Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots
The Korea Times, December 11, 1998
By Jang Jae-il Staff Reporter

Some adult Korean adoptees living abroad have such a longing for their land of origin that they leave behind what many would consider a successful life in their adopted homeland and venture to Korea. And as if completely uprooting one's life isn't traumatic enough, they are often "greeted" here with hatred, anger and indifference as coming from a "broken" home is harshly looked down upon in conservative Korean society.

"I first came to Korea on a tour in 1994. My first contact with my biological homeland stole my heart, and I came back in 1996 and founded an organization to support and guide other Korean adult adoptees like myself to settle down here," said Miss Jin In-ja, 27, who at the age of four moved to the United States to live with her adoptive parents.

Miss Jin grew up in a small town of 500 residents in Minong, Wisconsin. She decided to return to Korea to found GOA'L (Global Overseas Adoptee Link), a non-profit private organization designed to help local Koreans become aware of those adoptees who return to rediscover their motherland and meet their natural parents.

Currently, they have found many supporters for their cause in the National Assembly and among other adoption agencies such as Holt Children's Services and Social Welfare Society.

The organization is currently seeking financial support from the Korean government and community to host a conference in Seoul next year to promote local awareness of overseas Korean adoptees worldwide. Meanwhile, its members, consisting of ten native Koreans and five adoptees, are working hard to find sponsors for their efforts.

But, the road to public recognition is full of bumps as most Koreans are not yet fully interested in the existence of their brethren who, by no choice of their own, were given up for adoption and ended up in a foreign land with foreign parents.

Many of these adult adoptees do not speak Korean, and this reality, coupled with the fact that they've been raised in a completely different culture, makes it extremely difficult for them to assimilate to Korean society.

"Returning Korean adult adoptees face discrimination and rejection by Korean people. Although they seem to fit into Korean society outwardly, they are not accepted because of the wider cultural gap between the mother country and foster country," Miss Jin explained.

Here, it is important to distinguish between a Korean adoptee and a "Kyopo." A Kyopo is a person of Korean origin (but not necessarily a Korean citizen) who has experience living abroad or who lives abroad permanently. Quite often, Kyopos live with their biological families either here or abroad, but a Korean adoptee is rarely able to contact his or her biological relatives.

They are more often than not left frustrated due to the lack of a public or private local agency that could represent them and help them adjust to Korea.

Currently, working visas are difficult to obtain for adult Korean adoptees who choose to return to Korea. The Ministry of Justice is trying hard to to have the National Assembly enact a law to increase benefits here for Koreans living abroad before the end of this year, a move that would bring them one step closer to having the same rights and privileges as native Koreans.

If promulgated, the new law will allow easier entrance and departure into and from Korea for ethnic Koreans holding foreign citizenships. It will also enable them to acquire working visas easily while residing in Korea.

International adoption in Korea started right after the Korean War in 1954. Harry Holt of United States, who founded the Holt Children's Services, started the international adoption process, but the government-founded Social Welfare Society also played a key role. The first Korean children to be adopted were of mixed race, and they were sent to the United States. However, since the early 1960s, "full-Korean" babies have also been sent abroad.

The first Korean babies sent to Europe went to Sweden via the Social Welfare Society in the mid 1960s. By the end of that decade, Holt began sending Korean orphans to Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany.

The sheer number of Korean adoptees has raised the issue of their human rights within Korea among many sympathetic local politicians. The Ministry of Health and Welfare claims that nearly 200,000 adoptees have been sent abroad during the several past decades. About 120,000 persons of that total have been sent to North America, 70,000 to Europe and 10,000 to Australia.

These days, Koreans still often discreetly place their children born out of wedlock in various domestic orphanages in order to escape certain social censure. In the past, many children were given up for adoption for other reasons, including poverty, colonization and warfare. But, since the economic crisis hit the nation late last year, poverty has once again contributed to parents placing babies in orphanages.

The practice of giving up one's baby can best be attributed to the Korean social system which is built around a homogeneous population heavily influenced by Confucianism. Under that belief system, Koreans place a high value on"saving face," or retaining what they deem a socially respectable reputation.

