Tracing an Unknown Past

Earlier this month, I posted a link to the digital edition of Groove Korea’s September issue. I wrote the cover story on international adoption in Korea, a generation of returning adoptees, and the challenges that single mothers face in the country. I also posted the full transcript of one of the interviews I did for the article, with adoptee Suki Leith. The article is now available online; here is the the full text:

Ham Myung-nan picked up a baby, clothed only in blankets, from the pavement. It was June 16, 1984, and the baby girl was assumed to only be a couple days old. Ham took her to a police box in Mia-dong, Seoul, and she was then placed in a private adoption agency called the Social Welfare Society, adopted to Canada about nine months later and given the name Sarah Ishida.

Growing up, Ishida had no exposure to Korean language or culture. Her parents “just never thought that was important,” she says. She grew up observing Jewish holidays and learned the importance of remembering the Holocaust. For Ishida to revisit her own history, she would need to confront some uncomfortable truths.

It wasn’t until her late 20s that she was ready to look into her past. “There was something blocking me from moving forward in my life,” she says. “(My adoption) was something that I’d never really addressed.” Although she had thought about her biological mother before, it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 when she started thinking more seriously about her adoption and looking for her family.

Ishida began her search by contacting the Canadian public agency that worked with Korea’s SWS. After getting almost no support from them, she contacted Korea Adoption Services, the government’s adoption authority. But with 5,000 miles, a 17-hour time difference and a language barrier between her and Seoul, it would be impossible to continue her search without returning to Korea. “(In the past) I would always deny having a desire to look for my birth family,” she says, but she finally decided “it would be better to be honest and to try.” On Feb. 12, 2012, she packed through the night and got on a plane.

A generation of adoptees

Ishida is part of a generation of adoptees who grew up overseas and are now returning to South Korea each year by the thousands. The 1970s and ‘80s saw the peak of international adoption in Korea, and since this generation has come of age, many have returned to seek answers about their biological parents. But of the approximately 80,000 adoptees who looked for their birth families between 1995 and 2005, less than 3 percent were successful. So why did the remaining 97 percent fail?

Their search for their roots is mired by language barriers, poor record-keeping and fraudulent practices by their adoption agencies. Information was initially controlled by private adoption agencies and birth family searches were not regulated. The government tried to help by revising the adoption law, making these records public property, compiling a central database and giving adoptees free access to their records, but there are still huge gaps in the revised law’s implementation. Adoptees find their biggest hurdle in finding their birth mothers is insufficient post-adoption services.

War and the adoption boom

With more than 200,000 children adopted abroad since 1954, Korea is one of the largest exporters of children in the world. International adoption typically follows a national emergency, and for Korea it was the war: Thousands of mixed-race children were born to American GIs and Korean women, and often ended up abandoned.

President Syngman Rhee considered the orphan boom so dire that he pleaded with the U.N. for help. “We are most anxious to send as many of our orphans to the States as possible,” he wrote to the U.N. ambassador to South Korea in 1954. “In particular, we desire to have adopted those children of Western fathers and Korean mothers who can never hope to make a place for themselves in Korean society. Those children should appeal to Americans even more than Koreans.”

Harry and Bertha Holt, an American couple, responded to a call from World Vision and embarked on a Christian mission to take such children to the U.S., far from the discrimination the youths faced in Korea. After successfully lobbying for a change in U.S. law, the Holts adopted eight mixed-race Korean children, eventually setting up an international agency in 1956 that sparked momentum for the first wave of adoption. In the meantime, the Korean government formalized a system for adoption, enacting the Orphan Adoption Special Law to facilitate international adoption in 1961 as an alternative to costly institutional care. Between 1964 and 1972, four agencies including Holt imported some 6,000 children.

Initially, 90 percent of all adoptions involved mixed-race children, but by 1970 most adoptees were entirely Korean in ancestry. Rather than being orphans, the vast majority were children of unwed mothers. The government helped fund private maternity homes and adoption agencies to address child welfare problems, but a vicious cycle began: The lack of welfare prompted some to give up their children, while international adoption hindered the development of an adequate social welfare system.

Even decades after the war when many mixed-race babies had been swept to the U.S., demand for Holt’s services remained high. They placed children in the U.S. as quickly as 3–6 months by 1983, which appealed to U.S. couples who hoped to avoid the lengthy wait for an American child. By 1985, the country was sending more adoptees abroad than any other in the world.

Despite becoming a model for international adoption, Korea falls short of some of the international standards for ethical adoption. According to a U.N. treaty on intercountry adoption, a child must be registered immediately after birth and has the right from birth to a name, to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

South Korea remains one of only two OECD countries that have not yet ratified the treaty. The country took one step toward subscribing to the convention by revising its adoption law in 2012 to promote the preservation of biological families by granting more rights to single mothers and making birth registration mandatory. In addition, the law requires that Korea Adoption Services act as a central authority overseeing adoption policy and practice. KAS is also required to prioritize family preservation and domestic adoption before turning to intercountry adoption, which can only be used as a last resort. Despite the government’s push toward domestic adoption, local numbers remain well below international rates.

