The History of Adoption from Korea
This article answered many questions I had about cultural beliefs and reasons for adoption in Korea.
The History of Adoption from Korea
An adoptee myself, I began researching the history of Korean adoption purely out of personal interest. However, I soon realized that the this history pertains also to Koreans, Korean-Americans, and adoptees; Korean adoption has root s that extend far back into the cultural history of the nation, entwined with and based upon deeply entrenched societal traditions and values. The basis for, and the meaningful implications of, Korean adoption are simultaneously a reflection of past, pres ent, and future Korean national identity. Transracial adoption crosses geographic, cultural, and societal boundaries to bring new families together.
The Korean War ravaged the peninsula, tearing apart land, resources, and families. Upon the close of the war, foreign soldiers withdrew from the country; they left their mark not only on the war-torn land, but also through the thousands of Amerasian children left behind. The products of brief war-time unions of US soldiers and Korean women during times of chaos, these children remained as tragic symbols of a lingering and lasting American influence on Korea. These mixed and fatherless c hildren faced extreme prejudice and scorn.
Harry Holt, a farmer from Oregon, traveled to Korea in 1955 to help these children; he returned to the US with eight Amerasian children. His actions prompted thousands of other American families to come forward and adopt as well. Th us, Holt International Children’s Services began. Pearl S. Buck joined Holt in his mission and founded Welcome House, another adoption agency. At the time, there were few laws and little structure in the US for intercountry adoption; Holt helped to define adoption legislation and policy, while simultaneously reshaping societal norms of family and race. Today, Holt International Children’s Services is one of the largest agencies of international adoption. Since the start of Holt’s mission, over 130,000 Kor ean-born children have been adopted in the world, mostly to the United States, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands [Lee ONLINE].
The Seoul Olympics brought both Korea and Korean adoptees to the international public eye. Adoptive families from all over the world traveled with their children to Korea to watch the Olympics and learn about their birth-country. It became evident to Korea and to the world the large number of children adopted from Korea. The joking, yet critical summation was that "Korea’s largest export was babies." The people and government of Korea took this as a direct criticism and a source of national shame-- the sign of a weak and underdeveloped nation that was unable to care for its own children. In response, the government set quotas in 1987 for the number of children allowed to leave the country each year, and the number of foreign adoptio ns dropped drastically. The quota system reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5 percent each year; the ultimate objective of the plan was to completely eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015. In 1987, about 8,000 children we re adopted overseas; the quota system gradually reduced that number to about 2,057 children by 1997 [Shin, ONLINE]. However, cognatic adoption [adoption of non-relatives] in Korea was, and is still, not in accordance with traditional values and practices. Therefore, the decreased number of children permitted to be adopted by foreigners directly correlated with an increased number of children in orphanages.
This trend of decreasing foreign adoption continued steadily until 1998, when economic problems in Korea led to a sudden increase in foreign adoptions for the first time in eleven years. The Korean Health and Welfare Ministry report ed that the year 1998 brought a 9.3 percent increase in the number of Korean children adopted by foreigners, as compared to statistics from the year before [Shin, ONLINE]. This rise is attributed to the "IMF" economic crisis of 1997, which impoverished an d crippled many families. As a result of these economic conditions and the consequential increase of abandoned children, the government of Korea temporarily permitted the quota restrictions to be lifted in 1998.
The basis and structure of both modern and traditional Korean society indicate the causes and need for foreign adoption. The majority of children adopted from Korea are the children of unmarried parents, or orphans whose parents hav e died. The social milieu throughout Korean societal history has been decidedly against the adoption of non-relatives. The importance of family name and bloodlines date back to the earliest times of Korean history. Also, the influx of Confucian culture an d ideals, and thus the subsequent "Confucianization" of Korea dictates specific roles and relationships for families and gender. Sheila Miyoshi Jager emphasizes the specific role for women in society and in the family, described as: "a traditional canon o f Confucian morality tales about womanly virtue and female chastity" [Jager, Coursenotes 248]. Based on this traditional viewpoint, a woman who is both unmarried and pregnant directly violates morality. Jager recognizes "this nationalistic preoccupation w ith feminine virtue, and the traditional Confucian polarization and fixity of masculine and feminine identities" to be an integral factor in life and society on many levels [Jager, Coursenotes 248]. As a result, even in modern day society, illegitimate ch ildren and orphans are looked down upon and single parenthood is rare.
