‘Korea is hiding our past’: the adoptees searching for their families – and the truth
Amid allegations of a corrupt adoption system in Seoul that falsified children’s records, those sent to Denmark as youngsters are desperate to find out their real stories
In the summer of 2022, Sussie Pflug Brynald, a Danish citizen, walked through the doors of Holt Children’s Services in Seoul, South Korea, looking for answers about her past. The agency had handled her adoption 49 years earlier when she was, according to Holt, a Korean orphan.
Brynald had brought with her a bottle of Danish liqueur and souvenir shot glasses adorned with Vikings and Danish flags. She had been told that bringing presents to the adoption agency might help her get some of those answers.
Brynald remembers being struck by how cold the Holt offices seemed, from the clinical interior of the building to the manner of the case worker sitting across from her. “I just felt like he was speaking to me the same way he would have spoken to the hundreds of others he’d encountered. It felt mechanical: ‘I’m sorry. Sorry. No information.’ That was all he said.”
On that day in July, Brynald didn’t know what she knows now: that the little information Holt Children’s Services had been able to provide about her before her adoption – that she was an orphan, found in the street by a stranger – was most likely false. However, she had a strong feeling, she recalls: “There was no credibility to what he was saying. At all.”
The thought of never finding her biological mother, of never knowing if she has siblings, makes her sick, Brynald says. “I don’t know where to put that pain.” But, as with hundreds of other adoptees associated with the Danish Korean Rights Group (DKRG), she has taken it upon herself to find a place for it.
Since the 1950s, about 200,000 South Korean children have been adopted abroad, according to rights groups. More than half of all adoptions took place in the 1970s and 1980s under the dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan – and 9,000 of them went to Denmark, which has one of the highest per capita transnational adoption rates in the world.
Now adults in their 40s and 50s, a small but outspoken group of Danish Korean adoptees, such as Brynald, are demanding the truth about the adoption industry that sent them to predominantly white families in western countries. After years of emotionally charged searches for their birth parents – often hindered by falsified records and stonewalling from those agencies – the adoptees are pushing back against a long-sustained narrative that they should simply be grateful.
Large-scale adoptions have come under scrutiny across the world, opening painful wounds for adoptees and renewed questions about how they came to be adopted in countries such as Argentina, Spain and Israel. There are similarities among them: including the complicity of hospitals and targeting of vulnerable mothers. Yet South Korea’s case stands apart in that adoption was transnational and transracial, with Asian children sent to predominantly white families in Europe and North America.
Last year, the DKRG filed a petition to the South Korean government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – which has been investigating human rights abuses – asking it to look into abusive and corrupt adoption practices.
What began as a Danish adoptee effort has since expanded, with additional applications taking the total to nearly 400 adopted people from eight countries. In December 2022, the commission announced it would begin its initial inquiry into the applications. The cases implicate all four agencies authorised by the South Korean government to conduct international adoptions at the time.
Among the cases is that of Brynald.
According to her documents, Brynald was born on 16 July 1973, and brought by a stranger to Jongno police station in Seoul. She was taken to Holt Children’s Services on 27 July. The agency declared her a legal orphan soon after, issuing a so-called orphan hojuk. Less than a month after allegedly being abandoned by her biological parents, the process of Brynald’s adoption had begun.
Severing the ties to her family was the first step for Holt in obtaining legal guardianship over Brynald, which was required for the agency to broker the adoption. When the agency finally did obtain guardianship in October, it almost immediately created the statement of her release for adoption. Four months after her supposed birthdate, she was on her way to Denmark with papers stating that she was an orphan, all traces of her past removed.
One of the claims now being investigated is that few of these adoptees were actually orphans. For Brynald, this prompted questions about her identity and has sparked a desire to connect with her biological family. “If it turns out that Holt knew who my mother was and kept it from me, I don’t know how I would react emotionally.
“The thought that occupies me is that I would have been able to reach out to her much sooner. And I would think, even more so than I do know, that other people have been controlling my life,” she says.
Brynald lives with her husband and two children in Tårnby, the same part of suburban Copenhagen where she grew up. Today, Tårnby is an ethnically diverse part of the city, but Brynald recalls that when she was growing up, “I was the only one who stood out”. As a young woman, Brynald would avoid mirrors and tease her hair to create a more rounded head shape. As with many adoptees we spoke to, she described feeling, and being seen as, an outsider – the sole Asian in a homogeneously white society.
The fears of the adult adoptees were largely corroborated in interviews with two now-retired social workers who worked in South Korea’s largest adoption agencies for more than 30 years. At a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Hongdae neighbourhood in Seoul, former social workers Kim and Hong (not their real names) openly admit that they created “orphan hojuks”, official family records that severed children from their biological family trees. The two, now in their 70s, spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing criticism from their former colleagues.
“We had to make the orphan hojuks,” Kim says. “That was the only way to get the children their visas so they could be adopted.”
