"Do me such a Korean!"

14 February 2021

'Even if you only save one'. These six words mark the beginning of international adoption in the Netherlands. They are spoken by writer Jan de Hartog, in a television interview with Mies Bouwman in 1967. After the Korean War (1950-1953), thousands of American soldiers remained as occupation forces under the UN flag. De Hartog speaks about the inhumane conditions in which the children of these American soldiers and their Korean mothers find themselves. They are rejected by the family and have no future in their own country.

September 20, 2006

"Do me such a Korean!"

Just give me such a Korean

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27 min

Driven by idealism, thousands of Dutch families respond to De Hartog's call and indicate that they want to adopt a Korean child. The 'adoptive Korean' is becoming a hype. More than four thousand Korean children come to the Netherlands between 1970 and 1988. Unprepared, full of enthusiasm, but also very naive, the first generation of foreign adopted children, now about 35,000, is welcomed. The wave of adoption from Korea came to an abrupt end in 1988, when the Olympic Games are held in Seoul and the Korean government prefers to get into the media with a more modern image than a 'child exporter'. Other Times speaks with stakeholders from the very beginning. Marjory de Hartog, wife of the writer, parents, children, social workers. A broadcast about idealism,

Korean baby

Adoption wave

"Do me a Korean!"

'Even if you only save one'. It is the spontaneous call for adoption of bestselling writer Jan de Hartog on the couch at Mies Bouwman. A phrase that, together with the images of his Korean daughters in 1968, unleashed a true wave of adoption. Thanks to the power of the picture tube, the Netherlands falls under the spell of the underprivileged 'third world orphan' and the taboos surrounding adoption disappear like snow in the sun. The new phenomenon exudes the idealism of flower power. But the pink cloud does not last long ...

This year it is fifty years ago that adoption in the Netherlands became legally possible. But despite the adoption of the adoption law in 1956, the taboos persisted. An adopted child who knew his status was the exception rather than the rule. Anything was allowed to hide the fact that in many cases the adoptive parents could not have children. Until the early seventies the adoption of children from third world countries became fashionable. Children whose appearance does not hide anything about their origin.

Jan de Hartog at Mies

'Even if you only save one'

The immediate reason for a real adoption wave is the appearance of the popular writer Jan de Hartog in the television program Mies en scene by Mies Bouwman. A film crew has traveled to the United States for the successful Broadway musical 'I do! I do! ', An adaptation of De Hartog's play' The four-poster bed '. An interview with the 'writer in residence' is then scheduled. But those recordings take an unexpected turn. A few days earlier, the writing couple took care of two Korean orphans and De Hartog promptly calls for help to the many thousands of foundlings and orphans in South East Asia. Vietnam appeals to everyone's imagination, but the situation in South Korea is still dire, he seems to want to impress on television-watching the Netherlands.

Thousands of American soldiers stayed in the area after the war (1950-1953) to maintain the status quo. The years of stationing have consequences: a considerable increase of 'half-bloods'. They are babies who are being rejected. “They were not only discriminated against, they simply did not exist,” says Liesbeth Graatsma, social worker and contact mediator for Korea in the 1970s. “Koreans did not have a population registry as here, but a family registry that was managed for the family eldest. Such a person would never accept an illegitimate child. Those children simply had no future. ”

The Quakers, a religious community to which De Hartog belonged, are one of the driving forces behind the adoption of these children in the United States. There it is the famous writer Pearl Buck, who sets the 'good example' with six adopted children. Marjory, Jan de Hartog's English wife, is reading a book about Buck's adoption work. She is so impressed by this that at the outbreak of the Vietnam War she wants to work on the care of orphans herself. “I started peddling to all kinds of organizations that they should pay attention to these children. Especially in Vietnam, ”Marjory de Hartog recalls. But it was not until 1975 that peace was signed in Vietnam, and before then few are allowed access. The couple becomes involved in Buck's volunteer organization.

