Community Supported Agriculture Part 2: More Fun with Fresh Veggies

By Taryn Assaf

Summer can be a difficult time for farmers. Weather can be unpredictable, with high temperatures, too much or too little rainfall; crop eating pests are at their peak. That hasn’t stopped the gorgeous leafy greens and fragrant herbs from growing on Gachi farms. Most people would be weary of buying greens with little holes in them, bruised fruits, or yellowing herbs. We prefer perfection: our greens rich in colour, glistening in the supermarket spotlights; our fruits shining and vibrant; and our veggies without a spot of dirt. You’d be hard pressed to find any evidence that most produce ever existed in an ecosystem. How much food goes to waste simply because its appearance is deemed less than perfect?

The items in my Gachi box are not perfect- and that’s what I love about them. I can feel the carrots being pulled out of the earth as I wash the dirt off them; I can see the rows of leafy greens swaying in the wind as I examine their little holes; I can feel the pride in the harvest of herbs when I receive such plush portions. My relationship to food is changing. I used to be a huge food waster. I was guilty of being afraid of the less than perfect produce. But, I grew wiser, and learned that even a yellowing piece of lettuce can be eaten in a salad and not take away from the freshness or taste. I learned that a bruised apple or orange doesn’t foreshadow the taste of the flesh and that I, like so many others, had little idea what food actually looks like.

I’ve just received my fourth box, but this post will detail some of the items I made with the vegetables from my third box. To reiterate some key points about this package:

  • The produce is not enough on its own, but is a great foundation for the weeks’ meals
  • You will need to supplement with other items to create well-balanced meals
  • The element of surprise really incites creativity in the kitchen
  • The food is seasonal, meaning you’ll likely encounter produce you’ve never dealt with before, which also means you may have to do a little research before meal time (hence this post!)

OK! On to the food (again, pics are NOT FOODIE STATUS. I’m about making good tasting food that looks like a normal person cooked it, but moreso I can’t bear to waste time making my food look good for a photo when I could be eating it). In my third box, I received:

Eggplant, onions (not pictured), green peppers, a variety of greens (perilla leaf, arugula, salad greens), buchu (garlic chive), blueberries, six eggs, two cucumbers and a bunch of arugula.

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I have a bunch of portioned hanu (Korean beef) in my freezer that has been waiting to become a good topper. I used to love the combination of steak and arugula when I was living in Canada, so the first thing I made was a steak and arugula salad.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI plumped up the salad with some of the other leafy greens I was given and made a light, lemony vinaigrette. I added some cherry tomatoes from a previous box for good measure, and topped it with a juicy, seared steak.

Arugula is an amazing green. It’s peppery and fragrant and has a strong flavour. It’s amazing on top of pizzas (proscuitto, parm, mozzarella and arugula is my favorite), in or around anything with steak (steak sandwiches/salads), as the star of the show in an Italian style niciose salad (with lemon, salt, and olive oil dressing and topped with tuna), or even just tossed in lemon juice and placed on top of a piece of fried pork cutlet.

I was so excited about the eggplant. I love to use eggplant in almost anything because it is so versatile; I usually use it in place of animal proteins because of its thick, meaty texture- that means stews, sauces, sandwiches and other meals I would usually prepare with meat get eggplant instead. So I went ahead and prepared a Thai green curry with eggplant (and literally every other vegetable I could use up)  and an eggplant parm inspired gnocchi (the gnocchi I got off Both lasted me a few meals each. I contemplated making baba ganoush, but opted instead for a couple meals with more vitality.

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Cucumber is so common that I doubted whether or not I should include it in this post. However, I got really excited about making one of my favorite summer salads: salatat laban wa kh’yar (in Arabic), or, cucumber yogurt salad. It was really difficult for me to find the right yogurt for this recipe (if anyone knows where to order quality, preferably home made greek yogurt, hit me up!) so the yogurt I used was not as thick as this salad usually calls for. There are five ingredients here: cucumber, plain yogurt, dried mint (you can use fresh) garlic and salt. All to taste. Since the yogurt was runny, I only just coated the cucumber, but normally the bowl would be full.

