Inadequacy of adoption records management criticized during Assembly forum - The Korea Times

22 July 2023

Adoptees and other victims of false birth and adoption papers demand truth at National Assembly Library

By Jia H. Jung

Tensions between international adoptees and Korean officials erupted last Monday during a forum held at the National Assembly Library addressing the management of national adoption records.

After experts gave their recommendations on the country's handling of over seven decades of birth and adoption documents, 15 minutes remained for members of the audience to voice concerns and ask questions. The short session ended with a shouting match among attendees and a walkout by a group of 16 international adoptees and a man raised within Korea's orphanage system.

International Korean adoptees comprised at least half the audience of approximately 60 people. Some were residents or reinstated citizens of Korea, while others were in Seoul at the tail end of the 2023 International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) Gathering that had concluded the night before, which had over 450 adoptees in attendance from around the world.

The tensions underscored human rights concerns about pending legislation to allow anonymous births and relinquishment of babies. If passed, the law could perpetuate the systemic lack of identity information already impacting over 200,000 ethnic Koreans sent overseas for adoption at a young age and more than 1 million domestic adoptees and children raised within facilities and the foster system of Korea.

Many arrived ready to express concerns about a bill put forward to allow women to give birth anonymously, but the topic did not arise during the presentations.

Peter Moller, a Danish Korean adoptee and co-head of the Danish Korean Rights Group, asked how the panelists would parse out true and accurate information from records falsified by private adoption agencies. Moller has been calling for an investigation by Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission into crimes and abuses of the adoption system.

Goh Geum-ran, vice president of Korea's National Center for Rights of the Child (NCRC), said that she acknowledged that there was a limit to what her center could do and that the focus was to try harder and do better at least from this point on.

Women's and children's rights attorney Jeon Min-kyeong, a former NCRC Adoption Policy Team employee, later stood and said that Moller's question had been lost in translation. She asked what would be done about the double archives created by private adoption agencies fabricating "goa hojeok."

"Goa hojeok" are family registrations that adoption agencies and intermediaries began making after the 1950-53 Korean War so children would be more readily adoptable. The practice erased the original identities of children and created paper orphans out of kids who had living biological families.

Danish Korean adoptee Han Boon-young, co-founder of the Korean Adoptee Adoption Research Network, stood at the forum to once again ask how to reconcile double archives, and whether private agencies have been cooperating. "If the original documents aren't transferred, it's not really of help to adoptees," she concluded, to hearty applause.


A survivor of the domestic adoption system who spoke up was Cho Min-ho, who was raised entirely in the country's orphanage facilities. At age 4, he lost hold of his mother's hand in a busy marketplace in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. Rather than reuniting him with his family, an adoption company gave him a new name and wrote him onto a false hojeok in 1977, rendering him an orphan viable for the international adoption market.

According to national documents, overseas adoptions in 1978 brought in 3.8 million won ($3,000) each, while placement of a child in facilities housing real and paper orphans generated donations and subsidies of approximately 1.5 million won ($1,185).

Cho was admitted to Chuncheon Pentecostal orphanage, a facility housing approximately 60 children used as a source for Holt International Children's Services, an international adoption agency. When he resisted attempts to send him to the U.K. and the U.S., the agency sent others instead. From 1977 through 1979, Cho saw at least 50 peers shipped overseas with constructed identities, while he stayed back with the hope of reuniting with his family.

"Back then it was so hard," he recalled of the living conditions in an orphanage camp in Wonju. "It was really like a prison. They made us do hard labor, didn't feed us sufficiently. So I just got out of there as soon as I turned 17."

It was 1990 when Cho left the system and got a job at a toothbrush factory. He thinks that there are 1.5 million others in the country like him without real records. He hardly knows a single one of them ― people rarely disclose a lack of original family background out of fear of discrimination in every aspect of society, from education to career to marriage prospects. He believes that an unknown number of this population take their own lives or scrape by on the streets.

Cho implored the panel: "What will you do about this? You need to disclose falsified, inaccurate records and upright them. This isn't just about listing the right names ― it's about a person's fate." He urged the NCRC to hurry up. As those sharing Cho's predicament age, the realistic chances of a reunion with original families grow slim. The gathered adoptees applauded.


