“I am a Korean adoptee.”: A Story About Korean Adoptees’ Identity

The Huffington Post Korea / July 30, 2015

In a dimly lit chamber at the Holt Daegu Community Service Centre in South Korea, one man in his 20s and one woman in her 50s are looking each other in silence. In between the two, there is an officer with a nematic 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 in Danish which is his mother tongue, 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 can 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. Then 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’, but 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 (Orphaned Baby Exporter)’ South Korea

In 1955, an American couple, Harry and Bartha Holt adopted eight Korean orphanages 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.

Harry Holt arrives in the U. S. with the eight children he and his wife adopted from South Korea in 1955. Source: Holt International Children’s Services

There are a plenty of reasons why Korean babies have 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, resulted in the ‘Korean efficient baby exporting system’. Ever since Korea has been criticised 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 latter 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’s 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 $38,000 per baby was traded 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 That 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 American Dream, to borrow an activist, writer, and one of the well-known Korean adoptees, Jane Jeong Trenka’s words. 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 France, the Netherlands, and three Scandinavian countries which are Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and etc. have been lesser noticed. However, it could be worthwhile to look at the adopted Koreans in Scandinavia, given some food for thoughts.

Demographically speaking, the second largest number of Korean babies around 25,000 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 haven’t 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 60’s, 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 50’s, 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 the other European countries and the United States, though there is no official record on ethnicity tracked by the 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 white 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 the numbers of discussion on ethnicity and race is less, ironically.

A map of the world’s most and least ethnically diverse countries Source: Max Fisher, the Washington Post

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 Korea Klubben and some other European ones in the early 90’s, and American ones in the late 90’s. 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 likeminded 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 organises associations, resulted in the birth of the first Korean adoptee community, the AKF.

With the help of technological advancement, such as the invention of the Internet, not only the AKF but also other Korean adoptee communities have been able to grow bigger. It is told that, early on, back in the early 90’s, the AKF members communicated via postal letter and phone call, but the number of the members increased faster than had been expected. Consequently, it is told that the founding members had to have their private phone line. The AKF has more than 1000 members now but the things are way much 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 as 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, since the old days when they began to compare themselves in their mirror to the people out of it. 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, the vice president of the International Korean Adoptee Associations (‘IKAA’ for short) and the former president of the AKF, argues that had it not been for Korean adoptee communities, the Korean international adoptees’ identity called the ‘KAD’, which indicated Korean international adoptees and their identity, would have not been developed by the KADs. 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’s the ‘Ideologists and Activists’ group that advocate the KAD identity actively. Unlike the ideologists who rather focus on their communities’ internal issues, the activists working externally with non-adoptee people, lobbyists, policy makers, and etc. 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.

The photo is from a book called ‘DO’ which is written by Eva Tind, an ethnically Korean adopted by a Danish couple. In her book, the author explores the nature of belonging and the way in which we forge our own identity. Source: Eva Tind homepage http://www.evatind.dk/

What Korean Adoptees Truly Want

Until now, Mikkel hasn’t had any practical issue 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, orphaned babies, and Korean adoptees are 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’s the time for Koreans to make a move.

link (in English): http://bit.ly/1LUcdPI 
link (in Korean): http://bit.ly/1jGexPL