Not much later, the Korean Eva and Julia appear in Mies Bouwman's broadcast. Two cheerful toddlers in a sun-drenched American suburb. There is no better advertisement for adoption. But De Hartog's flaming argument also helps. 'Even if you only save one' is such a statement that has impact. And then something happens that no one takes into account. The telephone at the VARA does not stop ringing after the broadcast. “We didn't know when it was broadcast, but suddenly the phone rang in the middle of the night. Mies was on the phone hysterically, ”remembers Marjory de Hartog. “She didn't know what to do with all those phone calls: 'What are we telling those people? Can they call you? ' was her question. ” In total, that evening and the following days, more than a thousand people called for 'a Korean'.

Sang and An de Klonia

Sang and An de Klonia

Vietnam, the Pill, the Social Assistance Act

Plenty of reasons for a child from abroad

How can a spontaneous statement in one television show unleash such a massive reaction? In 1967 growing criticism of the Vietnam War dominated the era. Television brings war into the living room and millions of families witness the horrors, with the images of overcrowded children's homes and neglected, malnourished children particularly gripping.

In the meantime, the number of adoptions in the Netherlands is decreasing due to the introduction of the pill in 1962, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, and the new General Assistance Act in 1963. This guarantee of a minimum subsistence for every citizen leads to a decrease in the number of distant children. In more and more cases, social services advise young unmarried mothers to raise their children themselves.

The adoption law (1956), which was introduced relatively late in the Netherlands, essentially meant that the adopted child became a full child of the adoptive parents in a legal sense. Yet until 1978 the biological parents retained the right to reverse the relinquishment of their child in court. According to F. ten Siethoff, then secretary of the Adoption Council, an advisory committee to the Ministry of Justice and the court, it was one of the reasons for moving abroad. “The threat was that the real parent would create a barrier. With a child from afar, the family is also a bit further away. ”

As it gradually becomes clear what the wars in Southeast Asia mean for tens of thousands of displaced children, little more is needed than an emotional statement from a popular speaker. A new social phenomenon is emerging: the adoption of Third World children.

In a Korean hut

In a Korean hut

Polder idealism

'Full is full'

An action committee will be set up to initiate aid for children in need. Foreign adoption is just one of the means. But the efforts are politically sensitive. “In the Netherlands the argument was that the country was too full. There was serious fear of an immigration wave, ”says Marjory de Hartog. F. ten Siethoff, former secretary of the Adoption Council, also remembers reticence at the Ministry of Justice. “Guidelines were drawn up. It stated, among other things, that you were not allowed to take the child if it was not certain that the distance was properly arranged. Furthermore, there was a lot of bureaucracy involved. In practice this meant that it was difficult to keep those children here. This put a brake on the unbridled entry. ”

But the ministry also had moral objections. There was a fear that bringing children from a completely different culture to the Netherlands would lead to all kinds of problems. The transition could be far too great and all kinds of difficulties in the parenting situation were predicted. They also feared child trafficking. Ten Siethoff: “In retrospect, society presented us with an accomplished fact. There were all those private initiatives. Practice has caught up with us. Nothing had been arranged. They just come in with them kids. And you couldn't send them back either. ”

“I remember a fortress made up of rows of small houses. It was primitive, I slept on a mat and if there was food we ate rice, only rice. I remember having a great time there until Grandma got sick and couldn't take care of me anymore. Then I had to cook for her. Sometimes a woman came by who was said to be working in Seoul. I think she was my mother. But if you ask me, did you know at the time that that woman was your mother, then I say no. She came too little for that. I never knew my father. He was probably back to the US before I was born.

These are the words of Sang de Klonia, now thirty-nine, and one of the first 100 children from South Korea to be adopted in the Netherlands. He's four when he comes. “I was in the car for the first time and on an airplane for the first time. It was really an outing with other children. A nice day until we arrived in the reception hall at Schiphol. I thought something is wrong here. This is bad. ” Social worker Liesbeth Graatsma guides the flights over time. “The journey took almost 32 hours. You had been with those children for a long time and then you get a bit of a bond. Often the children played wonderfully on the road, but they got stressed at Schiphol. We tried to keep them calm, but if such a child continues to panic, there is only one solution: get children and parents away to the car as quickly as possible. ”

As easy as the first children, once at Schiphol, were pushed into a new life, their arrival was so precarious with the authorities. Political pressure eventually had to make the government give in. Erie den Doolaard is the personification of this lobby. She is the wife of De Hartog's good friend and colleague A. den Doolaard. The writing couple's stay in the Veluwe serves as a temporary postal address for the many letters that flow in after De Hartog's call. Not only they, but also Mies Bouwman, receive loads of letters from parents who want to make themselves available. One of them is An de Klonia, the adoptive mother of Sang: “Dutch children were not in stock and then this came our way and we thought bingo! So that was sign up and see what will happen. Because at that time they were not yet allowed to enter the Netherlands at all.

