Amid corruption revelations, Koreans adopted overseas demand justice
By Rachel Stine
In early November, an Associated Press article exposed child trafficking in South Korean adoptions between 1979 and 1986. It was revealed that in addition to physical and sexual abuse, the organization Brothers Home also became involved in adopting out children overseas ― a practice that netted South Korea an estimated $20 million a year at the height of its popularity.
The article was shared hundreds of times on social media. But for activists, these human rights revelations are nothing new.
For more than a decade, adult adoptees have been organizing online, demanding a governmental investigation into how social welfare organizations processed adoptions with irresponsible speed. Just last August, the first hearings were held for Adam Crapser, a Korea-born American who was deported after two sets of abusive parents failed to file his citizenship paperwork.
In 2017, Phillip Clay, 42, who had been deported under similar circumstances, died by suicide after being forced to rebuild his life in a cultural and linguistic environment he did not understand.
As the campaign for accountability expands online, I sat down with Professor Kristin Pak, the policy director of Solidarity and Political Engagement of Adoptees in Korea (SPEAK). Over the course of an hour, she shared her expertise on truth and reconciliation, the importance of family preservation, and how more positive models of adoption can be constructed in the coming decades.
Many articles credit social media with the increased political mobilization of Korean adoptees. What year would you say the movement began in the US and EU, versus here in South Korea?
It was the Europeans who organized first. They got together well before social media and the internet. Elena Kim, an anthropologist at UC Irvine, wrote a book called "Adopted Territory" about the emergence of the community. While the book is a bit dated, it tracks how the U.S. did start getting momentum when we used Yahoo Groups and that kind of platform, back in the early 2000s.
Around 2010, there was an effort to reform the Special Adoption Law. That was spearheaded by people who were adopted overseas and our allies who grew up here in Korea. Some of the organizations involved were Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), Truth and Reconciliation Adoption Committee Korea (TRACK), led by Jane Jeong Trenka, KoRoot, and Gonggam, a public interest law firm. Together, they worked to have the law amended, which is why you will see more information from that period.
Recently, one of the bigger issues that have become very hot is the fact that people who were adopted to the U.S. ― not just from Korea, but from all over the world ― were being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So that has brought a lot more activists into the community.
Because most of the children who are adopted internationally were South Korean, we are seeing a lot more people from this demographic being targeted. But it is not an exclusively Korean issue. One of the first people I knew of who was removed from the U.S. was from Brazil. There were other cases from India. Because Adam's case was featured on MBC, there is a greater awareness among the Korean public. There are many reasons why you are seeing more representation in mainstream media now.
As for SPEAK, we were founded on November 11th, 2017. We continued from a previous organization called Adoptees Solidarity Korea, which retired. SPEAK took up that role of trying to critique inter-country adoption from South Korea politically, creating solidarity with other issues around the world. A lot of these struggles are very connected.
One issue that many adoptees report is social discrimination, but English-language media seems pretty silent on how, exactly, this manifests. Can you give readers a more concrete example?
I don't think I can, since I've never really had that problem myself. When I've heard people complain about what they perceive as discrimination, isn't necessarily because they're adopted … it's because they don't speak Korean very well. Things like that. The taxi driver doesn't care if you're adopted or not ― he just wants to know if he can charge you 20,000 won for a five-minute ride.
I don't think anything is very different from what 1.5 or second generation Koreans get when they come back to the country. It very much depends on your language skills and cultural knowledge. We lost our language and culture, but I wouldn't classify it directly as discrimination.
The problems we face are on a more on a systemic level. For example, when the F-4 visa was being introduced, people who were adopted were not, at first, included in the category of overseas Koreans. That's very important. If you have an F-4, you have a lot more privileges and are, in some cases, considered Korean. I'm from New York, and typically New York isn't one of the states where you can transfer your driver's license, but because I am Korean, I was able to.
