A story about Korean adoptee's identity.
By Soyoun Park
The story was originally published in the Huffington Post.
In a dimly lit chamber at the Holt Daegu Community Service Center in South Korea, one man in his twenties and one woman in her fifties are looking at each other in silence. In between the two, there is a man with a name tag indicating that she is from the Holt International Children’s Services, one of the biggest international adoption agencies in the world. The man begins to talk in English, mixing with his mother tongue Danish, and the woman is desperately waiting for the Holt officer to translate what he says to her into Korean, though seen from a distance, it could be assumed that three Koreans are having a conversation. She shows him a photo of a girl who takes after him, then begins to sob. A look of confusion in his eyes is overlapped on her tears.
This anecdote is about when Mikkel Lund Andersen (28) met his biological mother for the first time in his life. Originally born in Daegu, South Korea, he grew up in Silkeborg, Denmark, after being adopted by a Danish couple when he was only 5 months old. For 25 years, he was a Dane with no doubt, though he could tell he looks different from his parents and friends. They have blue eyes and blonde hair but Mikkel has his distinctive coal-black eyes and hair. In 2012, he was introduced to Korean culture by a couple of Korean exchange students while he was volunteering for international students at Aalborg University. Totally by coincidence, his interest in Korea grew big enough to make him take a trip to his country of origin. After returning from his birth country, he underwent identity conflicts, wondering who he really was. It was after attending a summer camp for Korean adoptees from all around the world which was held in Korea that he decided to search for his biological mother, considering his personal status as an adoptee and birth mum’s age. Since his meeting with her, Mikkel has been more aware of being Korean, interacting with Koreans in Denmark. However, he is still confused about his identity. In his words, he feels like "standing between two chairs," and surprisingly, there are Korean adoptees and their communities in Denmark more than he expected, who would feel the same way he does.
‘Go-Ah-Soo-Chool-Gook (Orphan Baby Exporter)’ South Korea
In 1955, an American couple, Harry and Bartha Holt adopted eight Korean orphans in the aftermath of the Korean War. In the following year, Harry founded an adoption agency that bears his name, the Holt International Children’s Services, believing that adoption is a banner of love, not a badge of shame. Since then, more than 200,000 South Korean babies have been sent abroad for international adoption.
There are plenty of reasons why Korean babies had to leave their country. At the beginning of Korean international adoption, it was due to the Korean War, which had left so many children orphaned. A special adoption law was passed in 1961 and four private adoption agencies were founded in Korea, resulting in the ‘Korean efficient baby exporting system’. Ever since Korea has been criticized on its baby exports by Western media after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, the country has dealt with the issue rather seriously and its government as well as policymakers have issued and revised several adoption laws to reduce the number of baby exports and moreover, to support adopted Koreans. Indeed, the number decreased but since the second half of 2013 when the Korean international adoption procedure was legally approved, the number has increased again. According to the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 535 Korean babies were sent overseas in 2014.
Until now, Korean babies have been sent to be adopted because they are handicapped, their biological parents are financially poor or want to have boys instead of girls (Korea has a tradition of preferring sons to daughters, though it is not strong these days), and above all, their biological mother are unmarried (single mother) and abortion is restricted in South Korea. Some also argue that it is because of the money that each baby brings to the adoption agencies. It is estimated that about 38 thousand dollars were traded per baby between the United States and Korea in 2011, generating 27 million dollars in total. South Korea has been one of the baby exporters in the world and this has been one of the inconvenient truths, ignored by general citizens of the country.
Korean adoptees sent to Scandinavia are less well-known
About two-thirds of the exported babies ended up in the United States. Because South Korea has blindly followed America, believing in the American Dream, to borrow words from an activist, writer, and one of the well-known Korean adoptees, Jane Jeong Trenka. Naturally, most of the Korean adoptee issues have been related to the Korean adoptees that were sent to America. As a result, the other adoptees who were mostly sent to some European countries including for instance France, the Netherlands, and three Scandinavian countries which are Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have been lesser noticed. However, it could be worth looking at the adopted Koreans in Scandinavia, some food for thoughts.
Demographically speaking, the second largest number of Korean babies, around 25 thousand, has been sent to three Scandinavian countries put together, about 10,000 babies to Sweden, 9,000 babies to Denmark and 6,000 babies to Norway. According to Tobias Hübinette, who has a PhD in Korean Studies from Stockholm University, Koreans constitute half of all international adoptees in Denmark and Norway and one-fifth in Sweden, dominating the ethnic Korean presence in the region as there are few Korean immigrants living there. The reasons why there are so many Korean adoptees in Scandinavia could differ and have not been scholarly studied. However, Fredrika Ornbrant from the Embassy of Sweden states that it could be because the Welfare State, which began to take root in the Swedish society in the 60s, paved the way for unmarried mothers not to give their children up for adoption. Consequently, the domestic adoptions in Sweden decreased dramatically and the families wanting to adopt a child had to turn to other countries. Since some adoptions from South Korea had already started in the late 50s, it was natural to see the international adoption flow from the supplier, Korea, to the demander, Sweden. This situation would go for Denmark and Norway, too.
