MIA Lee Sorensen’s Danish parents used to tell her that her birth family in South Korea had put her up for adoption. According to her adoption papers, she was born prematurely in 1987 to a family that could not afford her medical bills and wished for her to have a “good future” abroad.
But when Sorensen found her birth parents in South Korea last year, they could not believe she was alive. They told her that her mother had passed out during labour and that when she woke up, the clinic told her that the baby had died.
South Korea has the world’s largest diaspora of intercountry adoptees, with more foreign adoptions overall than any other nation. About 200,000 children have been sent abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953, mostly to the United States and Europe.
Those adoptions have continued today, even as the country suffers one of the world’s lowest birthrates. In 2021, the top intercountry adoption hubs were Colombia, India, Ukraine and South Korea. Before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, China had topped the list.
Amid widespread accusations of corruption and malpractice in the past, South Korea opened its first official government investigation into its adoption industry last year.
South Korean families have long been reluctant to adopt children, despite government campaigns to encourage domestic adoptions. And in the decades after the Korean War, when South Korea was an impoverished country with poor medical services and threadbare welfare budgets, there was a pressing need to find adoptive homes abroad for orphaned, abandoned or disabled children, according to adoption experts.
Many children found the help and caring homes they needed abroad. But in its rush to promote overseas adoptions as a solution, South Korea had also spawned profound and widespread problems in the industry that stretched for decades.
Profit motives for adoption firms created an incentive in the past to falsify or obscure documents to make more children available for adoption, sometimes without the birth parents’ knowledge. Many unwed mothers were coerced into signing their babies away even before giving birth. And sometimes, there was little or no follow-up on cases where children struggled with adjustment troubles or abuse in their new homes.
Many of the problems have diminished in recent decades, as South Korea took steps to overhaul its adoption practices, including expanding government support for single mothers who wanted to keep their children and requiring overseas adoptions to be approved by the courts. But numerous accusations of malpractice from earlier decades went without investigation.
The push for accountability has been led by hundreds of adoptees who have returned to South Korea in recent years with the time and resources to seek answers. They have partnered with a new generation of researchers and politicians willing to shed light on a painful legacy that was, for decades, considered too shameful to openly discuss.
“It’s like human trafficking,” Sorensen said of adoption in South Korea. “If this happened to me, how many others did they do this to?”
During the pandemic, Peter Moller, a Korean adoptee raised in Denmark, asked fellow Korean adoptees around the world to share their experiences. He expected to learn of isolated cases of document fraud. Instead, hundreds of people came forward with accounts of fabricated data, stolen babies and laundered identities, and also abuse in adoptive families.
“We only scratched the surface,” said Moller, who helped organise the global adoptee campaign that prompted the government investigation. The baby export business in South Korea began with what critics called a deep-seated xenophobia and prejudice against biracial children.
In its post-war years, the country’s first president, Syngman Rhee, pursued a policy he called “one state for one ethnic people”, which encouraged sending biracial children born to American soldiers and Korean women to “their fathers’ land”.
Many destitute mothers of biracial children faced a stark choice: place their babies up for overseas adoption or raise them alone in poverty and disgrace.
When Boo Chung-ha, a retired adoption agent, joined Holt Children’s Services, the country’s largest adoption agency, in 1967, his first job was to persuade women working in the sex trade around US military bases to place their biracial children up for overseas adoption.
“Our society didn’t care for them and their mothers,” he said. “Their mothers lived and worked in rooms barely large enough to squeeze a bed in.”
By the end of the 1960s, most children sent abroad were not biracial but born to unwed mothers, another target of prejudice in South Korea. Around that time, as many as 20 babies would arrive at Holt from across the country every Friday, said Boo, who headed Holt’s Korea operation until 1978.
“Some had no information on them and doctors had to guess their age from their teeth,” he said. Others had been abandoned and starved for days, and died soon after arrival.
Boo said that during his time at Holt, the agency did nothing illegal. “We sent children overseas so they could have better medical care and homes.”
Another aim, at least for the government, was to alleviate the country’s bloated, post-war welfare rolls.
To streamline the adoption process, South Korea allowed four private agencies, including Holt, to earn fees by sending adopted children abroad. Rather than requiring adoptive parents to travel to South Korea, the agencies delivered the infants directly.
Overseas travellers were often hired by the agencies to escort the babies to their new families at a low cost.
In 1970, a daily newspaper in South Korea reported that 10 children bound for France through Holt were tied together in pairs with clotheslines as they made their way to an airplane. The American who was escorting the children with his wife was quoted as saying that he did so to prevent them from scattering.
References to South Korea as a “baby exporter” and “mail-order babies” became popularised in international media and have stuck.
In 1985, 8,837 South Korean children were sent abroad for adoption, 6,021 of them to the United States. For each baby, adoption agencies collected a US$3,000 to US$4,000 “facilitating fee” from the adoptive family, as well as airfare and a separate US$1,450 adoption fee, according to internal government documents from the national archives, which were reviewed by The New York Times. (South Korea’s per capita national income in 1988 was US$4,571.)
To help keep business humming, the agencies ran or subsidised shelters for unwed pregnant women, where the women were asked to sign agreements to relinquish their babies, according to a report published in January by the National Human Rights Commission.
The news media in South Korea often highlights the successes of Korean adoptees abroad, but those who have returned in recent years describe being haunted by questions of identity and belonging.
William Alan Vorhees said when he was adopted by an unmarried American businessman, his papers listed him as an orphan. But he said he struggles with lingering childhood memories of visiting a rural market in South Korea with his mother and being dragged away by a stranger suddenly.
Investigators plan to release their findings soon. They do not have the power to prosecute any of the agencies, but the government is required by law to follow their recommendations.
Jin Meyerson, a Korean adoptee who became an artist, pointed out that South Korea is usually obsessed with addressing historical wrongs, like seeking apologies from Japan for its sexual enslavement of Korean women during colonial rule. But when it comes to owning up to its painful adoption history, the country has failed, he said.
“As a country, as a culture, as a community, what right do we have to demand an apology from Japan when we can’t even take care of this situation in our own home, with our own children?” Meyerson asked. — ©2023 The New York Times Company