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My absolute favorite Korean side dish are pickled vegetables. When I saw onion and green pepper in the box, that’s immediately what came to mind. Together with some garlic that I received the week before, I made my very own. I combined everything in one container, boiled the pickling brine and poured it over top. I let it sit for a few days in the fridge before tasting, so all the brine could really soak in. Since I like my pickled veggies a little sweeter and more sour than what I’ve tasted in the restaurants, I added a little more vinegar and sugar than the recipe called for: 2 cups water, one cup soy sauce, and somewhere between a quarter and a half cup each of vinegar and sugar.

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Finally, I used all the perilla leaves I received to make perilla leaf pesto. I’ve been eating pesto or some version of it for 2 months now thanks to Gachi, and I’m not complaining (is there such a thing as too much pesto? No. There isn’t). It’s the exact same recipe as basil pesto, except sub perilla leaves for basil. It tastes very similar, and the perilla leaf flavour, usually overpowering, comes out subtly and smoothly. I tried it a variety of different ways: hot with whole wheat linguine, for a more western feel, and cold with buckwheat noodles, topped with cucumber and eaten with a side of pickled radish, for a more summery Korean noodle feel. Both were great. I didn’t take any pictures, because it looks exactly like basil pesto, (which isn’t very interesting) and everyone knows what that looks like.

What came of the blueberries and buchu? I mixed them into random meals at random times.

So I guess I’m still very much enamored with my community supported agriculture. The box I received this week is even more exciting, challenging and inspiring than what was featured in this post, and I look forward to continuing my culinary endeavors and sharing them. Have you subscribed yet?


ISC’s Open Lecture Series July Event: “War, Peace, Reunification”

We can easily forget as foreigners living in Korea that we are living in a forcibly divided country still at war. Join the ISC in a reunification tour to explore regions of significance to the inter-Korean conflict. You can sign up at 

Call to Action: The Truth Must Not Sink With Sewol

A6twVli6zXWPKOUB7ibXSun4jkpon_0cd0TwNr8Ox3_Vmce6nakaizvMfwHBtUoccHeJ2GZ3feqVvDTTTKE8Gr5oOA4YItgK3p6-DDjnYuEcPmAzfgqQYgsUpaTq9GlYNImKAi4“It is not you that is wrong side up; it is us. I am sorry for having made you live in this wrong side up world.”

At 9 AM on April 16, 2014, after making a sharp turn, the Sewol ferry, its decks overladen with cargo, began to capsize off the southwest coast of South Korea. Hasty news reports of a full rescue raised family’s hopes only to dash them against the reality that only 172 had been evacuated and rescued, and 304 – mostly high school students – remained trapped inside. As the government stalled and fumbled through its emergency response during the “golden moments” of rescue, and as minutes turned to hours, and days into months, hope of rescue faded and anger mounted exacerbated by reckless inaccurate media reports and the government’s attempts to cover-up its ineptitude and sluggish response. A perfect storm of corporate greed, lax regulation, corruption, and government incompetence turned a simple accident into Korea’s worst maritime disaster in 40 years and questioned the legitimacy of a government focused on economic growth but negligent of its people’s well-being.

Now, nearly a year later, 295 bodies have been recovered, but 9 remain missing. Countless demonstrations, six million signatures, an eight month occupation of Gwanghwamun Square, and hunger strikes by the victims’ families have been carried out demanding the full truth behind the tragedy and punishment of those responsible. The government remains unresponsive paralyzed by special interests and fearful of the full implications of the truth; with bodies still missing and the truth covered up, victims’ families are denied the closure necessary to move on.

To uncover the truth and prevent such senseless deaths in the future, the victims’ families have been demanding the creation of a committee with full investigative and prosecutorial authority. The government’s response has been a timid anemic committee that has still not launched a full investigation due to departmental budget disagreements. Furthermore, while the families of those still missing are demanding the recovery of the Sewol to recover the missing bodies and uncover the truth, the government is balking ostensibly due to the costs of such mission.

