The Adopted Koreans - Diaspora Politics and the Construction of an Ethnic Identity

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Tobias HŘbinette, Stockholm University, Sweden

Paper presented at the First World Conference of Korean Studies, Academy of Korean
Studies, Seongnam, Korea, July 18-20, 2002.


This paper is a presentation of my own Ph.D. project and can be seen as a case study of the relationship between a diaspora and its homeland and the construction of an ethnic group, namely the overseas Koreans, the republic of Korea and the adopted Koreans. Using adoption, ethnicity and diaspora studies in a post-colonial and global setting, the purpose of the paper is to examine the history of Korean overseas adoption, the Western view of adopted Koreans and Korea┤s politics towards overseas Koreans. Finally the paper argues that the adopted Koreans are constructing their own ethnic identity in the third space between the overseas Koreans, the homeland and the host countries in the West as a part of a global Korean community which is in the process of developing, transgressing borders and cultures.

The adopted Koreans

The full history of overseas adoption in Korea and the adopted Koreans consisting of 150,000 children being sent away to more than 20 Western countries during a period of 50 years, is still sketchy as no one has yet written a full account. 1 Instead, one is left with the option to utilize many different and disparate sources to be able to fit the pieces together. However, it is unquestionable that the story is fully intertwined with the division of Korea in 1948 and the war that followed.

The practice started off spontaneously during the Korean war when orphans were taken care of at military bases by U.N. soldiers. 2 It was also during the years of war that the first Western style orphanages were set up, an absolute condition for the following mass migration of Korean children. In 1945 when Korea was liberated, there were just 38 child welfare institutions in the country inhabited by less than 3,000 children. 3 In 1950, after the division and at the outbreak of the war, those numbers had increased to 215 institutions and almost 25,000 children. Finally, in post-war 1957, five years after the armistice, there were 482 institutions and close to 50,000 children living there.

In 1954, the Korean government set up Child Placement Service with the specific aim of getting rid of the thousands of bi-racial children, hy˘nh˘lin, often abandoned by both their Western fathers and Korean mothers. 4 In the same year, Harry Holt, driven by the obsession to rescue those bi-racial children, founded the adoption agency which still bears his name and which has developed not only to Korea┤s but the world┤s leading organisation in the field of international adoption placing more than 100,000 children and two thirds of the adoptions from Korea. 5 During the 1950s almost 4,000 children, most of them bi-racial, left the country for adoption. 6

In 1961, a special law was passed which created the framework for a most effective adoption industry consisting of four licensed agencies, speedy procedures, a minimum of paper work and a secure guarantee for young and healthy babies. 7 In the 1960s,and 1970s when the mission to cleanse the country from bi-racial children was considered completed, overseas adoption found its new supply among the tens of thousands of Korean children declared foundlings in the brutal turmoil of urbanization and industrialization under the authoritarian regime of president Park Chung Hee. In total, 60,000 overseas adoptions were proceeded during those two decades. In the 1980s, during the tenure of president Chun Doo Hwan, overseas adoption continued in even larger numbers with 70,000 children consisting primarily of those born out of wedlock, and the middle of the decade saw overseas adoption peaking with almost 9,000 adoptions a year.

In 1988, the year of the summer Olympics in Seoul, Western journalists highlighted Korea┤s overseas adoption program as an outright trade in human beings, and the country became known in the world as koasuch┤ulguk or number one in orphan exporting. 8

Before 1988, overseas adoption had almost been treated as a state official secret, partly because of the accusation from North Korea that the southern neighbour was selling off its own children. 9 After 1988, desperate attempts have been made either to stop overseas adoption or decrease the numbers annually in favour of domestic adoption and foster care, and as a result of these efforts 20,000 children were adopted overseas during the 1990s. 10

In spite of this, still every year around 2000 children leave the country for overseas adoption. With a population of 150,000 adopted Koreans, there are almost 100,000 adopted Koreans living in the U.S. consisting of half of all internationally adopted children and 15 percent of the total ethnic Korean population in that country, 11 and almost 50,000 in Europe representing an estimated one third of both all internationally adopted children and ethnic Koreans on the continent. 12

Actually, no other country in the world has sent away so many children overseas in modern times. 13 The closest comparisons in the history of forced child migration would be the 130,000 children who were sent away by the British Empire up until 1967 to populate the colonies, 14 the 70,000 Finnish children who were brought temporarily to Sweden during World War II of whom 10,000 stayed as adoptees or foster children, 15 and the 30,000 Aboriginal children in Australia who were forcefully separated from their parents and adopted to White couples as a civilizing project and today branded as cultural genocide. 16

