History of Adoption and Korean Adoptees in South Korea
The start of adoption in South Korea is usually credited to Harry Holt in 1955. He wanted to help the children of South Korea and so adopted 8 children from South Korea and brought them home. He then created Holt International Children's Services in 1955. Holt created the system since before that point overseas adoption was not common in Korea.
South Korea, then, began formulating the Ministry of Social Affairs for overseas adoption.
The first wave of adopted people from Korea came from usually mixed race children and poverty. Often American military men to Korean women.
In the 1970's and 1980's, the reasons for adoption shifted. Industrialization and urbanization brought about more teen pregnancy and increased divorce rates. The centralization also led to the poverty of many rural areas, which was a contributing factor to adoption. Also it brought about more children who were born out of wedlock. This brought about higher abandonment rates.
Also in the 1970's many adopted people first became adults some chose to also adopt children either from South Korea. Because they became adults, some KADs chose to lobby to make change to Korean adoption and adoption laws.
From 1988, when the Seoul International Olympics Happened, many social issues of South Korea were shown. The wave of journalist articles forced Korea to try to decrease the amount of international adoptions and try to increase domestic adoptions, which has had some mixed success. The number of adoptions has decreased in recent years as more restrictions and rights for women and single mothers are put into place, including banning of proxies.
Not until the 1980s to early 1990's did the South Korean government and South Koreans, both in South Korea and in the diaspora, pay any significant attention to the fates of KADs. The nation was not prepared for the return of their 'lost children.' But the numerous adult KADs who visited Korea as tourists every year, in addition to raised public awareness of the KAD diaspora, forced Korea to face a shameful and largely unknown part of their history. South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung invited 29 adult KADs from 8 countries to a personal meeting in the Blue House in October 1998. During this meeting he publicly apologized for South Korea's inability to raise them.
One factor that helped making KADs visible in the South Korean discourse, was a 1991 film called Susanne Brink's Arirang, based upon the life and experiences of Susanne Brink, an adult KAD from Sweden who said that she suffered abuse and racism in her adoptive home and country. After the movie she became a celebrity in South Korea, and many South Koreans started to feel shame and guilt for the children their country had sent out.
Since then, South Korean media rather frequently reports on the issues regarding international adoption. Most KADs have taken on the citizenship of their adoptive country and no longer have Korean passports. Earlier they had to get a visa like any other foreigner if they wanted to visit or live in South Korea. This only added to the feeling that they were 'not really South Korean'. In May 1999, a group of KADs living in Korea started a signature-collection in order to achieve legal recognition and acceptance (Schuhmacher, 1999). At present (2009) the number of KADs long term residents in South Korea (mainly Seoul) is estimated at approximately 500. It is not unlikely that this number will increase in the following decade (International adoption from South Korea peaked in the mid-1980s). A report from Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L) indicates that the long term returnees (more than one year) are predominantly in their early twenties or early thirties.
The first ever association to be created for and by adult KADs, was the Swedish Adopterade Koreaners Forening (AKF) in 1986. Since then, similar groups have emerged in most Western European countries, various US states and cities, as well as in Canada, Australia and Korea. Before this, most organized events and activities for KADs had been arranged and administered by adoptive parents and Korean immigrants. These arrangements included culture camps and social gatherings, with a main focus on adoptive families and their children.
With the formation of the adult associations, KADs for the first time were gathering with others who shared a common experience, on their own terms and by their own initiative. KADs were making statements both for themselves and towards the public, that they were no longer children, but independent adults with their own unique concerns and issues. Together, these varied groups and associations have tried to raise awareness locally and internationally about KADs' unique position in relation to South Korea and their adoptive countries. In 1995, the first KAD conference was held in Germany; in 1999, conferences were arranged in both the US and South Korea ref name="Hübinette"/>. During the last couple of years, numerous adult KAD conferences and social gatherings in various countries have been arranged, including world gatherings that draw participants from across the globe. In addition, works of KADs have become known both in art, literature and film-making. Other KADs have received celebrity status for other reasons, like Soon-Yi Previn who is married to Woody Allen, actresses Nicole Bilderback, and Jenna Ushkowitz, Washington State Senator Paull Shin, former Slovak rap-artist Daniel Hwan Oostra, and recently, Kristen Kish of Top Chef - Season 10.
Race and national control
Most of the South Korean children adopted internationally, grew up in white, upper or middle class homes. In the beginning adoptive families were often told by agencies and ‘experts’ to assimilate their children and make them as much as possible a part of the new culture, thinking that this would override concerns about ethnic identity and origin. Many KADs grew up not knowing about other children like themselves. This has changed in recent years with social services now encouraging parents and using home studies to encourage propspective adoptive parents to learn about the cultural influences of the country. With such works as "Beyond Culture Camp"  which encourage the teaching of culture, there has been a large shift. Though, these materials may be given, not everyone may take advantage of them. Also, adoption agencies have started to allow the adoption of South Koreans by people of color, and not just white people, including Korean-Americans.