Punishment for those responsible has been slow. The chief executive officer and five other employees of Cheonghaejin Marine, which owned the Sewol, are being prosecuted for negligence in the conduct of business, professional negligence resulting in death, and violating the Ships Safety Act after re-operating a 20 year old retired ship, illegally restructuring it, and overloading its top decks with cargo for greater profits. However, the current legal system makes difficult prosecution of these companies or its executives.

As the one year mark approaches on April 16th, some say, “Enough, stop fighting and just commemorate the one-year memorial quietly.” Yet, how can we ensure such tragedy does not re-occur? How can we give closure to victims’ families when the truth is covered up, the culprits are not held responsible, and nine bodies remain missing?

We must struggle against time, against the government’s efforts to cover up the truth, against a government-dominated media, and against our own apathy, so that we do not forget, and so that we can create a society that values people’s well-being and safety over profits and where such tragedy cannot re-occur.

The International Strategy Center stands with the victims’ families and demands:

  • A full investigation into the truth behind the Sewol ferry disaster
  • Punishment of those responsible for the disaster
  • Recovery of the Sewol ferry and the nine missing bodies

Please support our call and consider:

  1. Signing our petition demanding that the government carry out the victims’ families’ demands.
  2. Participating in our photo campaign by posting a photo on Facebook or Twitter holding a sign with where you are (city and country) along with the hashtag #thetruthmustnotsinkwithsewol, and sending us a copy of your picture to
  3. Organizing others to join the campaign.
  4. If you are living in Korea, attend our Open Lecture event on April 11th with the families of the Sewol victims [further information and registration at]

We will be displaying the photos in our April issue of the Monthly World Current Report and handing them along with the petition to the family members as a gesture of solidarity. Through this campaign, we hope to raise international awareness to the reality that the Sewol tragedy remains unresolved, and to place international pressure on the Korean government to bring relief to the families who have suffered long enough.

Thank you for your support!

Korean Farmers: The Value of Local Knowledge

By Erica Sweett

In October the ISC met with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into their homes, fed fresh food and given tours of rural and urban farmlands. They shared their stories and shared the struggles Korean farmers are facing. We experienced a side of Korea often shadowed by economic progress raising questions about what and who is valued within societies. Who is supported?  Whose knowledge is valid?

Today, Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of the populations were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.

The Korean War, US food aid, along with neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led not only to a decline in agriculture but also to one in rural communities and indigenous traditions and cultures. In the 1970s, in response to US economic pressure, the Korean government implemented Green Revolution agricultural practices. The Green Revolution modernized farming in Korea and educated farmers on technological advances in farming. It also increased the use of fertilizers and introduced new seeds.

The Green Revolution proved to be unsustainable. This “revolution” stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms to buy fertilizers and heavy machinery.  The increased cost of these new technologies forced many farmers to switch from growing a diversity of crops for domestic consumption to growing cash crops. As a result Korea has become more reliant on global food corporations. Today over 60 percent of their food comes from imports. (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.1)

Near the end of the 1980s, the government was dedicated to manufacturing and neoliberal free trade policies. Many farming communities were further destroyed as the government focused its energy and resources on increasing production and maximizing profit. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farmers were only 7 percent of the population.

Life as a farmer is unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are some factors that affect harvests.  Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient. Yet, the politico- economic forces they confront are more powerful than any natural disaster or pest. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and wielding it against neoliberal driven policies.

Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants’ League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions; they are reviving rural communities and creating a new collective conscience that emphasizes local self-sufficient agriculture within Korea; they are giving power and control back to the people. The results are tastier food and happier, healthier communities.

KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The Korean government deemed the older generation of women farmers as obsolete and their knowledge as meaningless. The KWPA is building a space where the value of these women can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.

The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is: “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. They are simplifying the process food goes through before reaching consumers’ tables.  Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is cheaper – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. They have the freedom to grow food more sustainably because they’re controlled by their local market not by the restraints of the global market.

Capitalism can foster innovation and can efficiently boost economies. But it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Capitalism is independent of culture and community and displaces and devalues local knowledge. Multinational companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Under capitalism everything is disposable and replaceable. Economic competition disrupts the natural cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Korea started growing cash crops because it’s economically more efficient. They became more reliant on food exports not because it’s practical – but because of trade laws and barriers that dictate what governments deem important.