An almost identical parallel to the Korean case is the more than 2,000 Irish children born by unmarried mothers whom the Catholic clergy sent away overseas for adoption for the same reasons as the Korean children, namely to protect the mores of the society. The difference from Korea is that Ireland stopped overseas adoption already in the middle of the 1970s, and the issue is discussed widely today as something of a national trauma forcing the Irish society to come to terms with its own sad history. 17

With all these historical parallels in mind, it is natural to wonder why Korea as an O.E.C.D. country is still sending away its children. Historically with the background of the Confucian thinking of sadaejuű or serving the great, to give human beings as a tribute to a dominating power could well be said to be a Korean tradition: virgins or kongny˘ to the Ming emperor in the 14th century, 18 "comfort women or ch˘ngsindae to the Japanese during the first half of the 20th century and adoptees or ibyangin to the Americans during the second half. 19 Another way is to see overseas adoption as a symbol of Korea┤s continuous dependency to the West, and especially the U.S. in spite of the end of the Cold war. In this way, overseas adoption reinforces the harsh realization of the country┤s position as a powerless and dependent client state in the Western, American hegemonic world system, to borrow Immanuel Wallerstein┤s words. 20

The Western perspective

Western studies on international adoption tend to focus indiscriminately on the psychosocial issues of an adoptees┤ adjustment to the adopting family and assimilation to the host culture. This is especially evident in the leading adopting regions of North America, Scandinavia and Western Europe, where a significant number of researchers in the field are psychologists, psychiatrists or social scientists. 21

Since its beginning after World War II, international adoption has been the last resort to have a child for infertile middle-class couples, and is widely perceived by Western societies as a way of rescuing a non-White child from the miseries of the so-called Third world which includes Korea. 22 This explains why few studies have examined the various consequences of international adoption for the sending countries, one of the most important aspects being the almost complete lack of a social welfare system for unmarried mothers and their children in for example Korea as a result of continuous international adoption. 23

Leading theorists in ethnicity and diaspora studies, such as Thomas Hylland Eriksen or Robert Cohen and William Safran, would not consider the adopted Koreans neither as an ethnic group nor a diaspora in a classical Western meaning. The group lacks everything from a common language to any serious attempts to endogamy, which Hylland Eriksen talks about while defining an ethnic group, and the existence of a myth of a homeland as both Cohen and Safran put great emphasize on. 24

Instead adopted Koreans are considered a part of their host countries with no relation at all to Korea or their Korean families. The result is that adopted Koreans are expected to be loyal to their adoptive parents and assimilate fully to their host cultures. Those who are showing an active interest in Korean culture or want to reconnect to their Korean family are accused of exposing nationalism and biologism, which is considered un-acceptable for a typical Western left-liberal adoptive family. 25

Overseas Koreans and diaspora politics

Modern Korean emigration began in the 1860s when the Choson dynasty began to crumble as a result of intruding Western imperial powers. The first wave of emigrants found their way to the Russian Far East territory, which borders present day North Korea. 26 During the same decade, Koreans started to pour in to Chinese Manchuria in great numbers 27 and in the 1870s and 1880s emigration to Japan and the U.S., respectively, began in earnest. 28 These four countries, Russia, later Soviet Union and Central Asia, China, Japan and the U.S. have since that time been the main host countries for overseas Koreans.

The causes of mass emigration from Korea can be intimately linked to the country┤s semi-colonial status from the second half of the 19th century, while the main exodus took place during the colonial years: in 1945, 180,000 individuals lived in Soviet Central Asia after having been relocated in 1937, 29 2.2 million in China, 2 million in Japan and approximately 10,000 in the U.S. The emigration continued during the authoritarian regimes, especially to the U.S., creating a diaspora which today numbers 5 million people.

In 1995 president Kim Young Sam launched Korea┤s globalization drive, segyŕhwa. 30 One way to achieve this is to reconnect with those 5 million overseas Koreans, who are officially defined as assets in the globalization drive. 31 The end of the Cold war resulted in full access to 2 million Chos˘njok in China and 500,000 Kory˘ Saram in the newly independent Central Asian states. The Chinese Koreans started to arrive in Korea as migrant workers, as brides filling the shortage of women created by sex-biased abortion, 32 or even as adopted children, 33 while the Korean minority in Central Asia played an important intermediary role for Korean investment in the region. 34 The end of the authoritarian regimes also meant better relations with the 1 million Chaemi Kyop┤o in the U.S. and the 700,000 Zainichen or Chosenjin in Japan.