In order to fully understand the attitudes and traditions in Korea that have created the "need" for foreign adoption, it is important to trace the history of lineage of kinship throughout history. Mark A. Peterson describes: "Korean society has been characterized as a classic patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal society" . This importance of lineage and bloodlines is the very reason why illegitimate or orphaned children are abandoned and why there are so few domestic adoptions in Korea. Also, women traditionally hold a lower role in society than do men, which is why single parenthood is so rare. Peterson further describes: "The Korean patrilineage can be described as ‘men related to men through men.’ Women are incidental" [Peters on 3]. The chokpo, or genealogical tables of Korean families list only the men of the lineage; these tables are of utmost importance to the family history and culture. Therefore, the adoption of non-relatives in Korea is highly uncommon. The import ance of bloodlines is evident in the system of inheritance and kinship. According to patrilineal organization of the family, the only true heir must be within the patrilineage. In addition, Neo-Confucian ideology calls for an heir to be of the same "mind- matter", or ki, which can only be achieved through shared bloodlines.
Before the seventeenth century, the kinship system of Korea was a cognatic, or bilateral kinship system, meaning that kinship was determined by both parents’ sides of the family. During and after the seventeenth century, a classic p atrilineal lineage system formed. As the kinship system changed from a equilateral to patrilineal, the system of inheritance changed as well. Many people mistakenly believe that the tradition of the eldest son receiving the largest inheritance originated in the earliest times of Korean history. However, during the early Choson period, the inheritance was shared equally among sons and daughters. If a couple had no children, they would often adopt a relative of the husband or wife, or even a non-relative to be the heir. This child could be either male or female. In addition, at this time women held a higher role in society and in the family, they were even recorded in genealogies equally with men. After Confucianism was adopted during later Choson, Koreans changed the system so that the eldest son became the principle heir, a system known as primogeniture that was stipulated by the Confucian classics. With the change to a patrilineal kinship system and primogeniture came the popularity of intralineage, agna tic adoption. When a man who was childless or had only daughters needed an heir, he would adopt a nephew from his father’s side of the family. This ensured an heir from within the patrilineage. Thus, the only acceptable form of adoption in Korean history was agnatic adoption: adoption in which the goal was to obtain a suitable heir from within the patrilineal bloodline.
Many misconceptions and prejudices towards adoption exist in Korea today. An editorial in The Korea Herald contends: "A leader in baby exports, Korea has discarded numerous babies abroad, mainly into the western culture, wher e they are stamped as aliens with their yellow skin and slit-eyed faces.... never-meant and never-welcome babies" [Chung, ONLINE]. This editorial ignorantly and mistakenly assumes that all children who are adopted by Caucasian families are usually abused and discriminated against, and that they never learn about their Korean heritage. This stance could not be farther from the truth; the procedure for adoption is proof of the genuine desire and love that adoptive families have for the children. In order to adopt, families must go through rigorous paperwork and screening, as well as fees that begin around $13,000. Families choose to adopt because they truly want these children in their lives. Many adoption agencies and adoptive families in the US have creat ed support groups, forums, and culture camps for both adoptees and their families to learn about their adoption and incorporate their Korean culture into their lives. In addition, the editorial makes seriously jaded assumptions and allegations about racia l conditions and multiculturalism in the US.