As the dissatisfaction in the room became audible, panel mediator Kim Hyang-eun of Kosin University said, "We came here to do just what you all are asking. Though our efforts are insufficient, we ask that you understand us, trust us and work with us."

Goh said that the NCRC is trying "even to capture detailed information to the extent that people would find it granular." She said, "All I can say is that we are trying. I understand all of you. Please understand and root for us."

As the meeting was winding down, a woman in the audience stood up and said that adoptees had to understand the reality of historical circumstances ― the falsified records had been created to give children a better chance.

The room filled with shouts in Korean, English and other languages telling her to stop perpetuating lies and criminality. One of the voices was that of Jeon Hyun-suk, who runs theRUTHtable self-help group for "first mothers" who have lost their birth children to adoption.

Jeon was a 21-year-old unwed mother in 1990 when she gave birth to a son and sent him for international adoption. She didn't give up searching for him, and with the help of diverse international adoptee groups, she found her son and reunited with him in Minnesota in 2021.

As a group of 16 international adoptees plus Cho walked out of the auditorium in solidarity and event organizers with uneasy smiles tried to hush the room, Jeon stood again. "After I gave my son away, nobody here cared," she said with tears in her eyes. "It's the adoptees who helped me to find him."

Jeon later told The Korea Times in a phone interview "No matter what the circumstances were at the time, apologies must be made for what happened to the children and there needs to be cooperation to atone for the losses."

An added layer to the forum was that it was hosted by Rep. Kim Mi-ae of the People Power Party (PPP), who is openly pro-adoption. She is a single mother of three adopted children and advises a national adoption family solidarity group. Supporting her at the forum were chairs and associates of the largest facilitators of adoption in modern Korean history, such as Holt, Eastern Social Welfare Society and the Holy Family Adoption Center. None of them spoke.

Rep. Kim was also the assembly member who submitted the "protective birth bill" in 2020 to allow women in difficult circumstances to give birth and relinquish their babies to local governments for registration without disclosing their personal information.

A law was passed on June 30 requiring medical institutions ― not just parents, as had been the case previously ― to register the births of all newborns. The legislation's purpose of assuring the documentation of every Korean-born person's identity is challenged by the prospect of an anonymous birth law.

Adoptees and other victims of falsified records worry that an anonymous birth system will reintroduce a de facto goa hojeok system ― anonymously abandoned children will receive identities assigned by governments, severed from all possibility of ever knowing their background or finding their birth families again. And controversial "baby boxes'' for newborn drop-offs could become more, not less, acceptable.

The anonymous birth bill has regained momentum amid a spate of infanticides across Korea and the discovery of over 2,000 unregistered babies born since 2015, at least 249 of which have been confirmed to have died.

Many Korean conservatives posit no-strings-attached adoption as a measure of reproductive justice for women and the protection of children. Others tout anonymous birth as a solution to Korea's dire population crisis.

However, the goal of increasing the Korean population by any means does not address the needs of individuals separated from their birth parents and lacking access to personal history and family information.

International standards for the protection of children set by the 1995 Hague Adoption Convention deem intercountry adoption to be a last resort. Korea signed the convention 10 years ago but has yet to ratify it, and approximately one child a day continues being sent abroad from Korea. Meanwhile, according to the most recent count posted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 3,437 unadopted children were on record in the Korean orphanage system in 2021.

Attorney Jeon told The Korea Times in a phone interview that another weakness of the anonymous birth bill is that it requires women to decide during their pregnancy that they want to carry out an anonymous birth. "But crises in raising a child can happen at any time after birth," she pointed out.

She said the government needs to offer a full range of reproductive rights and supports for vulnerable women and mothers instead of making a law that further facilitates the abandonment and disposal of children.

As for Cho, who is now creating a children's rights solidarity NGO, he hopes that history will not repeat itself. "I was a kid with a perfectly fine family but by somebody's arbitration, I was written onto a goa hojeok," he told The Korea Times. "I'm past my 40th year searching for my family and no one will help me. I don't even have a name. And they're trying to do it again."

Jia H. Jung is a multimedia journalist. She is an alumna of Columbia Journalism School in New York City and was a 2022-2023 postgraduate fellow of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She is writing a book about her late father, a street child of the Korean War era.