In 1997, Overseas Korean Foundation was inaugurated as the central authority responsible for the overseas Koreans, chaeoe tongp┤o, in the quest for the country┤s globalization. The foundation┤s activities in creating a functioning network for the scattered Korean population in the world is an important part of this global community building and ethnic mobilization strategy whereby overseas and adopted Koreans are seen both as a tragic symbol of the nation┤s historical suffering after a century of brutal uprooting in the forms of colonialism, division, war, emigration and adoption, and as a guarantee for a bright future for a global Korean community seen as a huge extended and dispersed family, isan kajok. 35

The Korean way of globalization by embracing overseas Koreans whereby blood, hy˘lt┤ong, as the lowest common denominator is beginning to constitute the collective sense of oneness including both South and North Koreans and overseas and adopted Koreans, has reached new heights during the current presidency of Kim Dae Jung. In 1998, during his first presidential year, Kim Dae Jung invited 29 leading adopted Koreans from eight different countries to a meeting in the Blue House where he, on behalf of the country, delivered a moving apology for sending away 150,000 Korean children. 36 In 1999, a dual citizenship law came into effect, which includes adopted Koreans as well. 37 President Kim has shown a remarkable interest in the adoption issue, ibyangmunjŕ, as a part of his political agenda, while the number of newspaper articles dealing with the subject has increased dramatically during the 1990s. 38

The construction of an ethnic identity

Already in the middle of the 1980s, the first generation of adopted Koreans who had reached adulthood started to organize themselves, and today there are associations in almost every country affected by adoption from Korea. 39 This organized adopted Korean community started to interact globally in the 1990s. In 1998 G.O.A.L., Global Overseas Adoptees┤ Link, was created by a group of adopted Koreans who had returned to Korea, 40 and in 1999 the first international gathering of adopted Koreans was held in Washington D.C., the second two years later in Oslo, Norway, and a third being planned for Seoul, Korea, within a few years. 41

The movement of adopted Koreans is now trying to create an ethnic identity of its own in the third space between their birth country┤s dream of a global ethnic Korean community where the adopted Koreans are automatically perceived as Korean brethren, 42 and a Western culture which demands complete assimilation and absolute loyalty and refuses to give space to anything else but rescue fantasies, colonial desires and orientalist performances. 43 Such an ethnic identity would have to consider the fact that the organized adopted Korean community still only reaches out to a minority, while some countries do not even have an association. The only shared aspect agreed upon for the absolute majority of the adopted Koreans would be a common history of having been adopted from Korea. This third space, is defined by the post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha as the space where culture has no unity, purity or fixity, and where primordial notions of race and nation has been replaced by a floating and hybrid existence. 44 The postmodernist Arjun Appadurai has used the term ethnoscape to describe this transcultural condition: " longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogenous". 45

It is precisely this aspect of diversity and hybridity in Korea┤s new and deterritorialized etnonationalism, linked to the process of reunification, 46 to the Korean interpretation of the meaning of globalization, to anti-Western sentiments after the I.M.F. crisis, 47 and to a growing and more realistic self-understanding of the country┤s postcolonial status, 48 which Paik Nak-chung has pointed out when scrutinizing the utopian vision of a global ethnic community of 75 million Koreans. 49 Professor Paik is well aware that this so-called homogenous community or tanil minjok has to be not only multinational, considering the majority of the overseas Koreans have changed their citizenship, and multiracial as many Koreans have intermarried with non-Koreans, but also multilingual, as Korean is no longer the mother-tongue of so many exile countrymen.


