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

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 2:50 pm

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.

Barbara Kim, a Seattle resident who was adopted by an American family in the 1960s, has returned to South Korea to spend time with her birth siblings. "We have a lot in common even though we grew up so far apart," she says.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR

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 lawmakers debating 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.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, some 200,000 South Korean children were adopted by foreign families. Most of those families were American. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul about one project that helps the adopted children tell their stories.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Denver-based filmmakers Glenn and Julie Morey recently came out with an audio-video art installation. For it, they interviewed 100 Korean adoptees. Glenn is an adoptee himself. His wife is not.

GLENN MOREY: It is, first and foremost, a historical record of 60-plus years of inter-country adoption out of South Korea, which set the precedent for inter-country adoption out of other countries.

KUHN: Morey set out to record the history of a human diaspora. He also sought to better understand himself and what it means to be an ethnic Korean and involuntary immigrant to the U.S. Morey says that his interviews show that while the adoptees' lives start out in similar ways, they turn out very differently, yet you can see certain common threads connecting the stories. One of them is this.

MOREY: A sense of loss, sadness and perhaps even trauma related to thinking about - or remembering, in some cases - their time in Korea and how their lives got started.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 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.

KUHN: In Morey's project, the interviewees are identified only by their year of birth and year of adoption. This woman, born in 1979, talks about her separation from her birth family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm pretty much cursed with this, and that's why I'm mad - because it wasn't my fault. And for the rest of my life, I have to feel like I don't belong.

KUHN: Glenn Morey says there's another common thread running through his interviews.

MOREY: The displacement and alienation of being raised then as a Korean in a Western country primarily surrounded by white culture and white society.

KUHN: Another interviewee, born in 1974, remembers her experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was another family adopted - Korean-adopted kids, too, but I never feel like I could relate to them. I often feel like I was white. I never thought I was actually Asian until later on in life.

KUHN: Morey's own story fits seamlessly into the mosaic of interviews he created. Like many of his interviewees, he does not know who his birth parents are.

MOREY: I was abandoned in Seoul as a newborn infant at the age of 2 weeks, and I was abandoned in Seoul to an orphanage and adopted six months later to a family in the U.S. And so my interest in this project is intensely personal.

KUHN: The adoptees' stories create an alternative to the narrative about adoptions put forward by adoption agencies and governments. That narrative often portrays adoption as an act of Christian charity, whose recipients are the lucky ones. Many adoptees in Morey's film do express thanks for the happiness and opportunities that adoption gave them, but they don't all have such happy outcomes. And experts say that South Korea's system of adoptions needs fixing.

KYUNG-EUN LEE: (Through interpreter) If we ask whether the state has fulfilled its duty to protect children in Korean society, we have to say that it has completely lost that opportunity.

KUHN: That's Kyung-eun Lee. She used to be a South Korean official working on adoption policy. She's now director of Amnesty International Korea. She points out that according to international law, children must not be separated from their parents unless a court rules it's in the kid's interest. But South Korea has essentially robbed children of legal protection, she argues, by leaving it to parents and adoption agencies to make the decisions, which South Korean courts simply rubber-stamp. She also argues in English that South Korea's government has allowed children's identities to be erased in order to make them more adoptable.

LEE: They were made orphan. Actually, you know, these kids were not really adopted. They were just delivered to the United States - no such thing that we can call a adoption procedure.

KUHN: Lee says adoptees are often deprived of their right to a name, a nationality and family information because birth records are often falsified. This makes the children more adoptable. It also makes it harder for them to know who they are and where they came from. Sung Changhyun, an official with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, declined to be interviewed. He said by email that since reforms in 2013, the government has improved court hearings' official oversight and management of records in order to protect adoptees' rights. But Kyung-eun Lee says reforms have failed to fix the problem.

LEE: (Through interpreter) The adoption law, even after many amendments, to this day is basically still a law that produces orphans.

KUHN: The government has been motivated, she adds, by the drive to make money and reduce its welfare burden, she says, and the desire to purge stigmatized groups, such as children who are of mixed race, born out of wedlock or disabled. But Glenn Morey says he did not undertake his oral history project with overhauling the South Korean adoption system in mind.

MOREY: I'm a storyteller. I believe in the power of human stories to create empathy, and I believe that's what these stories do. Do they direct us toward better policy decisions? I don't know. That's for someone else to decide. But I know that these stories can create more empathy for the lives that these folks have lived.

KUHN: Morey's interviews encompass the nearly seven-decade-long history of Korean international adoptions. A lot has changed during that time. South Korea has grown wealthy. Attitudes towards immigration and race in the U.S. have evolved. But Morey says that the key elements of adoptees' stories, particularly the lifelong search for identity, remain largely the same. And South Korea continues to send adoptees overseas, although at a slower rate than at the peak in the 1980s.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAIRO SONG, "ALEWIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.