Korean Adoptees Examine Origins, Upbringings
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now, a story about people taken from their homeland at a very young age. Since the Korean War more than 200,000 orphaned South Korean babies have been sent to live with Western families - over half of them to American homes. While the number of overseas adoptions from South Korea has declined, South Koreans still send about 2,000 children are brought each year. Many adoptees are now adults and some have come to oppose the practice of international adoption.
From Seoul, Jason Strother reports.
JASON STROTHER: Around 600 adoptees came to Seoul for a weeklong convention this summer, sponsored by the International Korean Adoptee Association - IKAA. For many, it was the first time they've visited their homeland since they were sent overseas. They came from 15 nations, where for the past 50 years mostly Caucasian families have adopted Korean babies.
Despite the differences in their upbringings, Charlotte Yong San Gullach, an IKAA committee member, says most adoptees share many things in common.
Ms. CHARLOTTE YONG SAN GULLACH (Committee Member, International Korean Adoptee Association): A lot of adoptees have the same feeling or longing or question mark, you can call it, for trying to understand the background, their heritage. And that is almost similar to everybody.
STROTHER: But not all adoptees see eye to eye on one controversial topic -whether international adoption should continue. About 30 adoptees stood at a busy city intersection, holding banners with slogans in both English and Korean.
Unidentified Woman: Real choices for Korean women and children.
Unidentified Man: Korean babies not for export.
Unidentified Woman: End overseas adoptions.
STROTHER: Adoptee Solidarity Korea, ASK, is an activist group based in Seoul. And they say Korea is no longer a Third World country and must stop sending its children overseas now.
Ms. KIM STOKER (Representative, Adoptee Solidarity Korea): My name is Kim Stoker, and I'm the ASK representative. I was adopted in 1972. Korea is at the point in its development that it has the financial means to take care of its citizens and it's just choosing not to do it. And I do believe that Korea has a responsibility to take care of all of its citizens. And I don't think that sending its children, who are citizens, abroad to Western countries is taking care of your own.
STROTHER: Stoker says the Korean government hands over babies to adoption agencies to avoid developing welfare services, especially for single mothers. ASK has searched that unwed Korean women are pressured into giving up their babies. They are told they are unfit to be a parent, and that their child would have a better life in the West.
Stoker says this coercion robs mothers of their children.
Ms. STOKER: Their rights, I think, are routinely violated. One of the things that we also think is international adoption is a violation of human rights. It's a violation of an adoptee's rights. And many times in Korea, it's a violation of the birth mother's right because she doesn't know she has any.
STROTHER: But adoption advocates say the fact that thousands of children continue to live in Korean orphanages is proof that inter-country adoption is still necessary.
Ms. SANDRA McLAUGHLIN (Executive Director, Bethany Christian Services): My name is Sandra McLaughlin, and I work for Bethany Christian Services. I'm the director of their Western Pennsylvania office in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. And I was adopted from Korea in 1961. I think the groups that are protesting, for them the issues are black and white. If financial support were available from the government, all birth mothers would keep their babies.
STROTHER: McLaughlin says that just isn't the case. She says the situation for unwed Korean mothers today is similar to the way it was in America back in the 1950s. Women are often stigmatized or forced to live in shelters.
McLaughlin says as in the United States, it will take South Korea some time to overcome these attitudes.
Ms. McLAUGHLIN: I would welcome the day when there wouldn't be a need for adoptions to continue because children could stay with their birth families. But we recognize socially, culturally, Korea is not ready to adopt all of the children that need to be adopted, that birth mothers are not ready to parent all of their children.
STROTHER: For these reasons, McLaughlin says international adoption must remain an option. The South Korean government is trying to encourage more domestic adoptions. However, an estimated 19,000 children currently live in orphanages -many until they are adults.
For NPR News, I'm Jason Strother in Seoul, South Korea.
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