Adoptee nation

Since the 1990s, an influx of adoptees have returned to their home country as grownups in search of answers. For most adoptees, their return is a temporary visit on one of the many “homeland tours” offered by adoption agencies, adoptee organizations or private companies. Others, like Ishida, choose to live in Korea for a longer period, but often struggle with adapting to Korean life and reconciling their individual and national identity with their Korean roots.

Before leaving Canada, Ishida hoped to rediscover certain aspects of Korean culture. “I wanted to have a certain level of Koreanness,” she recalls, but “didn’t realize how hard it is to be Korean.” Most of the time she feels that she is “just a visitor in someone else’s country,” but still refers to herself as Korean at times. “I’m Korean in Canada, but I’m not Korean in Korea,” she explains. While her race is noteworthy in Canada, it is only one of the many requirements for fitting the “Korean” identity.

“To be considered Korean by Korean nationals,” says Ishida, “you need to be a full-blooded Korean, live in Korea for more than 20 years, have family here that you actually know and interact with who are full-blooded Koreans, speak the language fluently and plan on living here for the rest of your life while following the social norms.” Considering this, she feels she will never be considered Korean. “I don’t know why it took me a long time to come to this realization. … People still call me ‘foreigner’ all the time.”

Adoptee Laura Wachs grew up in Seattle in a white, middle-class family. Korean culture played no role in her life, which is why she came to Seoul in June. “That’s why this trip is such a big deal,” she says. “I know nothing about Korean culture and I’m afraid of the ignorance that exists in my life due to that.

“To be honest, I was embarrassed about my Korean heritage for a long time. I think growing up in a predominantly white and privileged society made me think I was better than my culture,” she adds. “I’m realizing how proud I am of being Korean, and what an honor it is to learn and be a part of these two different worlds.”

Leanne (Suki) Leith, raised in the U.S., returned to Korea in 2009 and stayed for four years. “I came to get a glimpse of the country I came from but knew nothing about,” she says. Having grown up in the Midwest, Leith, like Ishida and Wachs, knew little about Korea while growing up. Parents of that generation were advised to assimilate their children into Western culture, a marked change from the parents of today, who are increasingly teaching them to embrace their ethnic and racial heritage.

One of the greatest obstacles adoptees face is their inability to speak Korean. “We are trying to explain something extremely complicated to people, yet (we’re) handicapped without the tools for communication — all while trying to grapple with feelings of rejection and trying to identify with the people who were agents (or victims) of a difficult history, so we can make peace,” says Leith.

Leith thinks Koreans are sometimes hesitant to accept adoptees because they don’t know how to categorize them. “Our presence can bring to the surface conflicted feelings about public pasts and private events which were traumatic for them — feelings most have worked hard at repressing,” she says. “Koreans sometimes feel a lot of guilt over our involuntary exile, as they continue to send babies away for adoption as a method of saving social status after moral transgressions.” Leith says this can be very alienating. “Many visiting adoptees are in the midst of a really harrowing existential identity exploration.”

Like many adoptees, Ishida is not comfortable with her identity. “I didn’t have an identity, but they gave it to me at an orphanage,” she says, referring to her first arrival as a nameless infant. Ishida’s adoptive mother gave her a biblical first name and she inherited her Japanese father’s family name. Her name is both Western and Eastern, which continually raises questions about her ethnicity and nationality. “I have nothing else to call myself since my Korean name was given to me by a nameless, faceless social worker,” she says.

Searches around the globe

Before regulations were strengthened, agencies’ speedy adoptions assumed that the children would never return to search as adults, and that the relinquished children would be forgotten. In consequence, contact between child and parent years later is often impossible. If the child was abandoned, as is presumed in Ishida and Leith’s cases, searches are even more difficult.

Adoptees outside of Korea usually begin their search by contacting the local branch of their adoption agency. These private companies often charge high fees for the release of any documents. When Wachs reached out to Catholic Community Services, “they wanted to charge me over $300 to try and get ‘potential’ information,” she says.

Leith has seen many adoptees get charged hundreds of dollars to access photocopies of their files which, for the most part, contain only the documents needed to make them legally adoptable in the country they were sent to. “So even if you pay money to your local adoption agency, you might not get all of your records,” she says, noting that international agencies don’t always hold all the documents because they are merely distributors for the state-supported agencies that are licensed to facilitate international adoptions.