We already have the necessary tools to create sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge; what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. The needs of the global market differ greatly from those of the local markets. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the profitability of capitalism. We need to stop allowing multinational corporations and the governments who support them decide what and who should be valued within societies.

The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our planet. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but listened to and valued.


Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).

The Dignity of Continuity: Preserving Korean Farming and Food Sovereignty

By A.T.

“Before, no matter how hard they worked or how little they earned, farmers had always had at least the assurance that they were doing the necessary work of the world, and that before them others (most likely their own parents and grandparents) had done the same work, which still others (most likely their own children and grandchildren) would do when they were gone. In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity of at least knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself….The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them…what they knew was passing from the world.”

  • Wendell Berry Jayber Crow

American farmer, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry, wrote these lines to describe the plight of farmers in early 1960s rural Kentucky. In the post-war United States, economic growth and industrialization were rapidly leading to the decline of agricultural society. This model of development that devalues farmers would soon be exported and take root across the Pacific Ocean, in the much smaller land of South Korea. The results have been no less destructive.

After the Korean War, the country faced unprecedented levels of poverty. In 1970, the dawn of the second decade of his rule, president Park Chung-hee launched the Saemaeul (New Village) Movement and the Green Revolution to firmly kickstart Korea’s economic leap forward. The focus shifted sharply to exports of high-tech goods and imports of basic foodstuffs, effectively leaving Korean farmers – then still comprising half the population – in the dust.

Flash forward to 2014, Korean farmers – who now make up only 6% of the population – are facing one of the worst crises in their history. Over the summer, the government announced that this would be the last year of rice import quotas and 2015 would see the full opening of the Korean rice market. Competition with foreign rice growers is believed to lead to the collapse of Korean rice farming. [1]

Despite the dire situation that they face, politicized Korean farmers keep going because they “believe in the righteousness of their struggle.”[2] The Korean Peasants’ League and the Korean  Women’s Peasant Association are prepared to keep Korean farming alive by any means at their disposable. In October 2014, the ISC team worked alongside leaders of these two groups and heard their stories firsthand.

For me, it was a lucky time to participate in the ISC’s two farming-theme weekends. After a four-day school trip of following the footsteps of the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Revolution in Jeollabukdo (link to the ISC’s coverage of this historical event), I felt well-equipped to connect history with the present-day struggles. Our first stop was Sangju, Gyeongsangbukdo. The Seunggok Farming Experience Village is a “Back to the Land” center, a place where city people can get back to agricultural roots. Here, we were put to useful work, picking the famous Sangju (pears), threshing 들게 (perilla) and clearing an entire red-tinged field of 메밀 (buckwheat).

The work itself was meaningful, but more so were the informal discussions we had with the farmers over drinks and out in the fields. Particularly telling was the relationship between our host Jo Won Hee, Sangju’s Korean Peasant League secretary, and his mother, a life-long farmer. While overtaking us in the perilla field on a peaceful Sunday morning, this strong, friendly, outgoing elderly lady warned us “not to go into farming.” After a Saturday night of lively beer-fuelled discussion about the vital importance of food sovereignty, it was a huge reality check – farming is hard work and most farmers would rather spare their kids of it. Go to the city, get educated, get a city job. That seems to be the mantra.

Jo Won Hee and his female counterpart of Sangju’s Korean Women’s Peasant Association were university student activists during the 1980s democratization movement. Against their families’ expectations, their paths brought them right back to the farms where they came from. Seeing the preservation of farmers’ dignity as a vital struggle in Korea, they made the choice to pour their activist spirit into building a strong, independent agricultural community. With the recent protests in Seoul against the opening of the rice market, Jo remembers the days of “holding a molotov cocktail in one hand and a pipe in the other” while confronting the police. He says he is too old for that now, but he dedicates his time to advocating for the rights of farmers to keep their independence from big companies and foreign governments.