Long waiting times

Marcel van Dam is an ombudsman for the VARA in 1971. After many letters from complaining parents, he devotes several episodes to the complicated adoption procedure, which is also causing a stir in the Lower House. The attitude of the ministry is a thorn in the side of D'66 MP Bert Schwarz, according to the parliamentary debate in January 1972: 'The Netherlands is relatively rich and absolutely full, just like a tram can be full, in which everyone is normally admitted without discrimination. . But when the tram is full, no one is allowed in anymore. (…) The government has done almost nothing to slow the immigration of foreign workers. The Department of Justice does make a contribution to curbing the immigration flow, which I do not appreciate, namely limiting the admission of foreign foster children. ”

In 1967, the year that De Hartog appealed to Mies Bouwman, more than eighty percent of the total number of adopted children was of Dutch descent. Eight years later, almost half of the children placed are of foreign origin and more than one-third are Korean. But demand exceeds supply. Parents have to wait endlessly before they can adopt a child. First there is the waiting time for the family research, then there is the waiting time for the actual adoption. In some cases it can be up to 7 years. An de Klonia has to wait 3.5 years for her Sang. “Yes, that waiting was a difficult period. The age difference with our first child began to play a role. That is why we preferred a slightly older child at the time. Then the difference was not that big with our first. ”


Exporter of babies

In the years that followed, Korea's international adoption program enjoyed great popularity. Begun as an initiative to rescue rejected mixed-race children, international adoption is developing into a last resort for middle-class childless parents in Europe and the US. The Vietnam War puts the problem of Third World children on the map. An de Klonia and her husband also participate in protests against the war. “We were anti-militarist yes. We were there from the first demonstrations, ”says De Klonia. “It's always the goddamn soldiers who cause the kids. That also happened in the Netherlands with the Germans and the Canadians. ” However, Vietnam will not grant access until after 1975 when peace is signed. That is why people are moving to another country.

In these years, international adoption is almost synonymous with adoption from Korea, where the lines are short and the authorities cooperate well. But the country does not want to do business with Erie Den Doolaard. Because she is 'a housewife in the Veluwe', Will Schütte remembers. “That was not official enough. A real body had to be set up. ” Wil Schütte is commissioned to set up a Foundation for Intercountry Adoption (SIA). Until then she is an employee at FIOM, the Federation of Unmarried Maternal Care Institutions, which until then has been charged with adoption. After all, adoption was inherent in the care of unmarried mothers for a long time.

But times change and Schütte is told by her boss: "Wouldn't you like to work with the SIA?" and he adds: "But then you have to arrange the financing yourself." Schütte lobbies here and there in the network of her husband, a senior civil servant at Defense, and in her own network. She says she arranges a generous arrangement at KLM to get the children here as cheaply as possible and she also knows how to exert her influence on the Ministry of Justice. “I think those men thought, well that female must also have something to do. In the beginning everything really went on his farm whistles. Nobody knew how to do it. ” She rents an attic in The Hague Schoolstraat. She gets the rattan chairs from her own home. She gets binders from a 'friend' and she arranges a generous arrangement at KLM to fly the children as cheaply as possible. Schutte: “We came in everywhere and often we left the meeting with big promises. They thought it was a whim of bored housewives. Today adoption, something different next year. But that turned out differently. ”

Sang as a teenager

Sang as a teenager

The disillusionment of the eighties

'Radius lazerus in the cell'