Holt has admitted that its birth searches, especially those made from outside the country, were difficult because Holt International Children’s Services and Holt Children’s Services of Korea (Holt-Korea) are separate organizations. “The Ministry of Health and Welfare grants money to the major adoption agencies for post-adoption services, so those agencies are bound to follow the mandate to provide affordable access to adoption records,” it says, describing such adoption agencies as brokers in the adoption process. “The children they send to foreign countries are often passed on through smaller, local adoption agencies. And those agencies are located in many different countries, provinces and states — each with their own laws about records access — and none of those lesser adoption agencies have to follow Korean law about post-adoption services and won’t, because they aren’t being subsidized.”

Negotiating the barriers

When adoptees come to Korea to continue their search, it does not necessarily speed up or simplify the process. In her four years in Korea, Leith did not find her birth family. After encountering huge difficulties when trying to obtain information from her agency, Holt, she began investigating the laws and policies on record-keeping and eventually founded an international advocacy group, Korean Adoptees for Fair Records Access, which she describes as a platform to share knowledge about how to access records.

She said she became an activist after Holt withheld information from her file. “I was disgusted with the maze we adoptees must maneuver through to receive the little history about ourselves that exists in their possession, and that international adoption continues over a half century beyond its inception.”

Many adoptees have become activists to combat the systems that they believe are keeping them from accessing their records. “Almost all of the adoptees (in Korea) are interested in expanding access and tools to assist their searches, fair and accurate media portrayals of their population which promote their humanity and improving Korean society’s reception and valuation of them,” she says. Now there are a number of adoptee-run NGOs, advocacy groups and activist organizations that are instrumental in law and policy change.

Shannon Heit, an adoptee who works with the Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association, sees Korean adoptees as a diaspora returning to address the ills of Korea’s past. She and other activists have joined hands with unwed mothers’ groups to stop what she calls a legacy of loss. Positive aspects of adoption are emphasized in the public, but Heit argues, “No matter what ‘positive’ things we have gained from our adoptions, we have all lost our families and our cultural heritage.”

Ishida came to Korea in part because she felt the need to communicate with KAS and her agency in person. However, she found their English services were sorely lacking. “I can’t do anything without a Korean-speaking person,” she says in frustration. The glaring language errors on the KAS website are indicative of their inability to communicate effectively with international adoptees. What’s more, the English and Korean websites are different, says Jane Jeong Trenka, founder of adoptee group Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK). “KAS does not translate English-language requests from adoptees into Korean on its website.” According to KAS post-adoption services social worker Sara Yun, just four staff members are able to speak English. Birth family searches are even more difficult for non-English-speaking adoptees. There is almost no support in European languages, apart from KAS’ sole French-speaking volunteer.

The agencies are similarly lacking. As in many cases, the institution Ishida visited had both English and Korean versions of her records, but she found inconsistencies between the two: “Some documents are not translated to English and few are sent to the adoptive agencies abroad. The Korean documents are the most important,” she says.

Off the record

Beyond the language barrier, getting access to adoption files is still difficult. Records are not owned or held solely by the government, and until recently, they were considered the private property of adoption agencies. The aforementioned revisions to the Special Adoption Law were intended to address this, with KAS being mandated as the governing authority for post-adoption services and tasked with compiling the central database of all adoption records.

At present there is only one social worker at KAS who deals with birth-family searches — Sara Yun. “I am also in charge of building networks with overseas adoptees and adoptee associations, and other related organizations. I sometimes help overseas adoptees with translation as well,” she says. Due to the hundreds of adoptees searching for their birth parents each year, an average day for her is extremely busy. “I take requests and queries from adoptees regarding birth family search via email, (in person) and on the phone and respond to them. I am also working on organizing and managing our special events.”

But there is no set deadline to complete the transfer of records to KAS, and no additional funds or staff have been allocated to this task. Adoption agencies still hold most information. “KAS is merely a router,” says Leith. The organization is meant to petition the agencies for any information, but she says their services are inconsistent. Agencies are required by law to provide adoptees with all the information in their file, apart from the name and address of their birth family, yet are not held accountable. “The Ministry of Health and Welfare and KAS are unwilling to force the agencies to uphold their obligations under law, citing their lack of budget, lack of manpower or lack of authority,” says Trenka.

After KAS failed to help Ishida, she went directly to her adoption agency for her file. “I went back three times to get my documents and every time the documents changed,” she says. “KAS said the reason my file keeps on changing is because of the Special Adoption Law. There was no further explanation.” The law states that KAS can request information from public organizations and adoption agencies as needed, and these agencies are obligated to comply. According to this, she says she should have been given all the information in her file. “I think (KAS) uses the Special Adoption Law as a way to cover inconsistencies in their files and record keeping,” says Ishida.

