midautumn festival, with her family members in Seoul. Chuseok is a time to give thanks for plentiful harvests, and for Kim, who was adopted by an American family in the 1960s, this was a particularly special occasion: She was able to spend the holiday with several of her birth relatives.

At the celebration, they and a group of South Korean orphans, now in their teens and 20s, dug into platters of bulgogi, kimbap, japche and other traditional Korean dishes.

Kim was among the first wave of a 200,000-strong exodus of adoptees, as South Korea became the world's first source of international adoptions. She was born in 1955, two years after the Korean War cease-fire.

In recent decades, adoptees like Kim have been returning to South Korea to find out more about where they come from, build ties with their birth families and connect with others with similar experiences.

After being separated from her three siblings for about half a century, Kim managed to track all of them down and reunite with them. She says they have overcome an initial sense of awkwardness in knowing one another and feel proud to be part of the same family.

"We have a lot in common, even though we grew up so far apart," she says. "I feel like there's this sense of feeling like we belong."

Abandoned, then adopted

Now 64, Kim was the eldest child born to impoverished parents at a time when South Korea was recovering from the conflict that killed millions and left about 100,000 children orphaned.

After giving birth, Kim's mother abandoned her in the hospital. Korean society traditionally prefers boys over girls, and Kim was born with hip dysplasia. Kim's grandmother raised her until she was about 8. Her parents wanted nothing to do with her, and eventually, she was sent to an orphanage.

The orphanage was run by Harry Holt, the American evangelical Christian who, with his wife Bertha, founded an international adoption agency that matched thousands of Korean orphans with parents in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. A family of dairy farmers in Nebraska adopted Kim, but when they fell on hard times, she says, they vented their anger by abusing her.

"And I remember one time thinking: 'Dear God, wasn't it bad enough I had a first mother that was so horrible? Did you have to bring me to a second mother that was like this?' " Kim recalls.

Kim later went into the U.S. foster care system. Studying became her refuge. She earned a bachelor's degree, then a master's degree and, after that, worked for the very adoption agency that sent her to the U.S.

"For the first time, we're developing this relationship"

Despite the difficulties she faced growing up, Kim says she feels grateful for the opportunities that adoption by a U.S. family brought her — particularly when she considers the stigma and other challenges disabled people often contend with in South Korea.

Others are still wrestling with their experience of adoption. Denver-based filmmaker Glenn Morey, who was adopted by an American family after he was abandoned as an infant in Seoul, interviewed 100 Korean orphans raised in the U.S. for Side by Side,a film project with his wife Julie Morey.

Despite the diversity of adoptees' experiences, certain threads connect their stories, he says. Chief among these is "a sense of loss, sadness, and perhaps even trauma related to thinking about it, or remembering in some cases their time in Korea and how their lives got started."

One woman, born in 1979, told Morey: "I feel like I was sold. I feel like I don't know who I am. I don't even know if my name is real or my birthdate is real."

Another said, "I never felt I was actually Asian until later on in life."

When Kim first became acquainted with her siblings in South Korea in the 1970s, she didn't speak Korean and they didn't speak English. They found one another after one of her sisters happened to read a Korean magazine piece in which Kim had written about her life story. Through the magazine publisher, who contacted Kim's father, Kim, her sister and a brother were able to meet.

After that, there were decades of little or no contact, and they only started to build their relationship in earnest over the past year, when Kim decided to spend more time in Seoul.

"I decided that I wanted to stay here to learn the language so I can get to know my family," Kim explains, "and for the first time, we're developing this relationship."

She and her sister and brother found another sister who had been placed in an orphanage. Nobody had adopted her, and she had gone to work in a factory.

When Kim and her siblings visited her in 1978, "They all cried to see me because maybe they thought I was not doing so well," the sister recalled at the Chuseok gathering. She asked that NPR not use her name because of the stigma of being an orphan in South Korea. "But I just didn't feel anything, because I had lived my whole life thinking that I was alone. I didn't have anybody. So I just felt blank, empty."

"Children who were not fully Korean would never be accepted"

Unlike Kim, many of South Korea's early adoptees were biracial children whose fathers were American GIs fighting in the Korean War.

In a country that valued homogeneity, "adoption initially was thought of as like the 'solution' to mixed-race children," says Eleana Kim, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine.

In its early years, the South Korean government crafted a narrative of a racially homogeneous nation, she says, "the idea being that children who were not fully Korean would never be accepted in South Korean society. And the South Korean government realized that there was an interest among Americans to adopt these children."

In 1965, Son Jeong-seon, then vice minister of welfare and society, told lawmakersdebating South Korea's adoption law: "One can't help but feel ashamed by the fact that [an ethnic Korean] would get together with a foreign person and give birth to a baby that doesn't belong to our homogeneous people."

Critics of South Korea's adoption system say the government also sought to "export" other stigmatized groups, including disabled children or those born to unmarried women, via adoption.

There were also economic factors in play, says Eleana Kim, noting that South Korea spends less on social welfare than almost any other developed economy. "Why do people believe that it's better to remove a child from its country of origin rather than to provide money for the parents who can't afford to raise it?" she asks.

Many Korean adoptees were not truly orphans, she says. They were abandoned because their parents couldn't afford to raise them, and international adoptions allowed South Korea to shift some of its welfare burden overseas. Adoption agencies charged adoptive parents hefty fees, which at times exceeded Korea's gross domestic product per capita.

"A law that produces orphans"

"We can ask if South Korea is fulfilling the state's duty to protect children, and the answer is pretty doubtful," says Kyung-eun Lee, the director of Amnesty International Korea and a former South Korean official who worked on adoption policy.

Lee says that according to international law, children must not be separated from their parents unless a court rules it's in the kids' interest. But South Korea, she says, leaves it to parents and adoption agencies to make the decisions, which South Korean courts simply rubber-stamp.

She argues that South Korea's government has allowed parents and adoption agencies to erase children's identities in order to make them more adoptable.

"They were made orphans," she says.

In 2013, South Korea's adoption law was revised, requiring all international adoptees to have family registration showing whom the birth parents are. This appears to have reduced abuses of the system, says Lee.

Sung Changhyun, an official with South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare, told NPR via email that since the 2013 reforms, Korean courts have "held adoption confirmation hearings with sufficient review and investigation required to approve adoptions."

Sung did not respond to NPR's request for comment on allegations of birth record falsification.

Since the 2013 reforms were enacted, South Korea's number of international adoptions has declined. There were 755 in 2012 and 303 last year.

Sung said the government will initiate additional reforms that "will further strengthen public responsibility over the entire adoption procedure and establish adoption system that prioritizes children's interests."

While reforms have stopped the falsification of documents, Lee believes the government still fails to do an adequate job of protecting children's rights throughout the adoption process.

"The [adoption] law, even after many amendments, to this day is basically still a law that produces orphans," she says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.