This history of faith in bloodlines and family is deeply ingrained in Korean tradition, and has guided the country through centuries of experience. However, not all agree that this tradition can coexist with a progressive, changing nation. As John Sullivan, a staff reporter for The Korean Herald describes, "According to traditional Korean beliefs, identity is based on primogeniture, passing all family and national identity to the first born son. Children whose parents abandon them a re thus deprived of an identity and became social outcasts" [Sullivan, "Overseas Korean," ONLINE]. From the perspective of many modern Koreans, the concept of family is situated above all else in life. While this viewpoint does possess merit, some feel th at "Korea’s Confucian concept of blood lineage is obstructing its survival in the global economy" [Sullivan, "Overseas Korean," ONLINE]. The contention of this argument is that Koreans’ myopic focus on the lineage and family precludes both individual init iative and international development. In addition, it is possible that Korean preoccupation with the roles of the family directly corresponds to apathy towards the welfare of society and community [Sullivan, "Overseas Korean," ONLINE]. Professor Lee Kwang -kyu, a professor of Anthropology at Seoul National University, believes that the acceptance and integration of differences [Koreans who have gone abroad by means of either emigration or adoption] is vital. Professor Lee says, "’Overseas Koreans are our n ational treasure. We need to understand them, and figure out how to utilize them in our international development’" [Sullivan, "Overseas Korean," ONLINE]. Lee is a strong advocate of acceptance of adoptees into Korean national identity, as well as the mov ement towards social welfare reforms in Korea.
Lee’s tenacious stance in his contemporary perspective is not a solitary one. In recent years, more and more Koreans have begun to broaden their cultural ideals and norms and acknowledge Korean adoptees. The recent implementation of a n ew visa law in Korea demonstrates this change. Past legislation did not entitle overseas or adopted Koreans to many rights and privileges, such as buying property and applying for jobs. The new law, in effect as of December 3, 1999, grants these privilege s to "all overseas Koreans with and without Korean citizenship who went abroad after...1948," including adoptees (Sullivan, "New visa law," ONLINE). With this special F4 visa, overseas Koreans can stay in Korea for up to two years. In order to receive the visa, proof of birth in Korea is required. For some adoptees, this stipulation could potentially present difficulties; thus, the Justice Ministry is formulating alternatives for adoptees, such as traveling to Korea on a 90-day tourists visa to search for birth registry, or obtaining adoption verification from adoption agencies (Sullivan, "New visa law," ONLINE).
Korean legislation is finally beginning to recognize the validity and entitlements of Korea-born adoptees. My personal hope is that individuals like Professor Lee will become more than just individuals- that their open-minded spirit wil l become that of the nation as well. I hope that both the people and government of Korea can someday openly and warmly accept adoptees, who rightfully deserve this acceptance. In doing so, they would also open their minds, embracing the comprehensiveness that is vital to Korea’s internationalization.
Back to Our Korean Adoption Story
Boublil, Alain and Richard Maltby, Jr., "Bui Doi," Miss Saigon lyrics, compact disc, original London cast recording, Geffen Records, 2064-24621-2, 1989.
Chung, Young-soo. "In My View (Readers’ Forum); Book Review: ‘Seeds from a Silent Tree.’" The Korea Herald [Online]. 18 November 1998 issue.
Cox, Susan. "The Birth of Intercountry Adoptions."
Holt, Bertha. "Bertha ‘Grandma’ Holt."
Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. "Women, Resistance and the Divided Nation: The Romantic Rhetoric of Korean Reunification." Journal of Asian Studies, (Vol. 55, No. 1): 3-21. Copyright (c) February 1996. Reproduced with the permission of Associatio n for Asian Studies, Inc. via the Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. Rpt. In FC-80 Coursenotes, Fall 1999. Harvard University. 247-256.
Lee, Prumeh. "Korean Adoptees... Past, Present, and the Future."
Peterson, Mark A. Korean Adoption and Inheritance. USA: Cornell University East Asia x Program, 1996.
Shin, Hye-son. "Foreign adoptions increase for first time in 11 years." The Korea Herald [Online]. 5 May 1999 issue.
Sullivan, John. "New visa law still open to adjustments for overseas Korean adoptee." The Korea Herald [Online]. 7 December 1999 issue.
Sullivan, John. "Overseas Korean adoptees help address issues of national identity." The Korea Herald [Online]. 6 July 1998 issue. < http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/cgi-, bin/sear...path=/news/1998/07/_02/19980706_0212.htm >. Cited 26 December 1999.
Casey Daum ’03 is a Social Studies concentrator who will live in Adams House. This article was originally written for Foreign Cultures 80, taught by David McCann.