Whatever the reason, the "export" of Korean babies is still a lucrative business. "Korea is still sending an average of six orphans overseas each day," said Miss Cho Mi-hee, 30, the second founding member of GOA'L, who is a Korean adult adoptee who grew up in Belgium.

Most of the adoptees have lived with Caucasian parents and siblings. In many cases, they have not had much exposure to Asians, or to Koreans in particular."I first met fellow Asians and Koreans when I entered college in the United States. I was scared of confronting them at first, since I never had a chance to socialize with other Asians before," remembered Miss Jin. She majored in social sciences at a Lutheran College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and worked as a hotel manager before choosing to come to Korea.

A volunteer native Korean college student, 25, serving as a translator for ethnic Korean adoptees explained, "Koreans should realize that they (adoptees) came here out of love for Korea. They want to belong to a social family. They were the few Asians among a majority of whites in their formal communities. Koreans must understand this, and accept them among us, instead of pitying them."

One story in particular poignantly illustrates the hope that someday Koreans all over the world will live harmoniously with each other. One day a father and his three sons went to the forest to chop down a tree to make firewood.

It sounds like a nice family outing, but the sons were always quarreling with each other. So, one day, the father called them together and gave each of them a stick, which he asked them to tie together into a bundle.

The father then asked each of his three sons to try to break the bundle of sticks, but none of them could accomplish the task. Then, the father asked them to untie the bundle and for each of them to take one stick and try to break it. They could all easily break one stick.

The father advised, "When the sticks are bundled together, it is very strong and unbreakable, but untied they can each be broken easily. Similarly, when you work together and help one another, you can become strong like the bundle of sticks and accomplish many things in life. But, if you quarrel and do not respect each other's differences, accept one another and stand together, then you will be broken as easily as these single sticks."

It is certainly an effective argument as to why native Koreans should warmly welcome their orphaned brethren.

Adoptees come here for one or a combination of the following reasons: to search for their biological parents, to sort out their identities, to learn the Korean language and to familiarize themselves with the culture.

"It takes a strong willed person to return to their birth country alone and start a new life in a place so different from his adoptive land - the only land he knew. Only a person with courage, hope, dreams and stability can do this. Since Korean adult adoptees have come to meet Korea halfway, we are asking native Koreans to make an effort by also meeting us halfway, which could make us all a whole someday," encouraged Miss Jin, who lived with three American brothers and a sister in her adoptive parents' home.

Another Korean adoptee from Belgium, and the third co-founder of GOA'L, Lee Eun-gil, 33, said, "I was adopted when I was four as well. I had a happy childhood growing up with my Belgian brother who was five years older than I. I came back for the first time at the age of 27 in 1992, after leaving my career as a high school music teacher in Belgium."

He was reunited with his biological family comprised of three older brothers, two sisters and both parents after appearing on a special MBC television program on adoptees in 1994.

GOAL estimates that there are about 200 overseas adopted Koreans currently residing in Korea. Its members wish to represent overseas adopted Koreans at an international level.

GOA'L has five visions for its cause to improve the quality of life for Korean adult adoptees who return here. The first vision is understanding who they are and what they are interested in doing upon their return. The second is to foster mutual respect between them and native Koreans on a personal and cultural level. The third is to provide a home base in Korea for Korean adult adoptees. The fourth is for them to be recognized by the Korean government and Korean society as a whole. The fifth is to provide support for bridging the cultural gaps between their adoptive and birth cultures.

"We realize the task would take several years to accomplish, and we are committed to our cause for the long run," said Miss Jin, whose personal efforts to find her natural parents have thus far proved fruitless due to a lack of birth records.

"We hope to provide a link between all individual Korean adoption organizations and to form a bridge between European and American Korean adoption organizations and the Korean society and government," Lee said.

For more information or to offer a donation, call Jin In-ja at 019-369-1971, or go to the GOA'L web site at You can also send an e-mail message to [email protected]

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