Global Overseas Adoptee Link (GOAL) was able to lobby and get us F-4 visas. In the early 2000s, there was some discrimination within the government because we were not considered part of the minjok, but that's been changed.
Let's talk about language. What sort of terminology do you think is most appropriate when discussing adoption?
As far as the language goes, I don't like "adoptee." I don't want to be defined by something that happened to me as a baby. Staying with the person who adopted me may be a temporary thing, and the suffix is weird. When I write, I usually write "Koreans adopted overseas" to emphasize our Koreanness.
In another Facebook group I used to be part of, one term you would hear often was "people who lost their children to adoption." I don't like "birth mother" or "birth family." Many prefer "mother" or "parent." But, if you must distinguish, many activists prefer "natural mother," because the term "birth mother" was created by the adoption industry during the Baby Scoop Era.
In 2019, what do you feel is the biggest institutional challenge facing Koreans adopted overseas?
From a personal perspective, I think our greatest hurdle was from 2012, when the Special Adoption Law was being amended. Part of the reasoning for that revision was so that South Korea could ratify the Hague Adoption Convention.
One of the requirements is that each Hague country has to have a central adoption authority. For example, the United States has the U.S. Department of State and South Korea had KAS, or Korea Adoption Services. It was a quasi-governmental organization that registered under the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Well, in the summer, that changed. Now it's the National Center for the Rights of the Child. NCRC combined child protective services, orphanages, adoption agencies, and even health, into one entity. It got bigger in scope. That was President Moon's undertaking, and because he was a human rights lawyer, my impression is that it's meant to be one of his legacy projects.
KAS and the NCRC have not proven to be effective post-adoption service providers, especially for the most challenging and difficult cases. Even in more mundane instances, people go to their office and report very negative experiences with the staff. Furthermore, the level of expertise and experience of the staff concerning adoption is unacceptably low. The president changes every other year, so we continually have to educate the staff about our experience and needed services.
Right now, there are also bills in the National Assembly. They're to change some parts of the Special Adoption Law. The agencies are required to submit their documents to KAS, but they haven't, and at present there's no mechanism to enforce the law. The proposed revisions seek to address that discrepancy.
Another problem is being able to access our adoption records. We want to have all records disclosed to us, so that we can see our files and contact family members in Korea and to hold the agencies fully accountable. Before, KAS was using a telegram system to transmit these documents ― a Western Union-type telegram system. There is no justification for using telegrams in 2019.
Other changes were smaller. In one law, there was a linguistic loophole regarding the birth family who can be contacted … it said "and" and it should have said "or." For example, if your mother is deceased, can we contact your brother? It was something very technical and tiny like that, but it had a big effect in how the law was applied.
One of the demands in the declaration you presented to President Moon Jae-in was for resources for adopted people to be "provided across the lifecycle." What does that look like, to you?
Our adoption happens when we're children and we have no agency. As we get older, and some people come back to Korea, we still need support. We're profoundly affected by something we had no choice about.
One thing a lot of people have said is they want opportunities for language support. Why doesn't KAS have more staff who are fluent in English? Why can't adopted people apply for grants and documentation in English, French, or another dominant language?
Others are concerned about welfare and death benefits. For example, it's difficult to be buried in Korea if you're not a citizen and have no family. If you need to apply for United States citizenship, that gets expensive. Should the government require agencies to have a fund so that people who cannot afford to apply for U.S. citizenship can have the fees paid for? Or can diplomatic channels be used to waive those fees?
Even mental health support in Korea or the U.S. would be beneficial. As we can see with Phillip Clay's suicide, it's difficult to find culturally appropriate treatment here, including suicide prevention hotlines. One of the problems is that we're a really small community. We're not high priority for the government.
The letter also states that ending the industrial adoption system is a priority. How would you explain the industrial system to readers who are unfamiliar with the subject?