In Korea today, as in many places around the world, raising up farmers is inextricably linked with raising up women. In fact, women’s cross-generational efforts seem to hold the key to keep farming a living force. Although women have always contributed the lion’s share of farm work and have taken responsibility for seed selection and preservation, patriarchal society has denied them property and social rights. In response to this state of agriculture, The Korean Women’s Peasant Association was founded in 1989. In 2012, they won international recognition as winners of La Via Campesina’s biodiversity award for their work to preserve Korean indigenous seeds. Feminist and women’s studies PhD student Kim Hyo Jong studies the intricate ways in which “KWPA activists are working together with hal-mo-ni (grandmothers) to develop the indigenous seed preservation movement as the food sovereignty movement.”[3]

Young women farmers learning about seeds from their elders is just one way in which women are taking matters into their own hands. The KWPA’s version of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), 언니네텃밭 My Sister’s Garden Plot, has achieved success in empowering women to grow and sell their food directly to consumers. With fifteen plots now active in communities around Korea, this movement has the potential to sustain small farmers.

The aging population of farmers around the world and the unwillingness of many young people to go into the fields poses a severe challenge, but Korea’s peasant movement is devising innovative ways to move forward. The dignity of continuity is not yet a lost cause.


[2] Interview, Sangju Sister’s Garden Plot, Korean Women Peasants’ Association


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:

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:

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.

Adoption: what are we really buying into?

By Taryn Assaf

As a non-adopted person, I’ve never given adoption much critical thought. Having never intimately known anyone adopted, I have always imagined it like this: the adoptee, I thought, must have been born into the unfortunate reality of poverty or an otherwise dismal future. Parentless and alone, they would have grown up in the dreadful care of the institution, aggrieved and bewildered by their lack of opportunity compared to their country brethren who had the fortune of being raised in a family. They were, I believed, better off in the charity and good will of the adopter family or individual craving madly to raise them. There would be, probably, some confusion and wonder throughout their lives, especially if raised by a family of a different race. But, I concluded, this would and could be resolved by a simple search for their birth family, whose records (since the world is a right and just place and bureaucracy is only sometimes inefficient) would be sparkling in the heavenly glow of accessibility. A meeting would be held, questions answered and a relationship established: the adoptee realizing that despite the pain of not knowing their birth family, they were better off having been raised in a place that offered them so many more opportunities than in their country of birth – a conclusion the birth mother must have similarly come to when she relinquished her child in the first place.

Does this narrative sound familiar? Probably. It is the dominant narrative available in both rich and poor societies that glorify inter-country adoption (ICA). I have always positioned adoption within this unilateral framework, rather than in a multilateral framework that locates adoption as a phenomenon affected by and affecting many different groups in society. Of course, there are many overseas adoptees, some with multiple associations and identities, who subscribe to this narrative or some version of it and are grateful to have been adopted. I am not asserting that they are wrong in thinking that. However, I am in solidarity with the suggestion that we must question these dominant narratives precisely because they silence and displace so many other adoptees and their birth families. To broaden the scope of this narrative requires situating adoption within the broader framework of social justice. Doing so allows space for conversation about the implications of adoption for families and adoptees alike. What is adoption within a social justice framework?

Adoption is:

A women’s rights issue: Adoption is allowed to continue as long as there exist patriarchal societies that position men as the normal and natural head of the household, without whom a family can not be counted as complete. Many children are born into non-traditional (that is, non father present, non-nuclear) families, and adopted children are almost always born to unwed or single mothers[1]: 90% of the over 200,000 children adopted out of South Korea were born to this demographic. Severe social stigma and discrimination toward unwed mothers also contribute to adoption. In South Korea, for instance, assumptions about, and need to control, women’s bodies and behaviors bolsters discrimination against women. “Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous.”[2] This statement, made in 2011 to an audience of single mothers, adoptees and social welfare workers by the chairman of the Korea’s second largest adoption agency, reflects the assumption that the bodies and behaviors of single mothers need monitoring if we ever hope to see an end to adoption. The implied suggestion of this statement does not nor will it ever solve adoption and only perpetuates the already present bigotry toward single unwed mothers. This level of social discrimination varies across nations and within cultures. However, one thing remains consistent: poverty is feminized and the increase in single mother households paired with lack of access to resources and a likelihood of social stigma causes mothers to turn to adoption instead of raising their children. In Korea, most single mothers live at or near the poverty line, without any social, financial or emotional support. Adoption is not the best choice; it’s the only choice.