In a cultural context, the Scandinavian countries are ethnically far less diverse than other European countries and the United States, though there is no official record on ethnicity tracked by Scandinavian governments. This context leads to a question, how the life of the adopted Koreans in those countries would be, and how they identify who they are while comparing themselves to their Caucasian parents. The interviews with 10 Korean adoptees who were sent to Scandinavia conducted for this story show that the answer to the question is "it depends on the person." Half didn’t have any doubt on their ethnic roots but the other half did. The notable here is that the adoptees in the region who had ever wondered about their identity, voluntarily formed communities for the people similar to them, which are Korean adoptee communities. The world’s first Korean adoptee community was born not in the United States, the multi-racial nation of immigrants, but in Scandinavia where there are fewer discussions on ethnicity and race, ironically.
The first Korean Adoptee Association established in Scandinavia
The first Korean adoptee community, called the AKF, Adopterade Koreaners Förening (Adopted Korean Association in English), was established in Sweden in 1986, followed by Denmark and Norway's 'Korea Klubben' and some other European ones in the early 90s, and American ones in the late 90s. Out of curiosity for Korean adoptees, some young Korean adoptees in Sweden including Mattias Tjeder formed a group, which could be an early form of the AKF. Then an urge to search for birth parents and a need to find like-minded adoptees with similar experiences were incorporated later. According to Hübinette, this matched up with a long tradition of social movements and civil society activism in Scandinavia which means that practically every demographic group in Scandinavia forms and organizes associations, resulting in the birth of the first Korean adoptee community, the AKF.
With the help of technological advancement, such as the Internet, not only the AKF but also other Korean adoptee communities have been able to grow bigger. It is said that, back in the early 90s, the AKF members communicated via postal letter and phone call, but the number of the members increased faster than had been expected. Consequently, the founding members had to have their private phone line. The AKF has more than 1,000 members now but the communication is way better than before. Through the Internet, the member adoptees talk to each other and set up offline gatherings to learn Korean language and experience Korean culture. Most of all, together they develop their own identity, being Korean adoptee in between Korean and Scandinavian, sharing the identity conflicts that they used to experience or are still going through.
Being neither Korean, nor Swedish, but Korean adoptee
Case by case, the reason why Korean adoptees begin to have identity conflicts varies. Some remember they started to get confused when they began to compare themselves in their mirror to the people out around them. Some argue that they have never had any identity confusion, maybe because they have siblings who are also adopted or they feel like betraying their adoptive parents if they wonder about their identity by themselves and ask their adoptive parents about their roots. However, it is common to hear from the Korean adoptees that they had identity conflicts after returning from a trip to their birth country, encountering Korean people or culture, and becoming parents. These people desire to find an answer, which could explain their status quo, so they join Korean adoptee communities in their region and discover their 'Korean side'. Among them, some have already found an answer and initiated to raise their voice about their identity, which is being as neither Korean, nor Scandinavian, but just Korean adoptee in Scandinavia, as you can see from some artworks of Eva Tind, an ethnically Korean artist who was adopted by a Danish couple.
Daniel Lee, vice president of the International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA for short) and former president of the AKF, argues that had it not been for Korean adoptee communities, the Korean international adoptees’ identity called the 'KAD', would have not been developed by the adoptees. This is because the KAD is "definitely a group-oriented phenomena," in his phrase. He said in an interview that, "if you grow up in a small city of northern Sweden for example, it would not be possible for you to develop this kind of identity because you are the only one who thinks of it." Though, not all Korean adoptees know and argue about the KAD. According to Lee, there are 4 types of Korean adoptees in relation to the degree of engaging with Korean adoptee communities. The 'Visitors' are the people who visit KAD communities out of curiosity and never come back, and the 'Inhabitants' like to just hang out with other KADs once in a while without any further movement. It is people from the 'Ideologists' and 'Activists' groups that advocate the KAD identity actively. Unlike the ideologists who rather focus on their communities' internal issues, the activists work externally with non-adoptee people, lobbyists, policy makers, to spread a new idea on their and their group's own identity. By cooperating with not only non-adoptees but also adopted Koreans around the world, the KAD activists and communities have led so called the worldwide ‘Adopted Korean movement’, which is a designation of all adopted Koreans who meet each other regularly and participate in various activities organised by the KADs.
What Korean adotpees truly want
Until now, Mikkel has not had any practical issues that some Korean adoptees could encounter. Unlike some adoptees, who have tried to find their birth mums but failed for several times because, for example, their adoption file shows incorrect information, he could meet his biological mother without much effort. Thanks to the Global Overseas adoptees’ Link (‘G.O.A.’L’ for short)’s lobby for inclusion of overseas Korean adoptees into the Overseas Koreans Act, he has been to Korea for several times with the F-4 VISA, which allows Korean adoptees to reside and work legally in Korea. From this year, he can even apply for Korean dual citizenship if he wants, because the Danish parliament accepted dual citizenship in the late 2014. However, Mikkel wonders whether he could be lucky for this time, as he has been.
Since last year, he has been searching for jobs in Korea to discover more about his Korean side, but at the same time, he is a bit reluctant to do so, mainly considering the Korean society. He found out that the Korean society’s negative perceptions on social minorities including unwed and single mums, orphan babies, and Korean adoptees still remained until today. The laws are changing due to the constant KAD’s movement, but still, the unchanged Koreans’ apathy on the adoption issues and social stigma on unmarried mums make KADs disappointed. "It is overlooked that all of the adoptee issues has started not from adoptive countries, but from South Korea. The true type of discussion we need should have a cultural base about drop boxes, poor conditions for Korean single mums, and the Koreans’ negative perceptions on these. It is the people that should change," said Lee. The KADs have already moved a step forward. Now, it is time for Koreans to make a move.
Soyoun Park is a journalist from South Korea, currently based in Hamburg, Germany. You can contact her through LinkedIn.