Around 300 South Korean adoptees in the US and Europe have filled out applications, demanding that the South Korean government probe into the circumstances of their adoption. Denmark-based Danish Korean Rights Group is leading the charge in this battle, which could potentially turn into one of the most widespread investigations of foreign adoptions in South Korea.
During the last six decades, around 200,00 South Korean children have been adopted by mainly white American and European parents. The adoption industry especially boomed during the 1970s and 1980s when the military governments of the country saw foreign adoption as a one-step solution for reducing the number of mouths to feed and establishing strong ties with Western democracies.
This led to the creation of special laws to promote foreign adoption that allowed agencies to skip over child relinquishment practices while exporting them abroad. They aggressively solicited children from hospitals and orphanages, and also operated maternity homes where single mothers were often coerced through the fear of social scrutiny to give up their babies. These children were then usually given a made-up backstory to ensure they were more likely to be adopted.
Louise Kwang is one such South Korean adoptee who believed she was found as an orphaned baby on the streets of Busan and was later taken in by her Danish parents in 1976. The identity she had built for 40 years shattered in an instant when the agency that handled her adoption very casually told her that the story about her being orphaned was completely made up. They had some leads on the whereabouts of her biological parents, and Kwang eventually got to meet her father. He was living in Seoul in 1976, and there is no evidence to indicate that Kwang was ever in Busan in the first place. At a press conference, she said, “This was all a lie. A lie made up for adoption procedure. I have been made non-existent in Korea, to get me out of Korea as fast as possible.”
It was only in 2013 when the South Korean government made it mandatory for foreign adoptions to go through family courts, ending the policy that empowered agencies to control child relinquishments, transfer of custodies, and emigration for decades. During the 1960s-80s, Denmark was among the top European countries that received Korean adoptees in a large number. The Danish Korean Rights Group started to represent people who suffered the same fate as Kwang and initially filed applications from 51 Danish adoptees to Seoul’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asking for an investigation. All of these applicants’ adoption procedure was handled by two Seoul-based agencies- Holt Children’s Services and KSS. As the word got out, more adoptees who these agencies handled started reaching out from outside Denmark. The campaign has now expanded to represent 283 applicants worldwide.
Most of these adoptees are not as lucky as Kwang to get their hands on the information about their biological parents. In many instances, people found out that their information was fabricated to replace children who had died or were too ill to travel or whose parents decided to take them back. According to Peter Møller, attorney and co-founder of the Danish Korean Rights Group, many adoptees are afraid that the agencies might destroy the original records if they retaliate.
Møller stated that they will be suing Holt and KSS for refusing to make their records accessible to adoptees and falsifying their histories. In a press conference, he claimed, “None of us are orphans…(In) a lot of papers, the Korean state at the time have stamped papers that say people were found on the streets. If you do a little bit of maths, that would mean that from the 1970s and 1980s Seoul would be flooded with baskets with children lying around in the streets… Basements will be filled with lost child reports at police stations.”
Now, it is up to Truth and Reconciliation Commission to decide whether a formal investigation will be held or not to address the growing body of grievances. The findings could help the adoptees in later legal suits they might want to pursue against the agencies or even the government.