That the criticized reluctance of the Ministry of Justice also has another, more valid reason, becomes clear in the course of the eighties. The Netherlands now has more than 13,000 children from the Third World who have been adopted by Dutch parents. The babies and toddlers from the boom back then are the adolescents of the eighties. A picture of problem cases arises through the media because disillusioned parents of children placed out of their homes seek publicity. Sang is also removed from home. “At one point it went wrong. Petty crime and stuff, ”An recalls. She addresses Sang: “Until you were in jail and the police came here at the door. That has really been the last straw. Then they made an emergency admission. ” Sang: “I was untenable and unmanageable. In retrospect, that had everything to do with my adoption. It is underestimated what it means to come here from an Eastern culture. The thought was and is that you automatically do better here. ”

Nevertheless, Liesbeth Graatsma, who has been involved with the SIA from the very beginning as a social worker, emphasizes that in many cases it went well. But she has to admit that in those early years there was too much optimism about the course of the adoption. “We all thought that those children are in trouble and there are no solutions in the country of origin. We had them here. So we wanted to help those kids. We thought: it takes some getting used to, but it will work. With patience and love you will get there. That is what was later called the pink cloud. ”

Korean baby at Schiphol

Korean baby at Schiphol

The '88 Olympics

The straw that broke the camel's back

With the negative media coverage, the positive image of international adoption is revolving and the number of adoption requests is falling sharply. Between 1980 and 1989 even with sixty percent. In addition to the critical voices in the press, the first results of research into adoption mention special parenting problems for adoptive parents. Economic conditions are also less positive: the government's first major round of austerity is underway.

But not only the demand, the supply is also declining. In Asian countries, the political attitude towards adoption is changing. The rising standard of prosperity, from $ 248 per capita in Korea in 1970 to $ 2,268 in 1987, goes hand in hand with growing self-awareness. Domestic adoption is being stimulated and there is a stronger call to stop the 'export of babies'.

In Korea, this trend is marked by the 1988 Olympics. A year before the world spotlights are turned to Korea, a political revolution takes place. In June 1987, student protests, strikes and a massive popular uprising heralded the end of 25 years of military rule. The new freedom of expression offers room for a critical voice, but the adoptions continue unabated. One year later at the Games in Seoul, Korea proudly presents itself as a new industrialized democracy. But Western journalists are seizing the opportunity to show a different view of the country and present Korea as the world's largest exporter of children. It is the drop that makes the bucket overflow. Not a single child disappears across the border during the Games. And the year after, the number of adoptions dropped significantly. In the Netherlands from 107 placements in 1988 to 13 in 1989. Korea seems to have lost its image as a baby exporter. In the Netherlands, there is a slight revival in the number of adoption applications during the 1990s. China has now taken the lead. But every year a limited number of Koreans are still waiting for a new life in the Netherlands.

Sang de Klonia

Sang de Klonia

The numbers

Research into behavioral problems

In 1979 research is presented for the first time in the Netherlands into the adoption of foreign children. Prof. Dr René Hoksbergen, professor by special appointment of Adoption, mentions specific parenting problems in his book 'Adoption of children from distant countries'. But firm conclusions are forthcoming because the children concerned are still too short in our country. The first major national study by child psychiatrist Frank Verhulst does not appear until the late 1980s. His findings plainly expose the problems: foreign adopted children are four times as likely to come into contact with the police and the judiciary compared to 'normal children', they are three times more likely to attend special need help.

Yet researchers also contradict each other. Such as professor Femmie Juffer, an adoptive parent herself, who presented research results last year aimed at putting an end to the many myths surrounding the subject. She argues that while foreign adopted children have more behavioral problems than non-adoptees, the margins are small. Prof. Hoksbergen regularly seeks publicity to point out the 'size and intensity of the behavioral and parenting problems'. According to him, these are 'many times larger than in children born in the Netherlands'. He still pleads for better aftercare.

But those who really know are the almost 35,000 foreign children who have now been, or will be, raised by Dutch parents. Of these, 4,099 come from Korea. Sang de Klonia, then one of the first, asked the question: Is it nice to be adopted? "I wouldn't have had to. If only I had left there. What happened then is a difficult question. I probably would have been dead. But the point is what's worse: starving or grief."

Text and research: Ariane Kleijwegt

Director: Hein Hoffmann

Final editing: Laura van Hasselt