1 For one of a few attempts, see Casey Daum, "The history of adoption from Korea", Yisei 13:2 (2000),
2 Some of those children who later were adopted primarily to the U.S. have written autobiographical books about their experiences. See for example Joseph Anthony, The rascal and the pilgrim, New York, 1960, and Link S. White, Chesi┤s story: One boy┤s long journey from war to peace, Tallahassee, 1995.
3 The following statistics are published by Helen Miller in "Korea┤s international children", Lutheran Social Welfare, Summer 1971, 12-23.
4 The history of this government sponsored program for overseas adoption of bi-racial children have never been told yet. The information has been taken from Youn-Taek Tahk, "Intercountry adoption program in Korea. Policy, law and service", in RenÚ Hoksbergen (ed.), Adoption in worldwide perspective. A review of programs, policies and legislation in 14 countries, Berwyn and Lisse, 1986, 79-92.
5 The story of Holt Children┤s Services is told by Harry Holt┤s wife Bertha Holt in The seed from the East, Minneapolis, 1992.
6 For estimated numbers decade by decade, see In Sun Park, People who search. Ppurirűl ch┤atnűn saramdűl, Seoul, 1998, 229.
7 Ki-w˘n Ch˘ng and Hy˘n-ae An, Kugnae mit kugoeibyangűi hy˘nangwajŕ [The consideration task of domestic and overseas adoption], Seoul, 1994, 8.
8 See for example Matthew Rothschild, "Babies for sale. South Koreans make them, Americans buy them", The Progressive 52:1 (1988), 18-23.

9 For a summary of North Korea┤s view on overseas adoption, see Robert Whymant, "Babysnatching", The Guardian 20/6 1973.
10 "Kugnae koa haeoeibyang. 96 ny˘nbut┤˘ ch˘nmy˘n chungdan. Kug┤gamjaryo" [Domestic and overseas adoption of orphans. Total suspension from 1996. Decrease in numbers], Dong- A Ilbo 28/11 1990.
11 Kirsten Lovelock, "Intercountry adoption as a migratory practice: A comparative analysis of intercountry adoption and immigration policy and practice in the United States, Canada and New Zealand in the post W.W.II period", International Migration Review 34 (Fall 2000), 907-49.
12 Outside the U.S. and Europe, there are also adopted Koreans in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
13 Peter Selman, "The demographic history of intercountry adoption", in Peter Selman (ed.), Intercountry adoption. Developments, trends and perspectives, London, 2000, 15-39.
14 Philip Bean and Joy Melville, Lost children of the empire, London, Sydney and Wellington, 1989.
15 Pertti KavÚn, 70 000 smň ÷den [70,000 small destinies], Otalampi, 1994.
16 Bringing them home. Report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Sydney, 1997.
17 Mike Milotte, Banished babies. The secret story of Ireland┤s baby export business, Dublin, 1997.
18 Woo-keun Han, The history of Korea, Seoul, 1970, 223.
19 Its is tempting to add the 100,000 Korean women who are married to American servicemen and the thousands married to non-military Western men, not the least of which are academics engaged in Korean studies. My personal estimation is that 75 percent of all Koreanists are either married to a Korean woman or have an adopted child from Korea.
20 Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical capitalism, New York, 1983.
21 Typical examples are professor Howard Altstein and professor Rita J. Simon in the U.S. (both social scientists), professor Michael Bohman in Sweden (a psychiatrist) and professor RenÚ Hoksbergen in the Netherlands (a social psychologist).
22 Among critiques of international adoption, see for example Damien Ngabonziza, "Moral and political issues facing relinquishing countries", Adoption & Fostering 15:4 (1991), 75-80.
23 See Nam Soon Huh, "Services for out-of-wedlock children in Korea", Early Child Development and Care 85:1 (1993), 35-46.
24 See Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Ethnicity and nationalism, London, 1993, and Robert Cohen, Global diasporas. An introduction, London, 1999, and William Safran, "Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return", Diaspora 1:1 (1991), 83-99.
25 See for example two papers delivered by Signe Howell, a Norwegian professor in anthropology and herself an adoptive mother, "Biologizing and de-biologizing kinship: Some paradoxes in Norwegian transnational adoption". Paper presented at the International Conference on Adoption and Changing Kinship and Family Patterns, University of Oslo, Lysebu, Norway, May 6-8, 1999, and "The significance attributed to place of origin and 'roots' amongst adoption 'experts' and transnationally adopted people". Paper presented at the International Conference on 35 years with Intercountry Adoption, Nordic Research Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden, September 29, 2001.
26 Kwang-kyu Lee, Overseas Koreans, Seoul, 2000, 139-43.
27 Changyu Piao, "The history of Koreans in China and the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture", in Dae-Sook Suh and Edward J. Shultz (ed.), Koreans in China, Papers of the Center for Korean Studies No. 16, Honolulu, 1990, 44-77. The figures for China derive from Piao.
28 Sonia Ryang, North Koreans in Japan. Language, ideology and identity, Boulder and Oxford, 1997, 6, and Won Moo Hurh, The Korean Americans, Westport and London, 1998, 36.
29 Lee (2000), 140.
30 Young Sam Kim, Korea┤s quest for reform and globalization: Selected speeches of president Kim Young Sam, Seoul, 1995, 273.
31 Kyung-soo Chun, "Policy for five million overseas Koreans", Korea Focus 2:6 (1994), 59-65.
32 Katharine H.S. Moon, "Strangers in the midst of globalization: Migrant workers and Korean nationalism", in Samuel S. Kim (ed.), Korea┤s globalization, Cambridge, 2000, 147-69.
33 Ji-y˘ng Kim, "'10ny˘nch┤i w˘lgűb' yuhokŕ Chos˘njok y˘s˘ngdűl 'hao'" [Ten years┤monthly salaries temptation for Chinese-Korean women], W˘lgan Chos˘n 7/1 2002.
34 Birgit N. Schlyter, "Korean business and culture in former Soviet Central Asia". Paper presented at the Seventh Conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria, September 27-30, 2000. The idea to use Westernized overseas Koreans as intermediaries for economic expansion was the primary motive behind the 1996 publication of the ten volume Segyŕűi Hanminjok by the Ministry of Unification.

