By Patrick Niceforo
Since the end of the Korean War, more than 200,000 children from South Korea have been adopted around the world. A crowdsourced map shows Korean adoptees in the United States, Norway, and Australia, among other countries. With the peak of overseas Korean adoption in the 1980s, it is unsurprising that Korean adoptees have had a greater media presence in the past several years being featured in books, television shows, and news articles. As Korean adoptees came of age, they developed a community to connect and exchange stories and information. This blog will explore the Korean adoptee community and how their return has impacted overseas and domestic adoption in South Korea.
The Korean Adoptee Community
The mobilization of the Korean adoptee community in the United States in 1999 paved the way for many of the benefits and opportunities that international Korean adoptees enjoy today. For example, in the 1990s, the RoK government recognized international Korean adoptees as “overseas Koreans,” which granted international Korean adoptees access to the F-4 visa. The F-4 visa grants Korean adoptees access to a wider scope of employment opportunities and multiple-entry over a 2-year period.
There are also many organizations that connect and provide information to Korean adoptees who are interested in Korean culture or returning to South Korea. International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) has hosted gatherings of Korean adoptees around the world since the first one in 1999. The 2017 gathering is to be hosted in San Francisco this October. There are also smaller organizations for Korean adoptees at the state and city level that are accessible on social networking sites. Other organizations such as Asia Families and Heritage Camps cater to a younger audience by hosting Korean culture programs.
Organizations such as International Korean Adoptee Service Inc. (InKAS) and Global Overseas Adoptees Link (GOAL) provide information and services related to motherland tours, birth searches, and Korean language classes. There are even guesthouses in South Korea such as Koroot, which provide cheap rooms and communal meals and whose stated mission is “to help adoptees’ identity-building and raise social awareness of overseas adoption issues in Korean society.”
In recent years, international Korean adoptees have seen more exposure in the media. Stories like the reunion of Korean adoptees Samantha Futerman and Anais Bordier, identical twins separated at birth, are well known among the Korean adoptee community. The Korea Joongang Daily recently published an article that detailed one Korean adoptee’s success in opening a Mexican restaurant in Itaewon. However, while international Korean adoptees have more resources and support than before, many challenges still remain.
Recent Trends and Developments in Korean Adoption
KEI published a blog about adoptees in early 2012 that covered the history, recent trends, legislation, and social issues of international Korean adoption. Since then, the Korean adoptee community and overseas adoption in Korea has seen many changes.
Many Korean adoptees such as Adam Crasper, despite growing up in the United States, have been deported to Korea. Although a law passed in 2000 automatically grants international adoptees American citizenship, it does not cover people who were 18 or older at the time that it was passed. Adoptees deported to Korea often cannot function in Korean society due to the language barrier and cultural divide.
Some adoptees such as Jane Jeong Trenka have pushed to end the practice of overseas adoption. In 2012, Korean adoptee activists succeeded in passing the Special Adoption Act, which aims to reduce international adoption. In addition to mandatory birth registration and the mother’s consent to adoption, the law also grants birth mothers the ability to reverse adoptions within six months of their application while also requiring birth mothers to spend a certain amount of time with their newborn prior to adoption.
While it is difficult to say to what extent the Special Adoption Act has reduced overseas adoption, it is clear that the adoption rate has gone down. In 2003, over 2000 Korean adoptees were sent overseas. In 2012, 755 were adopted. As of 2016, only 340 were adopted. Korean Adoption Services has a more comprehensive collection of Korean adoptee statistics here.
However, the Korean adoptee community is split on the issue. Some have suggested that the Special Adoption Act has led to an increase in abandonment and that eliminating overseas adoption merely treats a symptom of a social problem. Others contend that adoptees should have the opportunity of being raised in their native culture. Another relevant point of data is the number of children in need of welfare, which was nearly 5,000 as of 2015. In other words, the total number of adoptions in South Korea is well under the recorded number of children who require assistance.
It may be difficult for South Korea to completely eliminate overseas adoptions in the near future. While recent changes such as the Special Adoption Law and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption facilitate adoptions to healthy and supportive homes, South Korea could do more to promote and boost domestic adoption. A start could be providing more financial and social support to single mothers.
Patrick Niceforo is a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a former intern at KEI. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
Photo from James Kim’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.