Poor info, privacy rights hinder adoptees' search for their roots

6 November 2023

After 70 years of more than 200,000 cases of overseas adoption, Korea is still grappling with the question of whether a person’s right to know the truth about their beginnings overrides their parents’ wishes to remain forgotten.
“Confidential, that is what everybody keeps telling me,” says Fanny, a French adoptee who asked to be identified only by her first name. “This is about my story, yet no one can give me the right information.”
Fanny, adopted by a family in France when she was only a few months old in 1982, has returned to Korea multiple times in search of her birth family.

She is joined by at least 3,000 others who did the same between 2019 and 2021.
But more than half of them were given the same answer in their search: The records of their biological parents were either lost or confidential.
In Korea, privacy laws give the parents the right to remain confidential, even after adoptees file an official request to the government for information about their birthparents, hoping to learn more about their beginnings.
And despite years of work by some adoptees and local advocates to convince lawmakers otherwise, Korea is about to pass another law allowing parents to remain anonymous when registering the birth of their child. 


“Every single person should know exactly where they came from,” said Ami Nafzger, founder of G.O.A.L., an NGO based in Seoul that has assisted adoptees in their search since 1997, and Adoptee Hub in the United States.
“It wasn’t our choice to leave the country,” she said, speaking from her experience of being adopted to the United States when she was four. “It wasn’t our choice to lose the language. It wasn’t our choice to lose our identity and our entire family history. The people passing these laws are not thinking about what it would be like if it were them.”

Right to remember

"It could mean everything on my file is not sure, even the whole file now I am not sure is mine." - Fanny, adoptee

One out of every two adoptees, at some point in their life, try to look for their biological parents, according to Peter Selman of Newcastle University, who has written extensively on intercountry adoption.
For Korea, this could mean up to 100,000 people once or currently on the search for their biological parents, given that the country is estimated to have sent some 170,000 to more than 200,000 children abroad for adoption from the 1950s to today.
Flying in from countries including the United States, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, many come with questions tied to their identities.
But this quest is often met with informational anarchy, as it was only in 1996 that adoption agencies were mandated to keep verified records on the birthparents in the adoption files.
At least 133,982 children had been adopted abroad by then, according to the Health Ministry.


Fanny's flyers [FANNY]

Many come back to find files with mismatched information or containing critical holes.
“We’re speaking of Korea in the ‘60s, ‘’70s and ‘80s when the country did not have the internet,” said Dave Ripp, who has helped out with at least 1,000 cases of family searches by adoptees at G.O.A.L.
“The agencies back then did not have the mandate to verify the accuracy of the information they were receiving about the child, whether it was coming from the parent directly, a local police officer, or a government official.”
Thus, some adoptees begin their search based on the scant information provided in their adoption records, many paying out of their own pockets to travel to local police precincts, district offices or even the National Archives with hopes of picking up clues.
Fanny, born in 1982, is one of them.
She spent weeks here in the past summer, traveling to and fro between several cities in North Gyeongsang, based on the assumption that her birth family may have lived within the province.
She has to work with a lot of unreliable information, including her Korean name.
“I found out there is another girl with the same name, same birth date, same date of admission, same background history [as mine],” said Fanny, speaking of her most recent conversation with Sungracwon, a facility in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang, this summer. “Which means they have used the same file for both of us. It could mean everything on my file is not sure, even the whole file now I am not sure is mine.”
Her file at Sungracwon, which used to function as an orphanage after the Korean War, says she was named Kim Hee-yung in Korea before being adopted to France a few months after her birth.
In addition to visiting city halls, local district offices, police stations and an adoption agency to ask for records of her existence in Korea, she would also put up flyers of her childhood photos wherever she could in hopes that someone would recognize her.


Svendsen in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul in July. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Louise Svendsen, a Danish adoptee who has also visited Korea several times in search of her birth family, says the lack of a unified system is one of the most frustrating factors in her search. Svendsen was born in 1972.
“Because you never know when you did enough,” she said. “You think you went through all the possible options, and then in speaking with another adoptee, you find out that there is yet another way to try. It’s endless.”
In an effort to assist the adoptees’ search process, the Korean government said it will begin to pool all adoption agencies’ files at the National Center for the Rights of the Child (NCRC), an institution affiliated with the Health Ministry officially in charge of the adoptees’ services in Korea since 2019, starting this year.
It’s a process that may take years to complete, however, without sufficient budget or crew.
The last time the Korean government made the same promise, it was able to pool the records of 79,653 cases between 2013 and 2015, about a third of the total records estimated to be scattered across adoption agencies.