These hojuks placed children alone at the heads of their families and provided no names or information about their biological parents. Most of the South Korean adoptees were given these fake papers, which allowed agencies to skirt the immigration laws of their destination countries.
“The falsified orphan family registry was very much an integrated part of an adoption system that turned children into adoptive children,” says Dr Youngeun Koo, a lecturer at the Harvard Korea Institute. “This was not an exception. This was very much what allowed 200,000 children to become adoptable.”
The social workers, aware of the investigation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are defensive, repeatedly citing the societal stigma that surrounded single mothers, as well as the limited opportunities the children would have faced had they grown up in an orphanage.
Adoptees affiliated with the DKRG say they have discovered additional falsified details in their case files, including name, birth date and parent information, often marked as “unknown” even when the agencies had those details. In several cases, even a child’s movements after entering the system – from how they were discovered to which police stations, orphanages and hospitals they were taken to – were found to be fabricated.
When asked about these other instances, Kim said that with abandoned children, the agency had no way of knowing their biographical details. In cases where biological parents, often single mothers, themselves brought in the children, they often pleaded for information be changed so they could not later be found, Kim says.
“If a high-schooler brought in a child back then, that high-schooler would now be in her 60s and married,” says Kim. “And she would have hidden the fact that she’d had a child previously; because with that fact her life would be over. Korea is a country that hides everything.”
The former social workers stressed how the poverty and turbulence of South Korea’s past informed their choices. To an extent, Kim understood the concerns of the adoptees, but couldn’t accept a condemnation of adoption as a whole – which the pair continue to view as a necessary good.
“If they blame us and the underdeveloped country that we were back then, we have to accept that,” Kim says. “But still, shouldn’t they thank us, as the ones who got them to this point?”
Hong, who had been sitting quietly, began to cry, saying: “We feel their pain. I really want to tell them that we are listening.”
Jumping in, Kim says: “Back then, we really just wanted to send them as quickly as possible. All those children, 20 of them crowded in a room. Weren’t they better off going than staying here where they wouldn’t have been treated fairly?”
Kim says she knows biological parents who lied to their children about abandoning them. “Even though [biological parents] make all manner of excuses now, it wasn’t me who put a paper slip on my baby and abandoned them.”
Though official statistics put the number of abandoned children at 50% to 60% of all adoptees, Philsik Shin, a researcher assisting the DKRG with its application to the commission, says more than 90% of the adoptees whose cases he is dealing with had at least one parent – and that adoption agencies failed to get informed consent from the biological parents.
At a time when international adoption was not well understood, social workers “did not make it clear to parents that adoption meant not being able to see their child ever again”, says Shin. “‘They will come back when they’re 20. Think of it like you’re sending them to study abroad. They will come back.’ This is how they explained it.”
Often, consultations between social workers and biological parents, many of them unwed mothers, were charged with unequal power dynamics.
“There was this sense of superiority, entitlement,” says Koo. “[Social workers] felt that they could make that decision on behalf of these children even better than the parents … On what grounds? They thought it was better that these children grow up somewhere else.”
Koo adds that adoption agencies and social workers, such as Kim and Hong, faced pressure from the South Korean government to fill the gap of domestic welfare programmes. The welfare programmes, including orphanages, children’s hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers and domestic adoption initiatives, were funded by the profits from international adoption.
The government briefly toyed with a quota system to promote domestic adoption over international adoption but abandoned it in 1980. “Adoption agencies became free to send children out as they received them,” says Shin. “That created competition [between agencies], more money and financial opportunity.”
That financial opportunity was not limited to adoption agencies, but also also exploited by the intermediaries who organised the intake of children.
“In some cases, when there was a woman giving birth who was a single mother, or someone who simply looked like they might not be able to pay their medical expenses, the hospitals would call the adoption agency [to make an introduction],” says Shin.
If the child was released to the adoption agency, “the agency would pay the hospital bill for them”, he says. Shin estimates that hospitals would have received the equivalent at today’s values of about £1,600 for each referred child. The small number of hospital workers involved would have doubled their annual salaries through these illegal schemes, he says.
According to government documents, in 1988 and 1989, more than half of all children entering South Korea’s four adoption agencies were brought directly from hospitals and maternity wards.
It was under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, from 1979 until 1988, that the government showed its most explicit support of the adoption industry, placing military leaders in director positions of agencies. In 1985 alone, 8,837 South Korean children were adopted abroad.
In a military-era official document from 1988, the government likened the adoption industry to “child trafficking”, expressing concern over competition between adoption agencies, a network of collaboration in procuring children from hospitals, maternity wards and district offices, and poor maintenance of children’s case files.
When the South Korean government did in the 1970s make efforts to slow foreign adoption, Scandinavian countries lobbied for it to resume the practice. “The [Danish] state really saw that it was their responsibility to help its citizens to become parents because parenthood is part of social citizenship in Scandinavia,” says Koo.
