Korea should investigate overseas adoptions

30 August 2019

y Dr. Hanna Sofia Jung Johansson

South Korea has sent away more children for overseas adoption than any other country in history. The number of children sent away is unknown but numbers ranging from 175,000 to over 200,000 are mentioned.

The vast majority of these children were adopted during the 1970s (approximately 66,500 children) and the 1980s (approximately 23,000 children). This means that most of the children were adopted during the authoritarian regimes in Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.

Accusations of child trafficking, child laundering and kidnapping are often heard in relation to overseas adoptions, including adoptions from South Korea. All these terms indicate that inter-country adoptions have been carried out by illegal and fraudulent means.

Numerous adoptees and families that have reunited bear witness to children being sent overseas without the parents' consent or knowledge. Despite this, the Korean government has never carried out an investigation of the children sent for overseas adoption.

This is not due to lack of interest on the part of citizens in investigating human rights violations during authoritarian rule. Rather, it is because the Korean government has expressed no interest in conducting such an investigation.

On Dec. 1, 2005, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This governmental body was responsible for investigating incidents in Korean history which occurred from Japan's colonial rule of Korea in 1910 through the end of authoritarian rule in Korea with the election of President Kim Young-sam in 1993.

The body has investigated numerous atrocities committed by various government agencies during Japan's occupation of Korea, the Korean War and the authoritarian governments that ruled afterwards. Each incident investigated is based on a citizens' petition, with some incidents having hundreds of petitions.

However, the TRC was not tasked with including fraudulent adoptions as parts of these incidents. The reason for this is unclear to me. One reason might be that a majority of the overseas adoptees are no longer Korean citizens. But this is no excuse, as our families are still citizens and we were citizens at the time of our adoption.

As a political scientist and Korean overseas adoptee, I argue that the South Korean government could have included such an investigation when other crimes against human rights were investigated.

Especially adoptions carried out from Social Welfare Society (SWS) should be investigated, as it was originally founded under the name Child Placement Service under the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. This means that SWS, more than any of the other adoption agencies, has strong ties to the former authoritarian regimes.

I also argue that it is feasible to carry out such investigations today even if the adoptions took place over 30 or 40 years ago. Such investigations are actually happening in Chile right now, and members of Korea's TRC helped the Chilean Commission for Truth and Reconciliation at the start.

Today, the investigation of overseas adoptions from Chile are investigated by a judge. He has investigated over 2,300 adoptions and has proved that more than 600 of these were not carried out legally. This means that over 25 percent of Chilean adoptions were illegal. Like adoptions from South Korea, the Chilean adoptions were carried out during a dictatorship, under a regime guilty of several human rights violations.

The fact that the ongoing investigation is the first regarding inter-country adoptions is no excuse for the South Korean government to avoid a similar investigation.

When President Moon Jae-in was elected, I was hopeful that maybe under his presidency we, the adoptees and our families, would finally get some justice.

However, we are still waiting and time is running out, as our parents are getting older and might die before the crimes carried out against them are solved. There is no more time to wait for an investigation.

South Korea should learn from Chile and start investigating all overseas adoptions now. As long as no investigation is taking place, there is no chance that the families who lost their children to adoption without their consent can ever reconcile with the crimes committed by the former authoritarian regimes.

The high number of overseas adoptees means that one out of 50 Koreans has lost a child, sibling or grandchild to adoption. These people, including their children sent abroad, deserve truth and reconciliation as much as all other Koreans whose rights were violated by the authoritarian regimes.

Dr. Hanna Sofia Jung Johansson is coordinator of Swedish Korean Adoptees' Network. Contact her at hannasofia76@gmail.com.