By Jenny Na, South Korean adoptee
Hundreds of adoptees are in Seoul this week for what is expected to be the largest gathering of South Korean adoptees in history, with over 700 adoptees from around the world predicted to attend the week-long event. The aim of the Gathering is to bring together the global community of South Korean adoptees, who represent diverse nationalities, languages and viewpoints. Some of the Gathering’s activities include an art exhibition, presentations and workshops by adoptees, a research conference and an Adoptee World Cup played by teams representing the countries of adoptees’ current residence. The people who sent us away never expected us to return but so we have and our numbers increase every year.
Because of the significance and size of such an event, it is inevitable that the South Korean government and media will both be present. I hope that these two entities will be responsible with their words and actions. However, given the government’s policy on intercountry adoption, or lack thereof, and past media depictions of adoptees as alternatively successful or childlike, it is hard not to be skeptical.
The opening ceremony on Wednesday will likely involve a government representative from the Ministry of Health and Welfare giving a welcome address. As we sit politely in our best clothes, the perfect pictures of the success that the South Korean media seem to want us to be, it is not impossible to imagine that the government representative will say “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” This seems to be the requisite speech to adoptees as it is given whenever we gather in such large numbers. But for whom are these words meant and what is it that prevents them from being just another series of empty words?
The South Korean government, adoption agencies and social welfare organizations that directly benefit from the lucrative industry upon which intercountry adoption continues to thrive, admit no wrongdoing when discussing adoption. To them it is an unfortunate but avoidable situation. They try to minimalize and dismiss the trauma of intercountry adoption by pointing to the success of adoptees who have adjusted to life overseas. But if nothing were wrong, would there really be a need to apologize?
Intercountry adoption began in the aftermath of the Korean War, yet continues in South Korea today as an industry that encourages families to be divided, rather than giving them the option of staying together. The separation of over 200,000 South Korean children from their families since the end of the Korean War can largely be attributed to the fact that over 99% of the children sent abroad are the children of single mothers in their teens and early 20s. By supporting intercountry adoption, the South Korean government has quietly condoned the social discrimination that often robs these underprivileged and disempowered young women of the confidence and desire to raise their own children. Furthermore, the government benefits financially not only from the profits of the intercountry adoption industry, but also by the billions of dollars it saves by not providing for the basic social welfare of its citizens.
Surprising or not, the issue is not new in South Korea. South Korean people have called for its discontinuance since 1979, but the system has prevailed, and the right to keep one’s family together has become more like a privilege reserved only for certain social classes. The society which prides itself on family values seems to care more for its own economic standing than for the lives of the people in its own underprivileged classes.
The media will seize upon this gathering of adoptees as though stumbling upon our existence for the first time, though our presence should come as no surprise to those who have written about and recorded our return since the 1960s. There is such a diverse range of adoptee experiences that it is impossible to name them all, but most South Koreans are unaware of the richness to be found because the South Korean media generally prefers portrayals of crying adoptees and adoptee exuberance tinged with nationalistic pride. This week, the media will likely focus their stories on how much kimchi we can eat or how Korean we feel, as if the answers can help society to determine just how Korean we really are. If we like kimchi, we will be embraced as Korean, but because we have overcome financial and cultural barriers in order to return to South Korea it will be assumed that we have succeeded in living in two worlds. What will be missing is an in-depth examination of the issues involved or questions about why we were sent away in the first place.
The issues that keep South Korea firmly in place as the fourth largest exporter of children in the world, after China, Russia and Guatemala, are complex: insufficient social welfare; the social stigma against unwed mothers, single-parent and adoptive families and their children; lack of women’s rights; absence of counseling that is free from coercion and adoption agency involvement; lack of access to family planning services; child support laws for fathers which are not enforced; lack of alternative methods of care for children and families; the cost of intercountry adoption versus that of domestic; and western demand for infants are just a few.
The loss of culture, language and family is something adoptees will never be able to fully reclaim. For birth mothers and families, there can be no replacement for the loss of a child. Could you imagine sending your family member away? Could you imagine asking your mother, your sister, your aunt, your friend to do the same? And yet it continues.
It would be unrealistic to expect the government to speak about these things in its address at Wednesday’s opening ceremony. And most likely, the media will not seek to cover the events with any enthusiasm for uncovering the truth of who adoptees are, or why six children are still sent out of the country every day. Instead, we will most likely see more adoptees eating kimchi or holding the taegeukgi or taegukgi. Sorrow, loss and the separation of children from their birth families are not sexy news stories for a country that wants to pretend that nothing is wrong.
When will the government begin to protect Korean children and their families from being torn apart through adoption? As Korea can afford to send humanitarian aid to foreign countries, and court the international community as the 13th largest economy in the world, it is also time to stop this outdated and unnecessary practice, make changes in the economic priorities of the nation, redefine the meaning of family to include single mothers and their children and turn its apologies into actions that will benefit all Korean people.
The writer, Jenny Na, is a Korean adoptee and a member of Adoptee Solidarity Korea, an adoptee-run organization that aims to raise awareness and work for change in the current practice of intercountry adoption from South Korea. She also works as copy editor for The Hankyoreh English Edition. She was presumed to have been born near Daegu in 1972, and was adopted to the United States in 1973. She has lived in Seoul since 2003.