Monday, August 02, 2010

Remembering Koryo

Remembering Koryo is a fascinating book written by S.K. Chae, a Korean French adoptee.

The story of Korean adoption is highly complex and prone to being misunderstood. While I don't claim to know the whole truth behind the scenes, I do know some things from my own experiences and have heard a lot more from interacting with others in the Korean adoptee community. Making claims for or against adoption is futile unless one first understands that each case is unique and that there are a multitude of societal forces at play.

Remembering Koryo follows the lives of a few Korean adoptees returning to Korea for various reasons. The stories are unique and colourful, easily understood by an adoptee like myself, but perhaps more unfamiliar to the average reader. To appreciate Remembering Koryo in a realistic context, one first needs to know a little more about Korean adoption in general.

I really don't think about adoption as much as I perhaps should, and purposely keep it at the back of my mind to avoid addressing too many of the complex realities of the issue. 
While the Korean war produced the first generation of orphans, what has happened since that time cannot be completely related to dead or missing parents. It's entirely plausible that many of the 148,394* adoptees sent overseas between 1953-2001 had parents who couldn't afford to feed or educate their children.  
*(Korean government statistic, although likely to be considerably more)

However, the reality is that the number of 'orphans' sent overseas continued in the thousands each year throughout the 80s and 90s, and still continues today, in 2010, despite South Korea's exponential economic growth since the 1960s and its transformation into the world's 15th largest economy with high standards of living. When one considers the fact that Egypt has a population of 79 million, but South Korea is 4 times wealthier, it seems unusual that between 1971 and 2001 less than 2,000 children were adopted from the entire African continent to American citizens, compared to tens of thousands from Korea alone.

A direct result of the thousands of adoptions occurring throughout the late 70s and 80s is that hundreds of Korean adoptees are returning to modern Korea for various reasons. Activist organisations such as GOA'L and IKAA have sprung up to assist fellow adoptees who return to their country of birth in search of answers. Favourable or not, this recent influx of inquiry has started to expose some of the inner workings of the adoption system.

One of the more contentious issues is that the charitable origins of the main adoption agencies appear to have transformed into privately owned for-profit operations. Contrary to what many people reasonably assume, virtually all adoptions of Korean children are managed and profited from by privately owned businesses that charge thousands of US dollars to prospective parents in western countries. These proceeds are used to profit the companies (invariably titled as Welfare Societies or Services), as well as pay off midwives, obstetricians, 'counselors' and the Korean government, providing an attractive solution to the 'orphan' problem. Around US$15-20 million per year is made through Korean adoption, which is significant compared to the amount spent on public welfare, and the burden that would be incurred from providing for thousands of babies in foster programs. 

Three of the four major adoption agencies run their own pregnant women's homes, with bedside 'advisors' for mothers who may be considering giving their child up for adoption. One runs its own maternity hospital, and all four support or run their own orphanages. All four pay foster mothers about $80 a month to care for the infants, and the agencies can provide all food, clothing and other supplies free of charge. The agreement is that the agencies will cover the costs of delivery and medical care for any woman who gives up her baby for adoption. They also pay a lump sum of cash to the relinquishing mother. This system not only makes it easier for single mothers to give their children up, it actively encourages them. In the 90s, a Korean baby could cost a western couple around US$5,000 depending on the agency, but in 2010, the prices can be as high as US$40,000. These prices are labeled as 'administration and medical fees' and despite the considerable costs, the overseas demand for young healthy Korean babies has always outpaced supply.

As well as the 'pull' from these market forces, there are also significant pushing forces for single mothers to give their babies up.

Korea is not only a conservative patriarchal society, it also follows rigid aged-based hierarchies. A grandmother may have more influence over a newly born child's fate than the mother herself. Single unwed mothers experience high levels of stigma not just from the general public but especially from within their own family. Society here stigmatizes unwed mothers to such an extent that Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to "an unwed woman seeking an excuse to give birth." To rational people, this may seem ridiculous, but many outsiders are unaware of the deeply ingrained idea of a shame society.

Korean culture places an unusually strong emphasis on unwavering respect for elders, paternal bloodline and family ties. The tragedy of the Korean single mother is that she will often be forced to give up a baby born inconveniently due to threats of being ostracized as well as financial isolation from family members. Some families have completely cut off ties with their daughters who have given birth, even going so far as to change their phone numbers. In addition, job seeking can be exceedingly difficult, with many employers accusing unwed mothers of being dishonest. Babies born through extra-marital affairs will often be covered-up or ignored by biological fathers, leaving the mother to deal with the responsibility. Gender discrimination and income disparities between men and women in Korea make this an even more difficult task. In Korea, about 70 percent of unwed mothers who give birth are believed to relinquish their babies for adoption, according to a government-financed survey. In the United States, the figure is 1 percent, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
In Chae's book, a decision is made for a single mother by her family while on the hospital bed, and she has little influence in the matter. Young females in particular hold low ranks in traditional Korean family hierarchies. Money is exchanged and her baby is taken away by an agent. While this situation may be the exception rather than the rule, Remembering Koryo represents the idea that these unjust exceptions are occurring, and perhaps more frequently than the general public would like to think.
Of course there are the good stories of adoption too. Impoverished parents in Korea have sent, and still send children that they can't afford to care for overseas. Many of these children grow up to lead happy and fulfilling lives in their adoptive countries.