When Korean Adoptees turned into adults, many of them chose to return. These countries include Swedes, Americans, Danes, French, Belgian etc. In this respect the so-called re-Koreanization of the KAD's is often reproduced in South Korean popular media (e.g. the blockbuster 'Kuk'ka Taep'yo/National Representative/Take Off). The 're-Koreanization can be reflected in Korean ethnic based nationalism (both North and South of the 38th parallel). Even in its capacity as a global economy and OECD nation, Korea still sends children abroad for international adoption. The proportion of children leaving Korea for adoption amounted to about 1% of its live births for several years during the 1980s (Kane, 1993); currently, even with a large drop in the Korean birth rate to below 1.2 children per woman and an increasingly wealthy economy, about 0.5% (1 in 200) of Korean children are still sent to other countries every year.
To stem the number of overseas adoptions, the South Korean government introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987. And under the system, the nation reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5% each year, from about 8,000 in 1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015. But in 1998 the government temporarily lifted the restrictions, after the number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of growing economic hardships. Notable is a focused effort of the 2009 South Korean government to seize international adoption out of South Korea (with the establishment of KCare and the domestic Adoption Promotion Law.
For several decades, the South Korean international adoption program provided homes for more orphans per state than any other country in the world. Some South Koreans view adoption as an international shame, but domestic adoption is still rare because it clings to patriarchal bloodlines (Elliott, 2002). Official numbers show that approximately 170,000 Koreans have been adopted by North American, European and Oceanic peoples (Overseas Korean's Foundation), but the actual numbers could be as high as 200,000. It is a curious fact that Scandinavians are much more likely than those of other countries to adopt South Koreans, especially when population in Scandinavian nations is taken into account (see statistics here).
Since adoption from South Korea took off in the 1950s, KADs are still a very young population. Since full assimilation was the leading ideology for parents raising the first generation of KADs, many of the first and second wave of internationally adopted KADs did not become aware of or further explored their South Koreanness until adulthood.
As a result of many internationally adopted KADs growing up in white areas, many of these adoptees avoided avoided other Asians in childhood and adolescence out of an unfamiliarity and/or discomfort with Asian cultures. These KADs sometimes express a desire to be white like their families and peers, and strongly identify with white society. As a result, meeting South Koreans and Korean culture might have been a traumatic experience for some. However, other KADs, often those raised in racially or culturally diverse communities, grew up with ties to the Korean community and identify more strongly with the Korean aspect of their identities.
From the 1990's adoptive families have relied on an expanding network of resources: adoption agency post-adoption services, Korean culture camps, mentoring programs, Korean language programs, and so on to incorporate Korean culture into the adoptive family's life and to build ties for the KAD with other KADs and with Korean Americans from an early age. Many adoptive parents today seem to explicitly recognize the importance of helping the KAD to claim a tie to South Korea and Korean culture, and such families often choose to "adopt" Korean culture into their entire family structure via family trips to South Korea, family, Korean language lessons, etc. Some adoptive parents, however, go to extreme of appropriating the KAD experience, presenting themselves as the 'experts' in the area.
Only recently have adult KADs been able to unite and come together in organized ways in order to claim a space and an identity for themselves, opposed to the original beliefs that they would eventually assimilate and become part of the mainstream adoptive culture. Included in this unification is outreach to younger adoptees, such as volunteering as camp counselors and mentors at Korean culture camps. Many of these initiatives originated from efforts by adoptive parents with younger children, and now have grown into KAD-run enterprises.
In 2007, Asian American filmmaker and Korean American adoptee Joy Dietrich released her first full-length feature film titled Tie a Yellow Ribbon that follows the story of Jenny Mason (Kim Jiang), a Korean adoptee and aspiring photographer as she spends her days are with white friends and colleagues and her nights with white men. She has no contact with her Midwestern family due to a childhood indiscretion with her white brother, Joe (Patrick Heusinger). She rejects any attachment, dumping men as fast as she can pick them up. Yet she longs for a connection that would make her feel at home—a home that she has lost and is forever seeking. The movie aired nationwide on PBS in May, 2008.
In 2010 the South Korean Government legalized dual citizenship for Korean adoptees.
- Kim, Dae-Jung, President Kim Dae Jung's Speech: October 23, 1998 at the Blue House, in Chosen Child, vol 1, no 5, May 1999: 15-16
- Hübinette, Tobias, Korea - adoptionens historia, Um & Yang, 3/1999, accessed 09/11/02
- Meier, Dani Isaac, Loss And Reclaimed Lives: Cultural Identity And Place In Korean-american Intercountry Adoptees, Graduate Thesis, University Of Minnesota, March 1998.
- Jones, Maggie (January 14, 2015). "Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea". The New York Times.
- Jang, J, Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots, Korea Herald, 1998/12/10
- Lee, Claire http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141222001093
- Beckwith, Ryan Teague, Adopting a Culture: Woman's Struggle for a Korean Identity, 2002, accessed 11/11/02
- By Global Overseas Adoptees' Link, Collection of Resources & Scrapbook of G.O.A.'L
- "Dual Citizenship Campaign". Global Overseas Adoptees Link. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
- Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L)
- International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA)
- Asian-Nation: Adopted Korean- and Asian-Americans
- International adoption of South Korean children