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

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Reframing Reunification

By Stephanie Park

I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Korea’s division into North and South; but I do remember the immediate conviction I felt that the two should be reunified. I didn’t know much about the South, and even less about the North, but my childhood self was convinced it needed to happen. Perhaps, I perceived a desire, unspoken but felt, of my grandparents to return to the provinces where they were born. Perhaps I was simply parroting the idea that Koreans were one people, and should therefore be one nation as well[1]. Or perhaps I just liked the idea of a happy ending. Regardless, before I became serious about critically examining Korean politics, reunification was the one topic I had any opinion on.

It was thus disorienting when after the ISC’s June program on reunification, I found myself more confused about the issue of reunification than I had ever felt before. Addressing reunification is impossible without addressing the matter of “the world’s most isolated country[2].” While I’m no expert on North Korea, like countless others I had always assumed that there were certain things I could simply take for granted: for example, that the North was responsible for the Korean War, that it brainwashed its citizens into worshipping Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and that the country was hell-bent on building up its nuclear weapons program to threaten the US and South Korea. Volunteering with North Korean defectors gave me an additional perspective, one that focused on the scarcity of food and resources and painted the situation in North Korea as a human rights issue. I was therefore taken aback by the attitudes of the South Korean activists that we met and their attitude towards the North, which was more nuanced and challenged me to critically examine everything I’d ever thought about the country. As I investigated the issue further, I began to realize how little I knew of the forces that shaped the North Korea that we (think we) know, how deeply and completely my and others’ understanding of North Korea has been shaped by American neoliberalist motives, and above all, that a paradigm shift is necessary to achieving a reunification that truly achieves peace and justice on the peninsula.

As I delved into Korean history to seek answers, I found that to discuss reunification necessitates discussion not only of North Korea, or even the Korean War, but of Japanese colonialism. In a way, the conflict between North and South reflects the still-unresolved conflict between Koreans themselves during the occupation between those who resisted and those who collaborated. The current power hierarchies of both countries reflect that, with the Kim family and other guerilla fighters at the helm in the North, and collaborators who stayed in power through US intervention in charge the South. The unresolved trauma of Japanese colonialism was so central to Korean politics at the time that, in the opinion of historian Bruce Cumings, “a civil conflict purely among Koreans [emphasis added] might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division and foreign intervention. [3]” Yet, such a resolution was never to be, as Korea was divided arbitrarily by the American military and summarily offered to the USSR as a preemptive compromise in the Cold War conflict. Korea’s division was something I had simply accepted as a child, but revisiting it now, I am struck by the arrogance of dividing another people’s country without any thought to those that inhabit. Yet, this act shows that, from the very beginning, America’s treatment of Korea’s was never that of equals, but as a pawn to be sacrificed to further US interests. Similarly, I had always thought of the Korean War as the fault of a blood-thirsty North; yet if we contextualize the war as a civil conflict in the wake of division by more powerful countries compounded by the lack of resolution of the injustices from Japanese colonialism, it becomes clear that civil wars do not start, they come. [4] If we examine history, it is clear that both Kim Il Sung and Synghman Rhee desired war to reunify the country. Yet, despite its civil origins, once the war began there were just as many atrocities committed by the US against Koreans than between Koreans themselves, including the massive use of chemical weapons, systematic burning of villages, and destruction of dams affecting 75% of North Korea’s food supply[5]. Perhaps most tragically, the bloodshed proved to be for nothing, as the war ended in an armistice, leaving both Koreas in a state of war to this day. As a kid, I’d grown up with the narrative of MacArthur sailing into Incheon to “save” the Korean peninsula, but given his support (and even advocation) of bombing the North in the name of procuring military victory, it’s clear that the US’ presence brought more death and destruction than it ever brought peace.

Of course, when we think about North Korea today, it is usually with regards to its nuclearization. The imagery of North Korea as a crazed weapons-stockpiling nation that could go berserk at any moment is one that dominates both mainstream media and my family; yet, a critical examination reveals that North Korea’s developments have largely aligned with the desire to either a) exercise self-sovereignty, or b) react defensively to US actions. For example, much was made in 1993 of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – but how many people knew that it was due to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s demands to carry out “‘special inspections’” in North Korea, ones which could be utilized to gather intelligence for the United States (a violation of the IAEA’s own mandates)? Similarly, while I had always agreed with the US’ mandate that North Korea de-nuclearize, upon further investigation, I realized how the US has utilized a denuclearized North Korea as a tool to push for unrestricted access to North Korean information, essentially holding peace in the peninsula hostage[6]. Aside from being hypocritical,[7] it’s also a clear violation of any country’s basic right to sovereignty and attempt to subordinate North Korea.