However, a point that Chae makes is that this is a lottery over which the adoptive child has no control. Adoptees like myself, from Australia or America find it extremely easy to live stable lives here. We can speak English fluently and are therefore considered 'superior' to French and Scandinavian adoptees when it comes to English teaching, the main source of income for nearly all adoptees. European adoptees on average seem to have a tougher time both here and in their adoptive countries, which were historically less multiculturally diverse than the US and Australia. A Danish adoptee recently pointed out that there was no Danish language equivalent for the term 'Korean American' or 'Korean Danish.' In Denmark, the only word that exists is 'adopted.'

Another point that many adoptees want to make, including myself, is that while being sent overseas may be better than growing up in an orphanage, we are becoming increasingly wary of the sums of money involved and the stigma in Korean society driving single mothers to give their babies up. While we can justify adoption in terms of 'better off for the child', it doesn't always boil down so simply. One of the hardest things to explain to the general public is that many adoptees don't see themselves as 'lucky'. We were thrust into a destiny presumably in our best interests, but because none of our own opinions were taken into account, it therefore seems false to have to feel grateful for it. And when some adoptees seem to get dealt a more unfair hand in life, it makes us feel the need to examine all sides of the situation.

In Sweden, Korean and other international adoptees are highly overrepresented when it comes to suicide, suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues. Swedish adoptees are three times more likely to become drug addicts than biological children.

Some adoptive parents expect their child to fulfill the role of the child that they were unable to have. This puts unreasonable expectations on the child. One French adoptee in the book was adopted from a young age by a French couple, but then sent back to Korea after 7 years, because he was 'too emotionally distant' for them to handle. He was then adopted by another French couple, as if he were simply an item returned for re-sale.

One prominent Norwegian adoptee (not in the book) returned to Korea and eventually found out that her grandmother had kidnapped her as an infant and sold her to an agency, pocketing the cash. The parents thought that their baby had been lost. She has since re-established bonds with her biological family.

There are also exceptional cases of sexual abuse by adoptive parents and siblings, and one Korean girl was even murdered by her mentally unstable adoptive mother. How can an adoption agency  based in Korea comprehensively assess thousands of overseas adoptive parents per year?

It would be ridiculous to assert that these cases are common, and we cannot ignore all the thousands of adoptive parents and families who sacrifice so much to rear their adoptive children unconditionally loved. As stated earlier, adoption is a complex issue that cannot be easily understood in its entirety. Remembering Koryo brings some of the more uncomfortable realities of the issue into the limelight, voiced by those who have not experienced what a theoretically good system intended. Chae looks more at the Korean side of the story for answers.

Some Korean mothers have contacted adoptee organisations and said that they were heavily coerced or even tricked into giving their babies up. One said that the agency told her that they would look after her baby until she had gotten her financial situation together. She signed a form giving caretaker status to the agency and came back in a month to find that her baby had been sent away. She went to the police but they said it was out of their hands. Adoption agencies here are said to have the active cooperation of the police and hospitals.

These ideas are only indirectly addressed in Remembering Koryo, which focuses on the personal stories of a few European adoptees returning to Korea a few years ago. Chae's book also touches on the transformation of cultures worldwide, by what he calls the 'dominance of one country over another.' He also points out some interesting observations on the gradual and voluntary dissipation of Korean cultural identity, from the overuse  of western models to sell products, to the absurdity of Latin mottos on Korean university seals to convey a sense of prestige.

He draws a connection between this and the fact that many Koreans see western culture as superior, facilitating the ease at which society sends Korean babies to white families without reasonable concerns. If a single Korean baby were to be adopted by a well-off black African or Arab family, there would surely be a public outcry.

Then there's the issue of adoptees' rights to their own records. These records are held in paperback format by adoption agencies, and contain information on the individual circumstances surrounding each adoption. One person in Remembering Koryo visits a major adoption agency to request to see his birth records on multiple occasions. The staff treat him dismissively (as they did with me, when I went), and let him see the front page of his file, but not the 'red folder' that accompanied it. When he inquired as to why he couldn't see the red file, the agency worker told him that it contains private information and that he can't see it. After a period of frustration he returns to the agency and requests to see his file again, eventually grabbing the red folder out of the hands of the worker and running out the door, chased by the agency workers. He escapes and translates the file, exposing the true circumstances surrounding his adoption and tracking down the remnants of his biological family. The story continues, but I won't spoil it here.

The main point in all this is that because the agencies are private businesses, rather than public services, they maintain complete control over their records. Banning adoptees access to their own records denies them the ability to confirm the true situation surrounding their adoptions, something that would possibly reveal a lot of 'discrepancies.' While we can see that the agencies feel obliged to protect the secrets of the parents (which is good for business), adoptees are people with a right to know the circumstances of their relinquishment. Being treated as inconvenient problems to be solved and forgotten about frustrates many of us who only wish to know the truth of our histories.