The easiest way to understand it is in contrast to the most common form of adoption, which is by relatives ― when stepparents take in stepchildren, or aunts and uncles get custody of younger family members. Everybody says inter-country adoption started in the 1950s with the Holts, but it can actually be traced back at least to the aftermath of World War I. Anne Frank's protector went from Austria to the Netherlands, where she joined a Dutch family. That itself is an earlier example.
It's important to remember that adoption is based in a power imbalance. In the U.S., for example, it's rooted in Orphan Trains, which took Catholic children out of Eastern cities and sent them West into "good, Protestant families." The "girls who went away" were powerless. Now, with inter-country adoption, it's almost always moving children from poor countries in the global south to Western countries.
The U.S. is also a sending country, but when it sends its children to Canada, the Netherlands … it's mostly sending black and Latino children. The origins are horrible. These are often industrial operations, and what the Holts did in South Korea was to vertically integrate the system. The natural mothers produced the babies, and the babies were taken away, sometimes within minutes, because there was a long waiting list overseas. This was not a matter of providing homes. This was about providing children to customers. The Holts made it an industry.
Should South Korea end international adoptions? What is your personal position versus SPEAK's organizational position?
I think in both cases, South Korea should stop the program and develop a sustainable child welfare and family support system. Adoption, in general, is not sustainable. It's never "saved" enough children. It's a business. It's demand-driven. It's not child welfare, and it needs to be better.
Most of the children who are being sent for adoption now, here in Korea or overseas, come from unmarried ― and not necessarily young ― women. Most, I think, are in their 20s. Many parents say they would prefer to keep their children, but they cannot get financial support from the government, because if they're unmarried, their parents' assets are considered in whether or not they qualify for welfare. Of course, there will always be short-term emergencies. But the residential homes get something like $1,000 per child, whereas a single parent only gets about $500 if they stack benefits. It's part of the whole initiative to increase the birth rate. The social stigma must also be addressed.
The [South Korean] government has a long history of addressing social concerns, and when there's a will to do it, they're very effective at changing general views of different topics. It could create programs to destigmatize single parenthood, which has always existed. There is no society in the world without single parents. I was just in Busan last weekend, and there was a statue of a mother with three children, and it said: "In honor of single mothers who raise their children with love." She's wearing a hanbok from the early 20th century or earlier. Knowing they're not alone is important. Emotional support, I think, is very important.
The government should also mandate that employers cannot ask for the detailed family registry forms, or photos on job applications … a lot of these mundane regulations could do a lot to support poor families. Social inequality here is way less than in the U.S., but it's a growing concern here. Anything that can contribute to leveling the playing field is better.
In fact, Ethiopia recently closed all international adoptions. I hope eventually the number is zero, and the only time inter-country adoptions happen is when they involve family members abroad.
A criticism I've heard is that ending international adoption in 2019 would leave Korean children languishing in foster care, due to the culture's deep stigma surrounding adoption and single parenthood. Critics of SPEAK's position argue that even with government intervention, it would be decades before real cultural change occurred. How would you respond to these concerns?
A Korean foster care system does not exist as it does in the United States or Western Europe. Just because children are living in residential homes does not mean that they are adoptable. It's not like "Annie." Often, children are in protective custody because of problems in their families, and they are actually not adoptable.
It's not an "either they are adopted or languish in orphanages thing," and to create that narrative is false.
There's an idea to set up a truth and reconciliation committee surrounding Korea's adoption programs. One story you hear over and over is: "You were lost at a market," or something similar. When my friend was five, she was also told this story about her origins. A five-year-old knows where she lives. If she doesn't know her parents' names, she knows her siblings names. She can tell a policeman where her house is … unless nobody bothers to do that. That's what happened to my friend from Gangwon-do. The "you were lost at a market" stories are thin, ridiculous, and they need to be investigated more.