Right to be forgotten

Another obstacle for many adoptees is Korea's privacy laws.
Although Korea ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and signed the Hague Adoption Convention, both of which stipulate the right of the child to know their parents, the international conventions’ mandates do not override the member state’s laws.
Privacy laws in Korea uphold the biological parents’ right to remain anonymous.
The Act on Special Cases Concerning Adoption gives adoptees the right to ask agencies to disclose information about their adoption, but any information about the biological parents, including their name, age, address and contact information, would be off limits unless the parent, once contacted, gives consent.
Between 2019 and 2021, less than a third of the parents thus contacted agreed to share their information, according to the NCRC.
The rest either directly refused or were “out of reach,” as these requests can only be conveyed via post.
Adoptees are then out of options unless they decide to take their cases to court.
“There are precedents in the U.S. and in Germany where they would let the court make the ultimate decision whenever there is a conflict of interest between the need to protect the privacy of the biological parents and the need to protect the right of the adoptee to know,” said Lee Ju-yeon, a researcher at Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “Korea will have to decide if it wants to do the same.”
Such an option is possible only when the adoptee has verified information about their biological parents in the first place and when they can afford the costs of a lawsuit.


Louise Svendsen's picture taken in 1982 before she was adopted from Korea to Denmark in 1982. [LOUISE SVENDSEN]


“The mother never forgets her children." Jeon Hyun-suk, a birth mother.

To move forward, experts propose remedies possible with partial compromises instead of a full-on challenge to either the parent’s privacy rights or the child’s right to know.

One could be an expansion of information available for disclosure to the adoptees, said Lee.
Currently, adoption agencies cannot disclose any notes taken by volunteers or social workers with the birthparents at the time of adoption without consent from the birthparents.
“Why they were given up for adoption is a crucial question for many adoptees,” Lee said. “Such information could be included in their adoption files at orphanages or facilities. Allowing this information to be shared with the adoptees without parental consent could be possible.”


Korea-born adoptees adopted in Korea and overseas put their hands together on a cafe table where they met to hear more from a birth mother and share their experiences in Seoul on July 21. [ESTHER CHUNG]

Active consulting for birthparents and adoption agency employees could be another step in the right direction.

“Sometimes, the birthparents, when contacted, would ask the adoptees for some time to figure things out on their end before they reconnect,” said Ripp.
Jeon Hyun-suk, who runs a regular meetup with a group of birth mothers, said that if the adoption agency workers could be trained to pick up on such cues in their communications with the birthparents, it would help them be a much more effective liaison channel between the adoptees and their birthparents.
“The mother never forgets her children,” Jeon said more than the phone in July. “Some birthparents may have said no to reconnecting right now, but they can change their minds in the future after thinking things through.”


Anonymous birth registration

“I believe that the child's right to know should be respected as a top priority because once it is violated, it cannot be restored.” - Kwon Hee-jeong, anthropologist

The parent’s right to remain anonymous gained public traction again recently as Korea reeled from the revelation that as many as 2,000 children born in recent years have never been registered.
To many people’s horror, some of these babies were found to have been murdered by their parents upon their birth, while nearly 1,000 were estimated to have been abandoned, usually in baby boxes run by local churches and organizations.
Korea soon mandated hospitals to register all new births instead of leaving it to the parents.
For fear that this mandate might encourage more parents seeking anonymity for whatever social or economic reasons to seek illegal means or the black market to give away their children, a group of lawmakers drafted another bill to ensure the parents' anonymity.
“The best-case scenario is always for the parents to raise their children,” said Kim Mi-ae, a People Power Party representative, who drafted sections of the bill with some 20 other lawmakers now sitting at the National Assembly.
“But in cases where the parents cannot do that and are considering abandoning their babies, or even murdering them, this bill will hopefully prevent that,” Kim said in a call with the Korea JoongAng Daily in September.
Some experts have called the bill a continued disregard for the child’s right to know their parents. 
“I believe that the child's right to know should be respected as a top priority because once it is violated, it cannot be restored,” said Kwon Hee-jeong, an anthropologist who has interviewed dozens of single mothers in Korea for her research.
“As for ensuring the parents' anonymity, this is a matter that can be addressed by improving social conditions that lead to the desire for anonymous birth in the first place,” Kwon said. 