The notion that “developing countries” were unable to care for their own children is one that many adopted people we spoke to recognised from the general discourse around adoption in Denmark. Bokja Hansen, 54, grew up with the narrative that she was better off as an adoptee in Denmark than as an impoverished South Korean child.
Her home in Skibby, a suburban Danish town, is typically Scandinavian: light and streamlined. The only objects hinting at her origin are displayed on a shelf: a little South Korean flag and a pair of red rubber shoes.
Hansen arrived at the age of five wearing those red shoes and a red uniform with “Holt” printed on the shoulder. By then she had been in the custody of Holt Children’s Services for a little under a year, after, her intake papers state, she was found “wandering the streets”.
Hansen doesn’t remember her life in Korea, but she vaguely recalls the flight that brought her to Denmark. She remembers being strapped in next to another child, who she somehow understood was going to a different country. And she remembers wetting her adopted parents’ bed after arriving.
“It must have felt incredibly unsafe,” she remarks about her younger self. Out of sheer embarrassment, she says she quickly learned how to change the sheets on her own.
Hansen tells of a childhood marked by physical abuse by her father and an emotional distance in both her adoptive parents. Sitting in the home she shares with her husband, Hansen recalls trying to communicate this to her adoptive mother by writing her little notes that read: “Why does Dad hit me?” and: “I feel like you don’t love me.”
Hansen would put the slips of paper under her mother’s pillow at night. “It was a way of saying: ‘Help me’,” she says.
Aged about 10, Hansen says she gave up writing notes to her mother. It was at that time an adult family friend started sexually abusing her, she says. The man began by exposing Hansen to sexually explicit magazines in secret. The abuse later became physical.
“I knew my parents wouldn’t believe me, which he also told me,” she says. “I already had a strained relationship with them. I couldn’t share things with them … I really needed to be cared for.”
When Hansen, with the aid of a child psychologist, finally told her parents about the sexual abuse, they did not confront the family friend. “I spent years trying to process that they chose [him],” Hansen says.
A study conducted by the Danish Centre for Social Science Research has shown that adoptive parents are generally better educated and better-off financially than average Danish parents. However, the adoptees we interviewed argue that the screening of adoptive parents focused on their finances and physical health rather than their emotional suitability.
Follow-up checks after adoption were sparse. In Hansen’s case, records show that it was decided none would be necessary between the time she arrived in Denmark and when the adoption was finalised.
Hansen is not alone in describing dysfunction in her adopted home. Several adoptees said they grew up around parents suffering from alcoholism. They preferred not to speak on the record out of respect for their families.
We call them angry adoptees,” says Dr Byeong-kook Cho, referring to the adoptees who are now voicing objections. “What we can tell them is that we sent them abroad to protect their lives, so they could be fed, so they could get an education.”
Cho, 90, an eminent paediatrician, worked for 14 years at Seoul’s city-run children’s hospital before spending three decades as the director of Holt’s children’s hospital. Sitting in her living room in the city, she presents scrapbooks full of photographs and letters from children she had treated as infants, most with congenital disorders, who had been adopted.
“From our perspective, our question is why the parents didn’t come looking for their children. In all the years I was at the children’s hospital, only one time did a parent come looking for their child. If [a parent] reported a missing child, the police would surely have helped them find their way to them.”
Today, South Korea’s adoption numbers have dwindled, with 189 children adopted abroad last year. A 2011 law required all births to be registered and children to be documented on the hojuks of biological families until they are adopted. The law stated for the first time that adoptive parents should be checked for any history of child abuse, domestic violence or drug or alcohol dependence, and declared a focus on reducing international adoption.
But for many of those who were adopted long before these reforms, there is a profound sense of pain in the uncertainty of whether they will ever be able to trace their lives further back than to an orphanage in South Korea.
“I need to know the truth about my life,” says Anja Rasmussen, 44, while her son watches TV in the next room of her home in a Copenhagen suburb. “It can’t be right that someone chose to erase my story without it having consequences.
“Adoption happens on account of something very sad,” she says. “The least terrible version of the story is that my mother consented to the adoption but that the agency then deleted that information to ease the process. The worst version is that it was executed without her consent.”
One study from 2017 found that adoptees in Denmark generally do well – the South Koreans even more so than other groups of adoptees – but are twice as likely to have encountered the psychiatric system by the time they reach 19. Sofie Henze-Pedersen, who interviewed several adoptees for the study, says many had difficulties creating “complete” identities for themselves.
“If information about their past was missing or lacking, if they felt there were gaps they couldn’t fill,” Henze-Pedersen explained, “their sense of self could be challenged.“
Rasmussen fears that it will be too late for some adoptees, many approaching middle age, to ever meet their biological parents. Still, she hopes that the investigation will lead to changes in South Korean legislation, enabling adoptees to access whatever documents might exist concerning their pasts.
“This is our information,” she says. “And I need the glossy image of these Korean adoptions to be torn up. It may have been glossy for some, but there are also parts of it that by no means were. I need people to know about it.”