35 In the year of 2000, Overseas Korean Foundation dispatched Kim Duk-Soo and his Samul Nori group for a tour in Scandinavia with the explicit aim of spreading Korean culture to the more than 20,000 adopted Koreans living in the region.
36 Ki-ch┤˘l S˘ng, "Kim Taet┤ongny˘ng 'Haeoeibyanga' ch┤och┤˘ng mogukűi ch˘ng nanu˘" [President Kim invites overseas adoptees and shares the affection of the motherland], Kugmin Ilbo 24/10 1998. Every time president Kim goes abroad a special meeting is arranged with adopted Koreans.
37 "O┤seas Koreans to be granted voting rights", Korea Newsreview 29/8 1998. After fierce protests from China and Russia, the law actually had to exclude the Koreans living in those two countries plus the Koreans in Japan as the law in its final version only included those who had emigrated after the establishment of R.O.K. 1948.
38 A search in Chosun Ilbo┤s electronic article archive ( results in the following numbers: 1990 8, 1991 2, 1992 13, 1993 6, 1994 19, 1995 17, 1996 48, 1997 46, 1998 42, 1999 56, 2000 65 and 2001 54.
39 The first association, AKF or Adopterade Koreaners F÷rening [Adopted Koreans┤Association], was founded in Sweden in 1986.
40 Global Overseas Adoptees┤ Link, Seoul, 1998.
41 Gathering of the First Generation of Korean Adoptees September 10-12, 1999 - Washington, DC. Ta hamkkŕ, Eugene, 1999, and The 2nd International Gathering of Adult Korean Adoptees August 9-12, 2001, Oslo-Norway, Oslo, 2001.
42 See Changzoo Song┤s chapter "Narratives on and of overseas Koreans and Korean adoptees", in his Ph.D.-dissertation The Contending discourses of nationalism in postcolonial Korea and nationalism as an oppressive and anti-democratic force, University of Hawaii, 1999, 222-44.
43 For an analysis of the colonial discourse in international adoption, see Anthony Shiu, "Flexible Production: International Adoption, Race, Whiteness", Jouvert 6:1-2 (2001),
44 See the chapter "How newness enters the world. Postmodern space, postcolonial times and the trials of cultural translation" in Homi K. Bhabha, The location of culture, London, 1994, 212-35.
45 Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization, Minneapolis and London, 1996, 48.
46 South Korean reunification politics has been skilfully examined by Roy Richard Grinker in Korea and its futures. Unification and the unfinished war, New York, 1998.
47 For an attempt to understand the meaning of globalization in Korea after the I.M.F. crisis, see C. Fred Alford, Think no evil. Korean values in the age of globalization, Ithaca and London, 1999.
48 This is also what is proposed by Hyun Ok Park in "Segyehwa: Globalization and nationalism in Korea", Journal of the International Institute, 4:1 (1996),
49 Paik Nak-chung, "The possibility and significance of a Korean ethnic community". Paper presented at the International conference on Vision for the Korean race in the 21st century, Wonkwang University, Iksan, Korea, October 11-12, 1996.

Credits: Tobias Hubinette

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