Screen capture of the Human Rights Watch's letter to lawmakers in Korea raising concerns about a bill sitting at the Assembly that would allow parents anonymous birth registration, dated Oct. 4. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Screen capture of the Human Rights Watch's letter to lawmakers in Korea raising concerns about a bill sitting at the Assembly that would allow parents anonymous birth registration, dated Oct. 4. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The Human Rights Watch also raised its concerns in a letter to the lawmakers this month, saying the bill “reinforces patriarchal structures and systems, ableism, and stigma around single motherhood and unwanted pregnancies” while not addressing the “underlying structural issues” and root causes leading to unregistered births in the first place.
Single motherhood has been a consistent factor behind both babies given up for adoption and at baby boxes.
According to Kwon’s study, which analyzes data provided by the Health Ministry and the NCRC’s predecessor, Korea Adoption Services, the rate of single motherhood behind international adoptions was 92.5 percent between 1991 and 2000 and 97.5 percent between 2001 and 2010. 
The rate was still more than 99 percent from 2018 to 2020, according to the Health Ministry.
“There must be tangible policies like housing support that give people who become pregnant and give birth outside of what’s considered a ‘normal family’ the option to maintain their family without resorting to abandoning their babies or giving them up for adoption,” Kwon said.


In the midst of a vacuum of clear authority or system in their search for answers in Korea, adoptees have found comrades in each other.
Nearly 400 adoptees of 11 nationalities have taken their cases to an independent fact-finding group in Korea with hopes they can verify their records.
Set to release their findings next May, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said it had already found irregularities and possible illegalities in the applicants’ adoption process.
Any illegalities found may lead to groundbreaking lawsuits.
The landmark ruling to date in Korea on international adoptions found fault in the adoption agency Holt, but not necessarily the Korean government.
A growing coalition between domestic and international adoptees in Korea hopes to change that.
“It is time for the Korean government to take responsibility for the adoptees and the children growing up across orphanages and facilities,” said Cho Min-ho, who thwarted several attempts to send him overseas for adoption as he grew up across orphanages and other child care facilities.


Cho Min-ho, center, speaks at a forum at the National Assembly on Oct. 5 against the bill ensuring anonymity of the birth parents in their children's registration information. [CHO MIN-HO]

Cho is engaging with international adoptees, single mothers and graduates of orphanages in Korea with a plan to launch an NGO together.
“It will be a coalition working for the cause of protecting and supporting young graduates of orphanages across Korea,” Cho said, speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul in July. “I can speak from my experience, and it is so hard to try to find your own footing in society after you’re out from an orphanage.”
Suicides of young graduates of orphanages and the facilities of the like have made headlines in recent years. Though the government has since come up with measures like monthly stipends to support these young adults, Cho said that it is equally important for them to have people they can rely on, something he hopes to address through his work.
Different organizations on adoptee support are also coming together to aid the adoptees’ search for their biological families.
The Adoptee Hub is launching the Hope Registry, a portal website where the adoptees and biological families can input information, such as birth cities or years, in either Korean and English to discover any matches. The website in Korean has been launched, and the website in English is set to launch within November, according to Adoptee Hub.   
“Once there is a match in information, we are partnering with 325Kamra, who will do the DNA test for free,” said Nafzger. “It will be a secure portal that will follow the rules set by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.”


The Hope Registry website launched in Korean. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

There is also a growing engagement between different generations of adoptee families.
Robert Holloway, who runs the Midwest Korean Translation in the United States, came to Seoul this summer to share his skill on learning the Korean language with groups of adoptees. Holloway’s mother was among the first generation of Korean-born adoptees in the U.S., born between an African-American soldier and a Korean woman in 1964.
“They come to Korea to discover their roots, but this journey is never easy for them in the first place,” he said. “And yet, because they look like Koreans yet cannot speak the language, they tend to get these cold stares from locals here.
“It would be great if Korea could give them a chance,” he said.


Robert Holloway, center front, with adoptees and their families during the International Korean Adoptee Associations gathering in Seoul in July. [IKAA]

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]