International Adoptions From South Korea, Lessons From 1966
Eleana Kim, author of Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging, describes of how humanitarian efforts became intertwined with international profit motives, and the very human cost to the thousands of children in South Korea's orphanages.
The year 1966, when Kang Ok Jin of Kunsan, South Korea became Cha Jung Hee in order then to become Deann Borshay of Fremont, California, was the same year that an observer from the International Social Service (ISS), the agency that facilitated the adoption, wrote with some concern, “In Korea today where there is strong need for foreign exchange, I am inclined to think that agencies are assessed by the Ministry [of Health and Social Affairs] in terms of dollars they bring into Korea. The quality of service or service rendered is only secondary.” Between the time of the first four international adoptions from Korea in 1953 and the moment in 1966 when 494 children left Korea, the humanitarian effort to rescue war orphans and Amerasian or “mixed-race” children had become tied to profit motives, economic development and nation building. On the ground in South Korea, an array of social workers, fortune seekers and religiously motivated good Samaritans were involved in a complex and competitive scene. The same ISS report quoted above also observed “quite a bit of rivalry and competition among the different agencies, and it is not beyond agencies to bribe or pressure the mothers for the release of these children.”
By 1966, the population of mixed-race children in South Korean orphanages had drastically declined, as their mothers were less likely to relinquish them than to raise them in kijich’on, or the camptown areas where military sex work was prevalent. As the ISS report noted, “Agencies including ISS have to go to find the Korean-Caucasian children by visiting prostitute areas, as it is not a common practice for the mothers to approach the agencies for the release of their children.” In these areas, the appearance of mixed-race children was becoming normalized, and many of the women held on to their children in hopes of being reunited with their fathers through international marriage. And at least some of these hopes were not in vain, as American servicemen stationed in Korea filed hundreds of marriage petitions in the 1960s alone. With fewer abandoned mixed-race children and fewer women volunteering them for adoption, agencies struggled to meet the continuous demand from Americans who wanted to adopt “Korean orphans.” Social workers were sent to the border zones and kijich’on to persuade the mothers that Korea’s monoracial culture held no future for their children, especially as they reached school age. The experiences of Amerasians who stayed in South Korea attest to the validity of those concerns –– the majority were relegated to an underclass status that condemned them and their children to social stigma and marginalization against which many of them have struggled to the present day. Nevertheless, as the1960s progressed, fewer mixed-race children were relinquished or abandoned and Americans, and later Europeans, hoping to adopt increasingly had their hopes fulfilled with adoption of fully Korean children. By 1965, 70 percent of children sent overseas for adoption were of full Korean parentage, and by the mid-1970s virtually none of the children adopted were of mixed race.
The children had ended up in orphanages for a variety of reasons, but the majority, like Kang Ok Jin and Cha Jung Hee, were not actual orphans. Some had been lost by their parents or adult caregivers and ferried to orphanages by police officers; others were sent to orphanages as a temporary form of daycare by working-class parents without other options for childcare services. Yet others were sent to orphanages when their parents divorced or remarried, with some of these retrieved later. Thus, even as government statistics reflected skyrocketing cases of abandonment (from 755 in 1955 to 11,000 in 1964), it is difficult to assess whether all of these children were legally “abandoned” and what placement in an orphanage meant in each case. What is known is that by 1966 there were an estimated 71,000 children in roughly 600 institutions. In an attempt to address the problem of child abandonment and overflowing orphanages, the government implemented a program to return children to their families. In the process, however, it found that many of the children on the rolls of these institutions were actually “ghost children” who were not even in residence at the orphanages claiming them. These “ghost children” served as conduits for overseas aid –– and one might wonder whether one of the girls identified as Cha Jung Hee was, in fact, one of those “ghost children.”
Immediately after the war, orphanages were the main beneficiaries in South Korea of overseas charitable donations, and as late as the 1960s they continued to receive the majority of their support from individual sponsorships through organizations such as Foster Parents Plan and World Vision. Donations from overseas funded the needs of children, from food to basic education, and for families in precarious economic circumstances the orphanages became crucial resources for family preservation. The sponsorship system that supported the orphanages also created fictive links of kinship between individual children and donors overseas. As we learn in Liem’s film, developing these fictive relations through written correspondence and the exchange of pictures and gifts was vital to the maintenance of the child welfare institutions. Ultimately, however, this sponsorship system was unsustainable over the long term, as it made orphanages dependent on monthly installments of foreign capital and thus required a steady population of children feeding into the system. In effect, long after the war had ended, orphanages and the foreign capital they attracted were producing a new generation of “orphans” that many Americans and Europeans, motivated by infertility, religious conviction or liberal humanitarianism, were eager to “rescue.”
