Overseas Korean adoptee untied with birth family after 44 years of separation

19 October 2020

S. Korean government program allows adoptees to submit DNA samples to locate families

Yun Sang-ae (on the screen), who was separated from her family at a young age and then adopted by a family in the US, speaks with her birth family for the first time in 44 years on Oct. 15. (provided by the National Police Agency)

“Sang-ae! Meeting you is a dream come true. If I hadn’t met you, I don’t think I could have found peace beyond the grave,” said Lee Eung-sun, 78. She had to stop talking, choked up by her tears. The South Korean woman had just been connected by video with the daughter she’d lost 44 years ago.

The face mask covering Lee’s nose and mouth was soaked in her tears. Lee cautiously lowered the mask when the police officer beside her gave her permission to do so. Despite the flowing tears, there was a big smile on Lee’s face.

“I miss you, Mom,” said Sang-ae, 47, in halting Korean. In 1976, Sang-ae, at the age of three, was separated from her grandmother at Namdaemun Market in Seoul. She was eventually sent to the US, where she was adopted by a family who named her Denise McCarthy.

Sang-ae was reunited with her birth family after nearly half a century apart on a video call hosted by the National Police Agency’s missing families support center, in Seoul’s Dongdaemun District, on Oct. 15.

The meeting took place online because Sang-ae, who lives in Vermont, is unable to come to South Korea. Lee showed her daughter their family register and said the family had not once stopped waiting for her. Lee’s family kept Sang-ae on the register for all of those 44 years.

Yun after she was adopted by an American family. (provided by the National Police Agency)

Sang-ae’s identical twin sister, Sang-hui, also struggled to hold back her tears. “We never gave up on you. Day in and day out, we were looking for you.”

After Sang-ae went missing, family members anxiously tried to find her. They filed a missing person report at the Namdaemun Police Department and put up fliers all day long, until the nighttime curfew, but their efforts were in vain.

In the end, the family decided to wait for Sang-ae in the spot where she’d disappeared. Sang-ae’s mother opened up a shop in the market selling hanbok, or traditional attire, while her father ran a shop selling lottery tickets.

“I thought you’d be one of the passersby, but I never found you. I’m sorry you ended up in a strange land where you didn’t speak the language and everything was unfamiliar to you,” Lee said through her tears.

This was the first reunion arranged through a program set up this past January by the National Police Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare to help overseas Korean adoptees find their birth families. The program allows overseas adoptees like Sang-ae to submit DNA samples to Korean diplomatic missions in their own countries so they can look for their families without traveling all the way to Korea.

Since Sang-ae was adopted by an American family following her disappearance, she was eligible for the program. She recently provided the Korean consulate in Boston with a DNA sample, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs passed on to the National Police Agency to confirm her family relationship.

“I think this miracle has occurred because we never gave up on looking for my daughter. I hope this news will bring hope to other families with missing people,” Lee said.

According to data from the South Korean government, 167,547 Korean children were sent to countries such as the US, France, and Sweden for adoption between 1958 and 2018. The Korean government is currently collecting and testing DNA samples at 34 diplomatic missions in 13 of those countries (all but Luxembourg).