On the back of your electricity bill, you can still see people who were lost in the 1970s. Many of them were probably adopted. Park Chung-hee cleaned the streets of roaming children, and he did this in various ways. There was an article in late 2017 about Boy's Town in Busan, but I suspect some of those children were sent overseas to be adopted. That's just conjecture … but was the dictator trying to get rid of his "problems?"
(Author's note: During the refining of this interview, Professor Pak's suspicions were confirmed by the aforementioned Associated Press article.)
Almost no children adopted internationally are orphans who have no family. Either both parents, one parent, or extended family members are around. It's very unusual that anyone is truly an orphan, and sometimes the reality is, there was just no effort put forth to reunite families. The adoption, missing children and "languishing in orphanages" narrative … you have to put them all together and say, "This is just not adding up."
Another concern I heard centers on the revised Special Adoption Law, where a biological mother must register her baby for the child to be adopted. Paulina Cachero at The Groundtruth Project reported that the number of infants left in Korea's "baby boxes" went from an average of three per month to 20 or 25 a month after this law was updated. How do you respond to those numbers?
Correlation is not causation. There was a lot of press surrounding the baby boxes, and as a result, the pastor involved received a lot of media attention and money. Nobody talks about that. ASK ran a campaign called "Build Families, Not Boxes," because a solution like that means children are stuck. It's an extra-legal situation, so they cannot be adopted. The correlation doesn't indicate that there's a cause and effect related to the 2012 law revisions. There were some stories of infants being abandoned in bathrooms, but what's not mentioned is that these women were mentally ill and didn't use other safe haven mechanisms.
[Baby boxes] deny those children of their human right to know who their parents are and their origins. That's why UNICEF considers birth registration a human right and wants guaranteed citizenship. Without registration, you're not a citizen. You're stateless. In Korea, if you aren't registered under your family name, it's very difficult to exist legally; you can't, for example, register for school or get insurance.
Do you think South Korea's feminist groups and adoptee coalitions can come together to implement cultural and legal change?
I think so. As you know, feminism is a very broad term, and there are different forms. There's also some cultural arrogance from people who grew up in the West, and I don't necessarily think that everything that becomes more Western is necessarily undergoing progress.
For families in crisis, it would be better to come up with alternatives to residential care and disruption. One solution could be having non-nuclear family members move in, and if that's not possible, a trained social worker. It would have to be shared responsibility. Why do the children have to move? Why can't more adults with more agency allow the children to grow in a more familiar setting?
I want to talk briefly about the future. In the event of a Korean reunification scenario, the number of unaccompanied minors will skyrocket. Not only will there be lost or missing children from within the DPRK, but stateless children in China who were born to North Korean mothers. Many of these birth mothers were victimized by sex trafficking and later deported because of their immigration status. What can governments do to protect these populations from industrialized adoption?
There have been some attempts by U.S. lobbyists, especially Christian groups, to enable North Korean adoption. Historically, North Korea has never allowed it. What can be done? That's way beyond my expertise. But we see it with the Haitian earthquake and the 2005 Southeast Asian tsunami ― after each great cataclysm, there's a clamoring to adopt children.
In the U.S., people of color formed a coalition to slow or halt the process by interviewing the children to confirm that they are actually orphans. When I worked for a settlement house in New York City, our community organizer had lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Right after the earthquake she returned to help with the relief efforts. She is an American who speaks French, Haitian Creole and Spanish, so she was able to facilitate logistics. She found an "orphan's" family just a couple of hundred miles away.
What is your hope for the next generation of Koreans adopted overseas, especially those who left after the year 2000?
They're benefitting from a lot of the activism. When they come back, they don't have to fight for the F-4 visa, and they can reclaim their citizenship. Because Korea has become a major destination, it's so much easier to get around the country. When I first visited in 2000, it was not easy.
I just hope they understand the problems with inter-country adoption, continue the work of ending it, and create a more just and equal society, both in Korea and around the world.
You can follow Professor Kristin Pak and SPEAK's activism through the following links: