Returnees Organizing Korea Out of the Intercountry Adoption Industry

By Kristin R. Pak

The intercountry adoption (ICA) market is driven by demand from rich countries and commodifies the most vulnerable people. It’s unsustainable as child welfare, and does great harm wherever the market emerges.  Realpolitik policies that trade in humans for leverage are unconscionable, but dress them in fateful red thread narratives and a savior aura, and they are  not just palatable, but seem magnanimous and altruistic. The marketing and branding of poor children as orphans with no past and no hope for the future started here in South Korea, and has been replicated again and again throughout the (former) second and third worlds. The justifications for UN-regulated human trafficking range from discrimination to poverty to evangelism. Ignored is how little ICA does to address the systemic problems that created poverty, the legal and institutionalized discrimination that force people to the margins of society, and the failed government programs that restrict families to one child. Furthermore, the continuing interference that the west (particularly the United States) perpetrates in the developing world, disrupts traditional communities and livelihoods.

South Korea is still among the top suppliers of children for the ICA industry. SOURCE: http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/adoptionstatsintl.html

Babies and children are traded in return for money– profits for adoption agencies, hard currency for poor countries, fees for lawyers, revenue for hospitals, and “donation” income for orphanages while at the same time releasing a bit of pressure that these rather-be-forgotten troubles put on a society. Poor families, biracial babies, unwed mothers, addicts and mentally ill patients all should be hidden or gotten rid of in the speediest, most profitable way possible, but only a limited amount can be sent away.  We can’t be kept out. Thousands of us are returning every year, demanding the truth. We’re joining in solidarity with others who have stayed to change laws, provide services, and reform society.

Why have some of the 200,000 of us who were sent away to be adopted returning?* Why do we come to visit South Korea in the thousands every year? Why are we in solidarity with unwed and single mothers and families who have lost their children to adoption? We don’t (necessarily) come back to South Korea because our childhoods were bad (although many were horrendous). We come back to learn the truth about what Korea is in a way that only a visit can. We come to find our families and the truth because the adoption agencies constantly lie to us. We choose to live here for extended times to reclaim our mother tongue. We settle here to change Korean society so no more children are separated from their mothers, fathers, histories and personal truths.

And we organize. Adoption Solidarity Korea (ASK), Truth and Reconciliation Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), and Global Overseas Adoptee Link (GOA’L) were founded by adoptees living in Korea so the thousands who come back every year have a community and support to find their way in Korea and their place in history. We work in solidarity with unwed mothers so families can stay together, despite unjust policies driven by stigmas against the women and their children. We identify as migrants who were forced away from Korea and perhaps compelled to return again as economic refugees or deported Americans, along with the other new face of Korea which is multilingual, multicultural, and more diverse. We hope to transform Korea, and we have the right to do so as Koreans.

Back in the late 1990s the government tried to use us as bridges between our adoptive countries and South Korea. Although I disagree with the assumption that we would automatically feel any obligation to do so, it was clear from the First Lady’s address to us in 1999 that the Blue House was including us in the great Korean diaspora. In our quasi-Korean/foreigner hybridity, we learned tolerance was the least a society owes to its most maligned, even if the right to equality is ignored. We are claiming our birthright as born ROK citizens and making statements about justice and human rights here. Our experiences as foreigners in our adoptive countries and the racism and discrimination that goes along with it has equipped us to fight as citizens even if we have foreigner status on our ARCs.

We had to change laws to get those, too. Although we’re now eligible for F4 visas, which allow us to live in Korea and work (as long as it’s not as a laborer), we had to convince Immigration that we were also overseas Koreans because there was no category for us. You see, we weren’t supposed to return. The marketing worked so well that it became the Truth: we were saved from growing up in a poor country, in poor families. That was the story from the end of the war and continues until 2014. South Korea is now a highly developed country economically, thanks in part to the hard currency we brought in. We were supposed to be fully assimilated into white Christian families and forget we were Korean, grateful for all the West would give to us. Instead, we commit political acts just by living in Korea, by making waves and demanding a change in the laws.

157,796 Adopted Koreans

Although 200,000 is now the generally accepted number of Koreans who were sent out of the country to be adopted, this graph shows a lower number perhaps due to rounding, adoptions that were done outside the established system, and the age of the source data. SOURCE: http://jjtrenka.wordpress.com/2007/06/27/fifty-years-of-korean-adoption-is-enough/

Perhaps because of the returnees like me, Korea will create a template for closing its intercountry adoption program like it has repeatedly promised to do since it was shamed1 as a baby-exporting country. I hope it does, because intercountry adoption is a demand driven industry that hurts Korea. It has retarded the growth of an adequate social welfare state, a major characteristic of a developed society. (We still have childcare facilities, because adoption does not solve child welfare problems.) ICA makes Korea complicit in human trafficking for hard currency it no longer needs. Just as the rest of the world followed Korea’s example into selling away its children, Korea can lead the way out of the ICA industry.


*I use the passive voice here deliberately because the people who were sent for adoption were not the protagonists, but the object of the action.

1”The year 1988 was a turning point in South Korea’s adoption history. The Seoul International Olympics attracted the attention of journalists worldwide about many aspects of Korean culture, and much of thisattention focused on Korea’s primary export: its babies. Journalists like Bryant Gumbel of NBC commented that Korea’s primary export commodity was its babies, and articles like “Babies for Export” (The New York Times) and “Babies for Sale: South Koreans Make Them, Americans Buy Them” (The Progressive), embarrassed the South Korean government. North Korea also criticized South Korea’s adoption program, pointing out that selling its children to Western countries was the ultimate form of capitalism. As a result, the South Korean government delayed the scheduled departure of adopted children before and during the Olympics. And the number of Korean children adopted by American families began to decrease, from over 6,200 in 1986 to just over 1,700 in 1993. http://www.pbs.org/pov/firstpersonplural/history_southkorea.php