'Feeling Like We Belong': U.S. Adoptees Return To South Korea To Trace Their Roots South Korea was once the largest source of children for international adoptions. Now some adoptees are building ties with birth family members. Critics say South Korean adoption laws need improvement.

'Feeling Like We Belong': U.S. Adoptees Return To South Korea To Trace Their Roots

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Since the Korean War ended in 1953, some 200,000 South Korean children were adopted by foreign families. Most of those families were American. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul about one project that helps the adopted children tell their stories.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Denver-based filmmakers Glenn and Julie Morey recently came out with an audio-video art installation. For it, they interviewed 100 Korean adoptees. Glenn is an adoptee himself. His wife is not.

GLENN MOREY: It is, first and foremost, a historical record of 60-plus years of inter-country adoption out of South Korea, which set the precedent for inter-country adoption out of other countries.

KUHN: Morey set out to record the history of a human diaspora. He also sought to better understand himself and what it means to be an ethnic Korean and involuntary immigrant to the U.S. Morey says that his interviews show that while the adoptees' lives start out in similar ways, they turn out very differently, yet you can see certain common threads connecting the stories. One of them is this.

MOREY: A sense of loss, sadness and perhaps even trauma related to thinking about - or remembering, in some cases - their time in Korea and how their lives got started.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I feel like I was sold. I feel like I don't know who I am. I don't even know if my name is real or my birthdate is real.

KUHN: In Morey's project, the interviewees are identified only by their year of birth and year of adoption. This woman, born in 1979, talks about her separation from her birth family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm pretty much cursed with this, and that's why I'm mad - because it wasn't my fault. And for the rest of my life, I have to feel like I don't belong.

KUHN: Glenn Morey says there's another common thread running through his interviews.

MOREY: The displacement and alienation of being raised then as a Korean in a Western country primarily surrounded by white culture and white society.

KUHN: Another interviewee, born in 1974, remembers her experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was another family adopted - Korean-adopted kids, too, but I never feel like I could relate to them. I often feel like I was white. I never thought I was actually Asian until later on in life.

KUHN: Morey's own story fits seamlessly into the mosaic of interviews he created. Like many of his interviewees, he does not know who his birth parents are.

MOREY: I was abandoned in Seoul as a newborn infant at the age of 2 weeks, and I was abandoned in Seoul to an orphanage and adopted six months later to a family in the U.S. And so my interest in this project is intensely personal.

KUHN: The adoptees' stories create an alternative to the narrative about adoptions put forward by adoption agencies and governments. That narrative often portrays adoption as an act of Christian charity, whose recipients are the lucky ones. Many adoptees in Morey's film do express thanks for the happiness and opportunities that adoption gave them, but they don't all have such happy outcomes. And experts say that South Korea's system of adoptions needs fixing.

KYUNG-EUN LEE: (Through interpreter) If we ask whether the state has fulfilled its duty to protect children in Korean society, we have to say that it has completely lost that opportunity.

KUHN: That's Kyung-eun Lee. She used to be a South Korean official working on adoption policy. She's now director of Amnesty International Korea. She points out that according to international law, children must not be separated from their parents unless a court rules it's in the kid's interest. But South Korea has essentially robbed children of legal protection, she argues, by leaving it to parents and adoption agencies to make the decisions, which South Korean courts simply rubber-stamp. She also argues in English that South Korea's government has allowed children's identities to be erased in order to make them more adoptable.

LEE: They were made orphan. Actually, you know, these kids were not really adopted. They were just delivered to the United States - no such thing that we can call a adoption procedure.

KUHN: Lee says adoptees are often deprived of their right to a name, a nationality and family information because birth records are often falsified. This makes the children more adoptable. It also makes it harder for them to know who they are and where they came from. Sung Changhyun, an official with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, declined to be interviewed. He said by email that since reforms in 2013, the government has improved court hearings' official oversight and management of records in order to protect adoptees' rights. But Kyung-eun Lee says reforms have failed to fix the problem.

LEE: (Through interpreter) The adoption law, even after many amendments, to this day is basically still a law that produces orphans.

KUHN: The government has been motivated, she adds, by the drive to make money and reduce its welfare burden, she says, and the desire to purge stigmatized groups, such as children who are of mixed race, born out of wedlock or disabled. But Glenn Morey says he did not undertake his oral history project with overhauling the South Korean adoption system in mind.

MOREY: I'm a storyteller. I believe in the power of human stories to create empathy, and I believe that's what these stories do. Do they direct us toward better policy decisions? I don't know. That's for someone else to decide. But I know that these stories can create more empathy for the lives that these folks have lived.

KUHN: Morey's interviews encompass the nearly seven-decade-long history of Korean international adoptions. A lot has changed during that time. South Korea has grown wealthy. Attitudes towards immigration and race in the U.S. have evolved. But Morey says that the key elements of adoptees' stories, particularly the lifelong search for identity, remain largely the same. And South Korea continues to send adoptees overseas, although at a slower rate than at the peak in the 1980s.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAIRO SONG, "ALEWIFE")

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