Hanna Johansson, a Swedish adoptee, had a similar experience. “This is my fourth trip back to Korea and every time I come back here, I get more information,” she says. “When I visited SWS in 2010, they showed me all my adoption papers, my whole adoption file.” But when she returned in 2013, she was told that because of the Special Adoption Law, she could not access the same file. Without the help of nonprofit agencies, Johansson couldn’t have found out further information. “It’s sad that adoptees who want to reunite have to depend on volunteer work,” she says.

After years of struggling to gain access to her records, in 2010 Johansson was finally able to visit the address where she was abandoned. “SWS has had this address since 1976 but only revealed it to me in 2010,” she says. In 2013, she met the policeman who found her (his name had also been withheld until then), and she also managed to contact a distant relative with a DNA match. “Even though we are sixth cousins, she is the first blood relative I have ever met.”

The inconsistency in record-keeping, along with the falsified records, is another stumbling block for adoptees. Many countries require certain paperwork in order for a child to be eligible for adoption, such as proof that the child is an orphan. As most adoptees are not orphans, this paperwork was often invented by adoption agencies.

This was the case for Laura Klunder, who works with KoRoot and Adoptee Solidarity Korea. “Rather than being documented at birth as a member of my family, I was documented by a social worker as an orphan with no parents,” she explains. This can make tracing birth families very difficult.

In addition, the births of adoptees tended to go unregistered because, until recently, birth registration was legally required but not enforced. Had the births of all adoptees been registered in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the success rate of birth family searches would undoubtedly be higher, says Klunder. “For many adoptees, birth registration is fundamental to the success of our search process because at the very least, it records our date of birth. Many adoptees don’t even know their birthdays, and therefore cannot even begin the search for their first family.”

Wachs returned to Korea this year for the first time to find that her records were falsified. She initially thought her search was going well, as ESWS had a record containing her biological parents’ full names, date and city of birth, how many people were in her family and even descriptions of their personality. But before leaving for Korea, she received devastating news. “KAS found my mother left a fake ID and they have no info on her. In talking with other adoptees, I learned that many mothers made false identities to protect themselves.”

Making contact

If all documents are in order and there is identifying information in the adoption records, KAS is obligated to contact the birth family to request the release of such information. Even so close to the answers, the search often ends in failure.

“Although we succeed in locating birth parents,” says Yun, “there are lots of cases in which the birth parents do not respond.” Yun says that is the most difficult part of her job. “I feel frustrated when I am not able to locate birth parents and when birth parents don’t respond to the mail that I sent for getting their consent (to release personal information). It is very difficult for me to tell adoptees about the result.”

KAS’ official means of communication is by telegram, which is sent to the listed address citing only the adoptee’s foreign name. This can result in a very confusing message.

Without consent from the birth family, KAS cannot legally give the adoptee the birth mother’s name or address. “There are also some difficulties in how to balance between the rights of adoptees to their roots and the rights of birth parents to their privacy,” says Yun. Heit of KUMFA argues that this doesn’t respect adoptees’ rights. “I personally think that an adoptee has a right to all of their information,” she says.

Even today, there is no system for confirming the receipt of these letters.

Adoptees see the biggest problem with the Special Adoption Law as being the lack of implementation. “The law is already good, but they are just not implementing it,” says Trenka. “Sometimes there really isn’t much information (on record). Technically, according to the law, this real lack of original information in some cases should be the only stumbling block now.” Little has changed since 2012, as the ministry claims to be under-budgeted, Trenka says.

KAS may be struggling due to a lack of funding, but adoption agencies are still subsidized by the government. So while the government has promised to prioritize post-adoption services, for many this has amounted to lip service. “The Ministry of Health and Welfare created KAS and all its predecessors, and post-adoption services in general, as a public edifice to say to say they are accommodating adoption-related concerns,” Leith says.

The last resort

Adoptees who have left KAS and the agencies empty-handed often turn to the mass media. Ishida appeared on a TV show early this year, a last resort for many adoptees who endure being a form of entertainment in the hopes that it will aid their search. According to KBS, the success rate of those who go on TV is about 50 percent, which makes it a better option than relying on KAS.

Last year Ishida organized events to put up “Missing” posters bearing her face and Korean name, in the neighborhood where she was abandoned. Although she thinks it’s “highly ineffective,” she wanted to take control of her search. “And it really was cathartic,” she says.

Ishida left Korea early this year, and has stopped actively searching for her mother. Although she found the search painful and at times embarrassing, she exhausted all options. “I took action and I tried. That’s my result.”

More info
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Ham Myung Nan (‘貲陪), or with any information that may aid Sarah Ishida, Suki Leith, Hanna Johansson or Laura Wachs in their searches can contact the editors of Groove Korea.
Local groups for adoptee and single mothers rights and services

Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A.’L)


Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK)

Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK)

Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association

This article was originally published in Groove Korea magazine

One response to “Tracing an Unknown Past

  1. Pingback: A silent sacrifice for Korea’s single moms; a human cost for all | The Culture Muncher·

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