Some at ISS were critical of sponsorships precisely because of the dependency they promoted, with one social worker suggesting that monetary aid be transferred to a child’s family after the child left the orphanage to return home, perhaps as seed money for the child’s parents to set up a small business. Yet sponsors preferred to send money to morally innocent “orphans” rather than to poor families in need. As the ISS social worker reported, “Can you believe it — one objection to the idea of letting money follow a child into his home was ‘There is something wrong when a parent has to be paid before he will take back his child.’ There may be in some instances, but such a sweeping indictment!”
With 2 percent of South Korea’s national budget spent on social welfare and more than 40 percent on national defense, welfare institutions were entirely dependent upon sponsorships, and directors of orphanages and baby hospitals held on to as many sponsored children as possible in order to ensure a continuous flow of money from foreign organizations. As overseas sponsorships began flagging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, adoption agencies faced greater pressure to expand their international adoption programs. In the case of the Child Placement Service (now called Social Welfare Society), the Korean agency affiliated with ISS, locating children, securing their welfare through foster care and waiting for families to be matched to them in the United States required time and money that it did not have. Without sponsorships to fund the care of these children, the only solution was to expand the adoption program to Scandinavia, where more lax social welfare policies meant a shorter waiting period for adoption placements and less money required for foster care in Korea. Adoptions to Sweden began in 1967 and extended to the rest of Scandinavia and Western Europe by the end of the decade. As the four government-approved agencies enlarged their operations throughout the 1970s, South Korean policies required them to implement programs for poor families and children, including homes for mothers, disabled children and abandoned children, effectively offsetting the state’s welfare budget with revenues earned through international adoptions. ISS eventually left Korea because it viewed its role in international adoption as compromising its commitment to promoting universal standards of child welfare. It believed that children in Korea were being abandoned for reasons of poverty and a lack of social welfare services, a situation that ISS considered to be counterproductive to the goal of creating indigenous solutions for children in need.
Indeed, as ISS feared, international adoptions persisted as a proxy child welfare system, becoming virtually unregulated in the 1980s, when an average of 20 to 25 children left the country each day. South Korea today has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, high rates of infertility and negative population growth, yet overseas adoptions, now of infants born to unmarried women, continue at a rate of approximately 1,000 per year. The Korean international adoption program, the largest and longest in the world, is often held up as a model for other nations. Rather than being considered a model to follow, however, it might instead be seen as a model to disarticulate, in order better to comprehend how a temporary response to postwar crisis was transformed into an enduring solution to a nation’s social welfare needs.
Toward that end, we can consider 1966 a pivotal year in the history of Korean adoption. That was the moment when full-Korean children began replacing mixed-race children, when sponsorships were on the decline and when organizations like ISS and even some government officials were questioning the appropriateness of international adoption as a solution to the problem of child welfare. It was a year, like so many that came afterwards, when adoptions from South Korea might have reversed course instead of increasing exponentially throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Indeed, it may be surprising for some of us today to realize that these issues, which seem so contemporary, were being explicitly argued more than four decades ago. Today, as war and natural disasters continue to put poor families and children in developing nations at risk, adoption often appears to be the best or even only solution for children’s immediate survival. As the case of South Korea demonstrates, however, humanitarian rescue can easily turn into a long-term social welfare policy, especially in contexts where welfare programs and basic infrastructures are weak or nonexistent. In South Korea, what Rosemary Sarri and her colleagues identified as “goal displacement” shifted the objectives of adoption agencies and the state away from addressing the social welfare issues at the heart of child abandonment and relinquishment and toward the maintenance and reproduction of the system for its own sake. Even if children were not literally being bought and sold, in the context of South Korea’s tumultuous modern history, it is hard not see how their lives, like those of their parents and many other South Koreans, were leveraged in the name of economic development, national security and foreign relations.
As Liem uncovers during the course of her investigation into her own past and that of Cha Jung Hee, which is intertwined with Liem’s, some Koreans believed then and believe now that despite the fact that Liem was severed from her original identity and lost her connections to her Korean family, she was the fortunate one –– lucky to have been switched with Cha Jung Hee and to have had the chance to pursue the American dream. Similarly, many adoptees have found that questions about their origins have forced them to weigh their privileged lives as American or Danish or French citizens in loving families against the prospects of abject lives in orphanages. With greater understanding of the broader political and economic conditions that produced adoptable “orphans” and the seemingly necessary solution of international adoption, many Korean adoptees, like Liem, are beginning to recontextualize their life histories as well as those of children being sent for adoption today.
Eleana Kim is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. Her book, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging, will be published by Duke University Press in November 2010. This article is based on archival research at the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. For a full-length discussion of the early history of Korean adoptions, see “The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy.” Working Paper Series (WP 09-09). U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins. 28 October 2009.