Of course, the fact that such information rarely comes to light is indicative of just how successful American media has been at naturalizing its own stance, and delegitimizing the North Korean perspective, to the point that even those interested in international solidarity continue to see North Korea as simply “that crazy country.” Yet, for all the focus on North Korean propaganda, we fail to see how deeply ensnared we are in our own. We call North Korea “ ‘crazy’ ” – but is it any crazier than a nation that claims to value justice and equality for all, while actively punishing a country whose actions are in the name of self-determination?  Is it any crazier than a country that decries the human rights violations in North Korea, yet implements sanctions and refuses to provide aide and is thus directly responsible for these problems in the first place?

I am still struggling to develop my own understanding of reunification and North Korea while holding the contradictions that have developed and that sometimes seem to pull me in opposing directions. How do I honor my grandparents’ history (and thus, my own) while also challenging it? How can I have admiration for the North Korean defectors I have met for their courage, and respect the hardships they have endured, while also not falling into the trap of praising them simply because they defected and contributing to their use as political tools of the US and South Korea? And how can I have an understanding of North Korea and reunification that is critical yet hopeful? I confess that I don’t have an answer to these questions yet. However, one thing I do know is that, as an American, I recognize the burden we bear as citizens of a country who has wronged the Korean people, North and South, and promise to do what I can to contribute towards restoring peace and unity on the peninsula in a way that has the Korean people at heart.

[1] See: Minjok ideology. According to Luc Walhain in “Transcending Minjok: How Redefining Nation Paved the Way to Korean Democratization,” “while the original meaning of “jok” in minjok was “tribe” sharing a common ancestor, “jok” is now more generally used to designate a race, or ethnic group, e.g. “mong-jok,” meaning Mongolian race. When “jok” is combined with “min.” (people), as in “minjok,” the word becomes loaded with a heavily racial character. It refers to the Korean “nation,” but puts a strong emphasis on the Korean people’s sharing of common blood and a common ancestor, Tan’gun. It is an emotionally loaded term which has been used with great effect to call for the Korean people’s absolute and unconditional love and loyalty for the nation.” (http://studiesonasia.illinoisstate.edu/seriesIII/Vol%204%20No%202/s3v4n2_Walheim.pdf)

[2] http://www.worldpolicy.org/sites/default/files/uploaded/image/Spring13_22-23_Anatomy(1)_1.pdf

[3] Bruce Cumings, “The Korean War.” (http://books.google.co.kr/books?id=lY5-7ZirsmgC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=a+civil+conflict+purely+among+Koreans++might+have+resolved+the+extraordinary+tensions+generated+by+colonialism,+national+division+and+foreign+intervention&source=bl&ots=7GcXcT3n2n&sig=HGA7wUHvb_ogbldGv3taXJGFvLs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=v_ASVIn_AcK58gWy3ICQDw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=a%20civil%20conflict%20purely%20among%20Koreans%20%20might%20have%20resolved%20the%20extraordinary%20tensions%20generated%20by%20colonialism%2C%20national%20division%20and%20foreign%20intervention&f=false)

[4] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[5] Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun.

[6] See: Korea Policy Institute’s “The Case for a Peace Treaty to End the Korean War” (https://solidaritystorieskr.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/caseforapeacetreaty.pdf).

[7] The last time the US divulged that kind of information was due to Edward Snowden, and there’s a reason he’s still in Russia.

ISC Research Paper: U.S. Government Shutdown

Recently, the US federal government shutdown has made a great splash in international news. And while the shutdown was ended by a last minute deal between the Republicans and Democrats on October 16th, this issue is not resolved and hasn’t just been postponed to January 15th 2014. At that time, the same issues are likely to arise again as the Republicans attempt to re-open debate on Obama’s Affordable Care Act and larger fiscal issues.

This research paper explains the background of the shutdown, its domestic and international impacts and what’s next for the U.S. government.

Download the PDF here.

 

International Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula

By Taryn Assaf

For Peace

For Peace

On Friday, July 26th 2013, the ISC team participated in the International Symposium on Concluding a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula held at the Seoul Women’s Plaza, organized by the People’s Movement for Opposing War and Achieving Peace. The conference was attended by a number of scholars, journalists, politicians and activists from Korea, Canada, Japan, the United States and China, as well as a number of veterans of the Korean peace movement, some of whom had spent over 30 years as political prisoners. The conference addressed key issues on the topic of peace on the Peninsula and reunification of the two Koreas. Speakers investigated the “threat” of North Korea, obstacles to peace (including United States militarism and imperialism, state nationalism, and the relationships between the countries of Northeast Asia) and recommendations for peace (including reunification, normalization of relations between the two Koreas, denuclearization of Northeast Asia, and independence from the United States).

The special session, “US Hegemony and the Globalization of War” was presented by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor at

Michel Chossudovsky speaking on US hegemony and the globalization of war

Michel Chossudovsky speaking on US hegemony and the globalization of war

Ottawa University, an international authority on anti-globalization issues and leader in the pro-peace movement. His talk focused on the role of the US in blocking peace on the Korean Peninsula, arguing that the US has formed a neo-colonial relationship with South Korea through direct military control and indirect political control. He argued that the US-ROK alliance is not an alliance at all, rather, South Korea is under US military occupation. On the issue of denuclearization, Chossudovsky questioned “who the real threat is” to peace. He examined this in the context of North Korea’s relationship to the US, and concluded that the real threat is the US, who is unwilling to show any sort of reciprocity on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Faced with a hostile policy from the US — the number one global nuclear power with over 2000 deployed nuclear weapons currently targeted at various countries– Chossudovsky claimed that North Korea has good reason not to want to denuclearize, and that the US must take the first steps to denuclearization of the peninsula. Thus, an integral part of realizing peace on the Peninsula involves significant action on the part of the United States in ending its hostile policies and asymmetrical standpoint on the issue of nuclear disarmament toward North Korea. Chossudovsky further concluded that peace talks must encompass a repeal of the basic command structure of the military (in which the US military has de facto control of the Korean military), retreat of the 37,000 US troops in the South, and US nuclear disarmament- this would lead to military and economic liberation in the South and are preconditions for a peace treaty.

The speakers of the first session, “Ending the Armistice Agreement with a Peace Treaty in the Korean Peninsula”, included

Activists from Osaka pose in solidarity with members of the International Peace March group

Activists from Osaka pose in solidarity with members of the International Peace March group

Gregory Elich, author and anti-war activist from the United States; Lei Xiong, Professor at Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Renmin University of China (People’s University of China); Ryoichi Hattori, Member of Japan’s House of Representatives (Social Democratic Party); Gyungsoon Park, South Korean author and Vice-president of the Progressive Policy Research Institute; and Ik-pyo Hong, Member of the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly (Democratic Unified Party). Speakers analyzed the inter-relatedness of the countries in Northeast Asia and argued that a precondition for peace on the Korean Peninsula included improved relations between China, Japan and Korea and a nuclear free East Asia. For instance, Mr. Hattori spoke of the importance of a denuclearized Japan, stating that after World War 2, Japan reformed its constitution to give up wars and nuclear weapons forever. The Korean War, however, provided a reason for Japan to re-militarize and to be used as an anti-communist outpost for the US. Currently, the Abe government is seeking to repeal the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons reforms and further re-militarize the country. He stated that no country can justify peace by militarism and that no peace can be achieved by the production of war machines, such as nuclear weapons. The re-nuclearization and re-militarization of Japan would thus be an obstacle to peace for the region. Speakers also investigated whether peace is possible without reunification, what the obstacles to this process include and how to best overcome them. Several speakers mentioned the value of creating a safe space for a grassroots path to peace pioneered by civic and citizens groups and the importance of protecting individual ideas from repression under the banners of nationalism and state.

The speakers of the second session, “Joint Action for Peace in Northeast Asia”, included Kenju Watanabe of Japan, President of the South Korea-Japan People’s Solidarity Network and permanent board member of the Japanese Committee for Asia-Africa People’s Solidarity; Tim Shorrock, an American author, journalist and member of the Working Group for Peace

Speakers from the second session

Speakers from the second session

and De-militarization in Asia-Pacific Region; Jejun Joo, Policy Chair of the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements; and Byong-ryul Min, member of Unified Progressive Party’s supreme council and founding member of the Democratic Labor Party. This session addressed how concerted actions can promote peace in the region. For example, Tim Shorrock noted the large-scale ignorance of the United States public on the issue of peace and re-unification even among leading progressive groups. He urged those in attendance to help each other educate Americans about the truth of Korean history and current affairs as they relate to peace and reunification from a Korean perspective. He labeled this as a precondition for peace, stating that the fanaticism constructed by the American media toward North Korea prevents popular support for the country and, in the minds of Americans, legitimizes United States military presence in the South, further securing the US geopolitical agenda in the region. Increasing education would likely decrease the fanaticism directed towards the North among the American general public and would create international solidarity in Korea’s quest for peace and reunification. This session demonstrated that the task of establishing peace on the peninsula extends beyond the borders of Korea- it is an issue that affects the world over, especially one characterized by a globalized economy and increasing global relationships.

Peace in Korea and in Northeast Asia is a complicated issue involving many parties, many conditions and many potential obstacles. It may not be an issue quickly resolved, but it is encouraging and hopeful to know that so many people are aligned in its recognition and are so tirelessly working for its realization. Conferences such as these are necessary steps in initiating and engaging in constructive dialogue targeted towards constructive goals. These dialogues, actions and initiatives help to build solidarity in the cause and are integral to peace and reunification in Korea.

Where is your face? Swan Song political project

While in Gwangju on the weekend of May 18, members of the media team were lucky to meet artist Swan Song. Song shared her artistic political project with the team, which proved to be extremely interesting. The project was simple, the symbolism profound. Throughout different times during the May 18 weekend in Gwangju, a weekend dedicated to commemorating the tragic and brutal uprising that happened there in 1980 against the military government, Song asked people at various commemorative events, such as the May 18 official remembrance ceremony and the May 18 festival, to pose with an umbrella featuring the faces of Pak Geun-Hye, the country’s president, and Barack Obama. Beginning in May, 1980, the uprising was a catalyst for much of the present anti-American sentiment present in Korea, when people began connecting the role of the United States to the bloody massacre of Gwangju citizens and questioning the purpose of United States presence in the country. Thus the symbolism of this project is particularly strong, questioning current political and economic alliances within the context of the Gwangju Uprising and the conditions of anti-Americanism tied to this time.

About her project, Swan has said:

“I have met a variety of people. Some people just pass me by, others have a special meaning to me. I take a photo of acquaintances with a painted umbrella. They are holding the umbrella with faces on the outside, looking at me. I gaze at you but I’m not sure who you are. I can’t guess your age, race, feeling or status. Do you show us your own face in a world where the law of the jungle prevails? No, before that, have you become conscious of your innate ego? I’m going to go through the slow hard process of throwing my umbrella away.”Swan Song

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Swan Song

To see the full project, click here

Thank you to Ms. Song for sharing her work with the ISC.

Remembering Gwangju

The month of May marks the anniversary of the brutal and bloody uprising in Korea’s southeastern city of Gwangju.  Mid May, 1980, hundreds of thousands of students and citizens across Korea took to the streets to denounce military intervention in Korean politics. In Gwangju alone, demonstrators were met with severe and brutal military force -hundreds died and thousands more were injured.  The media team will be traveling to Gwangju on the weekend of May 17-18 to participate in events commemorating the uprising- including a remembrance ceremony, a people’s gathering and various cultural events- in our effort to learn more about the history and politics of the uprising, the ways in which the legacy of the uprising currently shapes the politics of the region, and to connect with community members dedicated to the ongoing fight for democracy.

In May 2012, the team traveled to Gwangju and spoke with activist Lee Shin, a man who has dedicated his life to educating others about the true nature of the uprising, including the events that led up to it, unfolded after it and the role of the United States. His accounts are both incredibly chilling and powerfully inspiring, and shed light on the immense strength, bravery and resilience of a people. His words teach an important lesson- that remembering Gwangju involves more than just a remembrance. To remember Gwangju is to embody it; to hold its spirit in each of us as democracy continues to unfold on the Korean peninsula and around the world.

Lee Shin, activist, stands beside the grave of a man tortured to death for writing a book exposing the truth about the Gwangju uprising, a man from who he draws personal strength.

Lee Shin, activist, stands beside the grave of a man tortured to death for writing a book exposing the truth about the Gwangju uprising, a man from who he draws personal strength.

Below are the links to the full talk, in two parts, in both English and Korean. We will follow up with more comprehensive articles about the events taking place for 2013.

Lee Shin Part 1

Lee Shin Part 2