An economic injustice: The capital and literal flow of children usually always runs from the Global South to the Global North[3]. Children born in Haiti, Guatemala, India, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Russia, and Korea[4] (among many others) are exported to countries in Western Europe and North America, with the United States being the single largest recipient of international children. As such, mothers in the global south believe that their children will have better lives if adopted by “rich” adopters. Economic prosperity is positioned in opposition to the woman’s right to raise her child and is understood as the best choice for the child. Social welfare programs to aid single mothers, should they choose to raise their children, are also lacking. The South Korean government, for instance, saves billions of dollars a year by not providing social welfare programs that would help single, unwed mothers and lower class families raise their children. This is in part made possible by adoption agencies, which make millions per year placing Korean children with overseas families.[5] The adoption industry is profit driven, so much so that sometimes agents encourage single mothers to give up their babies; agents have been known to convince women to sign over their children before they are born. Adoption has essentially replaced social welfare, and as such, it is the only alternative, however unsustainable it may be. Women and their families deserve options that encourage and support them to keep their families together. Until South Korean society ceases to prioritize adoption over family preservation, poor, unwed, single women will continue to have limited welfare options and will continue to lose their children to adoption.

Everybody has the right to a family, even those seeking to adopt. However, the very first beneficiary of that right must be the parent and the child. According to the Hague Convention, inter country adoption should be the last resort, yet it is often the first. Adoption is so much more complicated than the typical narratives we are familiar with. It is political – women and children deserve protection of their rights as a family and the support of their government in keeping their family together; it is economic – the adoption industry discriminates against the poor in order to continue profiting; it is a women’s rights issue – adoption is a viable option in societies that ostracize unwed, single women and in which the nuclear family model is the only socially acceptable family structure. That is why the work of organizations like ASK – Adoptee Solidarity Korea – is so important. They are an organization made up of Korean adoptees who work to challenge and critique adoption politics and seek to end ICA. They have made real strides in changing the way people approach the topic of adoption and have even influenced the revision of the Korean Adoption Act, a law designed to protect the rights of single mothers and prioritize family preservation.[6] Without the continued work of ASK and other groups, an alternative discourse on adoption would not be possible.

It is important for us all to enter into this discourse if we hope to see full rights for women, children, and families everywhere. It is also important for adopters and adoptees to challenge the system that brought them together. In the words of Laura Klunder, “adoptees can be critical of the adoption industry while being loving and proud members of their adoptive families. Similarly, adopters can also critique the systemic issues with adoption, which privileges them while targeting their adopted son or daughter, and be proud adoptive parents.”[7] To be critical of adoption means being critical of the policies and practices that deny certain groups their rights; it means knowing exactly what you are buying into when you purchase a child. As for Korea, it’s about time that the world’s 13th largest economy stops buying into the same old adoption narrative and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over economic prosperity. It’s about time Korea enters into the new language of adoption politics written and spoken by its very own adoptees.

[1] Single mothers in Korea are defined as women who have been divorced or widowed, as opposed to unwed single mothers who have never been married.

[2] See The Adoption Scapegoats: single moms, (2011), by Jenny Na

[3] However, the United States, Canada and Mexico are both sender and receiver nations of adoptees

[4] Although South Korea is no longer considered a third-world nation, its child export policies began in the 1950’s as a consequence of the poverty caused by the Korean War. This has resulted in over 200,000 inter-country adoptions from South Korea since the 1950s, making it the fourth largest exporter of children after China, Russia and Guatemala.

[5] As of 2011, three Korean children per day were being sent overseas for adoption at a cost of approximately 20,000 USD per child

[6] ASK, in cooperation with their many allies, including other adoptee groups and organizations representing single mothers, succeeded in revising the law.

[7] Laura Klunder, “White Parent Ally”,