Overall, Remembering Koryo is a highly insightful book for both adoptees and those who wish to learn more about the complex issues at play. Chae chose to communicate his accounts with pseudonyms, using sometimes simple and incorrect grammar, conveying the author's difficulties in describing complex emotional situations behind a language barrier. While the book doesn't offer any solutions (many of us realise that not every problem has an ideal solution), it's a touching and powerful reminder of why we need to think carefully about the unjust elements of any system that affects the lives of the vulnerable.

The book is currently available on sale at major retailers in South Korea, but will be selling on Amazon in a couple of weeks. A Korean translated version will be released in December.

As a side note, one charity called the Korean Unwed Mothers' Support Network has been formed. Interestingly, it was founded by a foreigner concerned for the plight of single women in Korea, rather than a Korean citizen.

For further reading, I recommend this New York Times article.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very insightful book-review which went beyond the usual book-review. It's interesting to hear the adoptee's side that "all ain't great" because as a Korean who has not much connection when I express the view that "overseas adoption might not be the best solution for the babies" I usually get blasted by the non-Koreans and Koreans alike that it's the best choice for the babies who are without parents and also parents who desperately want children.

Moa said...

Wow, liked this post ^^

We Asian adoptees are supposedly more accepted here ecause of our pale skin (and the yellow fever) compared to adoptees from other countries.
So Scandinavians my generation are generally acceptive of us as "Scandinavians".

I don't know about the suicide survey though, since it's like 8 years old already. I think the kids who arrived during the middle 80s are the majority of Korean adoptees, and the ones who came during the 60s and 70s had it much tougher than us.
It seems like they did all the hard work and now my generation is reaping the fruit of their efforts (so to speak).

Have you read anything by Tobias Hûbinette? He's very into all the "adoption conspiracy-theories" and over-all very knowledgable.

David said...

Most adoptions in Korea comes from unwed mom mainly because there is very little help given to single mom. There is a bill in the congress to change this. Hope it pass.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Is it true that some Korean parents give up their babies due to superstition? The fortune-teller says that the baby was born at an unlucky time, and so they give it to an adoption agency?

Lee Farrand said...

Thanks for the comments.

Yes, Moa I think that issues of racism in particular are getting better in most Western countries. When I was in Australia, I hardly knew any adoptees as an adult, and didn't think about it much. But having lived in Korea for a while now, I've met an unusually large number of adoptees who have legitimate grievances. The point made at the end of the book is that when humans are the subject, statistics are of no comfort to those who didn't have such a good life. And we as a community have a responsibility to look at all sides of the story.

Lee Farrand said...

Sanity Inspector, that sounds a little far-fetched to me. Let's hope not.

Anonymous said...

Great post Lee!

난이 said...


This article summed up a thousand complicated issues in a intelligent and insightful way!

I posted your article my fb wall-
"perfect pitch writing by Lee Ferrand- simple,concise,informative and equitable"

"many of us realise that not every problem has an ideal solution), it's a touching and powerful reminder of why we need to think carefully about the unjust elements of any system that affects the lives of the vulnerable."

-loved this ending thought, and thank you for writing a narrative on adoption that really informs and focuses on the very obvious role of Korean society in their attitude towards international adoption,and not another diatribe of white parents and their failings. This goes beyond that to be informative and address where the root problem begins- in Korean society.

Lee Farrand said...

Thanks Nani

AmieKim said...

Lee, it is not ridiculous at all to state that sexual and physical abuse happens more often to Korean adoptees than to non-adopted children. Perhaps because you are male, you don't hear of all the cases (people don't usually go around announcing that they were abused). But I've been part of several adoptee support groups, and believe me, abuse is rampant adoptive families. Most all of the adoptees I know experienced moderate to severe sexual and physical abuse in their adoptive families.

Read about the Westermarck Effect, and you will understand why so many adopted Korean children have been molested by their adoptive families.

Sohwa said...

Hi, I'm a new reader and just wanted to say how interesting your post was. As a Korean-American adoptee, I've never really had much exposure to adoptees from other countries (except through Tobias Hûbinette, and it is safe to say that he leans toward the negative side)so I like to hear other's stories. I wish as a nation, there would be more dialogue about adoption that would reach the average citizen. I don't believe this book will be a hit because it's not an area of the nation's past that most people are ready to face (or even really know about), but wouldn't it be nice if it was so?

Jason Kane said...

I have to say I'm bummed I found this blog so late in it's life, but I'm so glad that I have. Not only is this such an informative blog about life in Korea, but it seems that throughout the blog's life it has taken on so many topics (many that seem very personal to Lee) in so many different directions. I know that my life has been enriched and my mind has been expanded. Thank you Lee for sharing so much of your life with so many people!

Anonymous said...

I still can not find this book? Has anyone found an online store who sells it?

koreanairline said...

Available ebook format

Available in paperback format