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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.

A Call for Accountability

Jane Jeong TrenkaJane Jeong Trenka was sent for adoption to Minnesota in September 1972 and repatriated to Korea in 2004. She is the author of Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea and an activist among the adoptee community in Korea.


Cha Jung Hee was a “perfect orphan.” Her parents were dead, and she longed to live with the kind Americans who sent shoes and money to her orphanage. This template of a perfect orphan was then used by the Korean orphanage to deceive the Borshays into adopting Kang Ok Jin, who despite all odds would eventually reunite with a living Korean mother and family.

Despite similar cases of corruption that are reported anecdotally among adult adoptees, especially those who have reunited with their birth families, South Korea’s adoption program is still dubbed the world’s “Cadillac” of international adoption, in part because of its supposed transparency. The reputation of the world’s 15th largest economy and host of this November’s G20 summit is so sterling that it has perennially remained in the top three or four “sending” countries, even while refusing to comply with international law: It has yet to ratify the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, and it holds reservations to paragraph (a) of article 21 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

South Korea was urged to ratify the Hague Convention in May 2008 during a meeting of the members of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. At that time, the committee pointed out that South Korean adoption agencies do not keep sufficient documents on adopted children, and added that “a possibility of abuse . . . may have occurred in intercountry adoptions from South Korea,” according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Whether or not the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child was aware at the time that our organization, Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), had already filed a complaint about abuses in adoption with the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission of Korea in January of 2008 is unclear. However, one of the cases we had cited was Deann Borshay Liem’s, which we had learned about from her first movie, First Person Plural. TRACK also presented the cases of other Korean adoptees living in Korea and other countries. Those cases involved unclear relinquishments, intrafamilial kidnappings, misrepresentations of children’s social and medical histories to adoptive parents and various other forms of misinformation contained in adoption files.

In November 2009, TRACK brought these representative cases illustrating what appear to be industry-wide abuses to the South Korean parliament as we introduced revisions to the adoption law with our coalition, consisting of TRACK, KoRoot, ASK, the Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers, National Assembly Representative Choi Young-hee, and the Korean Unwed Mothers and Family Association (KUMFA). KUMFA represents some of the 80 percent of people who raise their children when they are able to access genuine support outside the intertwined web of unwed mothers’ shelters, adoption agencies and healthcare providers that harvest babies to send for adoption.

In short, the government knows very well what has happened within the country’s borders in the past and what is happening in the present, but it has yet systematically to hold the parties who have engaged in corruption accountable for their actions, nor has “dynamic” and “sparkling” Korea ever bothered to fund a creative campaign to help end institutionalized discrimination against unwed mothers, who give birth to 90 percent of internationally adopted Koreans today.

South Korea has continued to shirk its responsibility to keep original families together as the first internationally recommended priority; perform domestic and international adoptions ethically and transparently when absolutely necessary; and offer adequate post-adoption services to the very people that adoption is supposed to serve most: the adoptees. There is no law in Korea banning adoptees from accessing their birth information; the records are not sealed. It is only agency policy and practice — including mishandling, forgeries and omissions in records — that prevent adoptees and their Korean families from being reunited. This kind of negligence and tacit acceptance of negligence is clear in the movie, when the social worker insists that Liem’s record is 100 percent accurate — with the minor exception that the record belonged to a completely different person, as if that were some kind of common oversight of no significance.

Regarding the problems in the adoption program, both past and present, Koreans often tell me, “No one cares.” Yes, sometimes I do get the feeling that no one cares. We don’t even know exactly how many adoptees were sent away, because the Koreans did not care enough to document all of us properly. We can only guess that it may be up to 200,000 children over the past 60 years. The country that ranks first in the world in broadband Internet penetration while spending the least amount of money on social welfare out of all OECD countries, aside from Mexico, continues to send children away at the rate of over 1,000 a year. Ranking 115th in the world in terms of gender equality, between India and Bahrain, South Korea punishes single mothers for being sexually active while enabling paternal irresponsibility, all while simultaneously maintaining a neoliberal social welfare scheme that financially incentivizes adoption through private agencies. The country with one of the world’s lowest birthrates has turned to developing countries in Asia for mail-order brides to boost its population in order to avoid a demographic catastrophe, while it has disincentivized child-rearing by Korean unwed mothers by not providing sufficient support for them to raise their own children.

Many adoptees are reluctant to criticize the Korean international adoption system because they feel that they are no longer Korean, and as “foreigners,” they have no right to say anything. However, whether adoptees call themselves “Korean” or not, and whether there were abuses in their own adoptions or not, there are internationally recognized standards of ethics and transparency that Korea simply does not meet. Its refusal so far to ratify the Hague Convention and its reservations to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child are concrete proof of that. International pressure must be brought to bear on South Korea in order to stop the corrupt practices that lead to cases such as Liem’s. We all need to start caring.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is especially welcome at a time when highly publicized cases of corruption have come to light in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Guatemala, while South Korea has received nary a criticism about the unethical practices that have been cited frequently in the Korean media. As the South Korean government, the private companies on which Korea has become dependent to provide social welfare for its people and their scores of overseas adoption partners turn a blind eye to fraud and abuse, this movie testifies to the never-ending consequences paid by adoptees, adoptive families and original families when adoptions are mishandled, despite everyone’s best intentions, and despite everything that we adoptive families thought we knew.

 

Jane Jeong TrenkaJane Jeong Trenka was sent for adoption to Minnesota in September 1972 and repatriated to Korea in 2004. Her latest book is Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea, and she volunteers as president of TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea), an organization in Seoul advocating for the full knowledge of past and present Korean adoption practices to protect the human rights of adult adoptees, children and families.





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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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