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International Adoption: Lessons from Korea

Since the 1950s, South Korea has placed an estimated 150,000-200,000 children in North America, Europe and Australia. Adoptees, activists and experts weigh in with perspectives on In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, what we can learn from the largest international community of adoptees and the answers that they seek.

An Adoptee Comes Home

Kim StokerKim Stoker returned to Korea in 1995, where she works with Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), an organization of Korean adoptees that advocates for alternatives to inter-country adoption.


Fifteen years ago I returned to live in the country where I was born. I truly had no idea that I was embarking on a journey that would lead me to where I am now. Like so many of my fellow Korean adoptees (KADs) from all over the world, I grew up in a white family in the white suburbs. I had white relatives, white friends, white teachers, and white role models. Encased in my own internalized whiteness upon returning – or rather, going — to Korea I had no agenda, no schedule to search for my birth family, no aim to discover my roots and no plans to stay beyond the one-year teaching contract that I had signed. Or so I thought.

It took the first three years of living in Korea, two more years of graduate school learning about Korea, and another two more years back before I felt comfortable and ready to discard the whiteness that had been years in slowly sloughing off. I found that safe comfortable space in ASK – Adoptee Solidarity Korea.

Founded in 2004 by a group of six American KADs living in Seoul, ASK began as a meeting of like-minded friends interested in examining the complex realities of inter-country adoption (ICA) from South Korea. Since that time, ASK has been a strong voice in advocating for alternatives to ICA, namely social welfare reform and support for single unwed mothers. Members of ASK have presented at conferences and symposiums, lectured at universities, given print, radio and television interviews, made movies and art — all in the name of increasing awareness about the need for change in the way Korea lets go thousands of its dispensable children.

So often among adoptees these days, the issue of ICA gets whittled down to the facile binary of being either “pro” or “against.” If you advocate for ICA you are “pro-child,” “pro-family,” even “progressive.” If you criticize ICA you are “ungrateful,” “angry” or even “racist.” Children need permanent homes, plenty of parents desire to give them those homes. I don’t know anyone who would argue against that. I only wish it were so simple.

International adoption is ethnocentrism at its essence. On a global level, ICA is about inequities of race, gender, class, money, religion and western hegemony; on a local level, it’s about a lack of women’s rights and reproductive rights, moving people across borders, poverty and Christian values. Children, as the lowest rung on any social strata, fall vulnerable to the vagaries of the times. Not to mention the problems with the business of adoption itself. At its worst, illegal methods of procuring children are still practiced. At the least, unethical practices of coercion, intimidation and misinformation are still commonly used.

The reality of South Korea today is that it is not overflowing with orphaned, unwanted children. The factors that were the impetus for Korean ICA 60 years ago – war, epidemic poverty and racism against Amerasian children – are no longer sustainable reasons to justify the continuation of the Korean overseas adoption industry. On the economic front, Korea has been a member the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 1996 and will host the G-20 this November. On the social end, over 90 percent of adopted Korean children are born to single unwed mothers, most of whom would choose to raise their children if they had a viable choice. Yes, it is true that single mothers and their children face very real social stigmatization and struggle with poverty that limit their prospects for survival. But in recent years, supporters, advocates and a small but growing number of brave women are speaking out and asserting their rights to raise their own children instead of giving them up for adoption.

By watching films such as Deann Borshay Liem’s first documentary, First Person Plural, and her current work, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I hope that a wider audience can learn about some of the complexities of ICA and how this modern phenomenon affects the life and lives of individuals and families.

 

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee - Kim Stoker Kim Stoker is a full-time lecturer at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul. She has been living in Korea on and off since 1995. She is currently the Representative of Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), an organization of Korean adoptees that advocates for alternatives to intercountry adoption.





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First Person Plural | Adoption History

Learn more about the history of international and transracial adoption, featuring an overview of adoptions from South Korea. Explore an interactive journey into the contemporary history of Korea, mapping out the stories and events which contributed to South Korea's adoption policies.

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