Mixed-Race Korean Adoptees Use DNA to Search For Roots

2 March 2016

325Kamra plans to gather DNA from Korean women and biological relatives who have relinquished children to international adoption.

Sarah Savidakis, 55, lived in South Korea until she was nine years old, at which time she was adopted by a Connecticut family.

For Savidakis, who says she has grappled with the effects of early childhood trauma, memories of her life in Korea — including those of her birth mother — vanished around the time she arrived in the United States in 1970.

“I have some flashbacks here and there,” Savidakis, who lives in Tarpon Springs, Florida, told NBC News. “But to this day, my mother is [like] a ghost or a silhouette.”

Savidakis is among the thousands of mixed-race children born in the aftermath of the Korean War to American or U.N. soldier fathers and Korean mothers — many of whom were adopted into American families.

Seeking information about her birth parents, Savidakis in September tested her DNA through a commercial genealogy service and identified a first cousin, once removed. The relative helped her identify and connect with a half-brother and half-sister. She learned that her father — who was of Scottish and Irish descent — had passed away in 2014.

Savidakis’ adoption case number is seen in the top left corner. Courtesy of Sarah Savidakis

After conducting research about mixed-race Korean adoptees, she learned that her mother likely worked in a camptown outside a U.S. base — areas where soldiers could drink and purchase sex.

Savidakis is president of 325Kamra, Inc., a non-profit organization launched in November that aims to connect adoptees with their biological Korean relatives.

The group is comprised of mixed-race adoptees around the United States, some of who have identified paternal relatives using direct-to-consumer genealogy services such as Ancestry and 23andMe. Finding maternal relatives is harder, they say, because Korea lacks the necessary DNA-based resources and their birth records often contain inaccuracies and omissions.

Increasing chances through DNA-based methods

The idea for 325Kamra was conceived in September on the sidelines of a conference on Korean camptowns held at the University of California, Berkeley. Having seen mixed-race adoptees find American birth relatives, the core members believed all adoptees would stand a better chance of locating relatives in Korea if DNA-based methods were applied.

The group plans to gather DNA from Korean women and biological relatives who have relinquished children to international adoption, and send the samples to a U.S.-based genealogy company for analysis. The idea is simple: the more people who join the DNA database, the greater the chances of adoptees and birth families finding one another.

Clockwise from top left, Sarah Savidakis, CEO/president; Bella Siegel-Dalton, data director; Noel Cross, former vice president of the group who died of cancer in November, 2015; Dawn Tomlinson, a mixed-race Korean adoptee; Tammy Wooldridge, media director; Katherine Kim, secretary; and Kathy Augenstein, CFO and translator.Courtesy of Tammy Wooldridge

The adoptees’ stories shed light on a neglected chapter of Korean history, when military prostitution was an enduring facet of relations with the United States and mixed-race babies, rejected by Korean society, were regarded as a glaring social welfare and publicity problem.

Scholars say the majority of mixed-race children born in the aftermath of the Korean War were born to Western soldier fathers and mothers who worked in camptowns (called gijichon in Korean) outside U.S. bases.

Katherine Kim, a mixed-race adoptee and 325Kamra’s secretary, told NBC News the priority is to collect DNA from former camptown workers because the women are advanced in age if they have not already passed away.

“If we could get these women to test using DNA…we could identify biological connections for them,” said Kim, 58, a resident of Lexington, Massachusetts.

Savidakis Ostracized by society

The Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, and the United States has maintained a troop presence in the South as a deterrent to the communist dictatorship in the North.

In the post-war period, squalid camptowns sprung up around U.S. bases. These areas reached their heyday in the 1960s, becoming lined with bars where soldiers drank, danced, and engaged in sex with prostitutes. Soldiers could pick up sex workers in clubs; some women became live-in girlfriends or lived with men in common-law marriages.

“There are women out there who want to meet their [children], because, and she told us, because she wants to know they’re okay."

Scholars say the Korean government, dependent on the U.S. military presence, enabled military prostitution by requiring sex workers to register with authorities and undergo regular examinations in a bid to minimize the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among troops.

Society viewed camptown workers — most of who came from poor, rural families — as “Western whores” and “Western princesses.” Mixed-race children were shunned and had difficulties accessing the most basic of services.

In some cases, Western soldiers knew that they had conceived a child and looked after them or brought them back to the United States. Some soldiers married girlfriends they met in camptowns and brought them back with them.

Many women who became pregnant opted for abortion or relinquished their children to orphanages.

For single mothers, the grim reality of the camptowns and social stigmas made childrearing exceedingly difficult, said Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College and a Brookings Institution fellow.

Some women who chose to keep their children raised them in the same room where they entertained men, said Moon, who researched camptowns for her book, “Sex Among Allies.” Family members, ashamed of the women’s livelihood, offered no help.

The mothers “had such guilt, because they could not provide for these kids economically in the way that they would have liked,” Moon told NBC News.

At the time, only Korean men could pass down citizenship, so mixed-race children were technically not eligible to be citizens and had difficulty attending school or receiving health care, Moon said.

‘They knew I existed’

From left, Kathy Augenstein, Sarah Savidakis, and Tammy Wooldridge.Courtesy of 325Kamra

Bella Siegel-Dalton, 54, data director of 325Kamra, grew up believing her father had no idea of her existence.

“That was the story I had from day one and carried through until I actually found my family,” Siegel-Dalton, who lives the Bay Area, told NBC News.

In 2012, curious about her lineage and medical history, she tested her DNA through 23andMe and identified a third cousin, who had also provided a DNA sample.

Siegel-Dalton worked with her third cousin to identify shared relatives. In time, she had built enough of a family tree to identify people she believed were close relatives.

Courtesy of Bella Siegel-Dalton

Last year, she connected with a woman who proved to be her aunt. The aunt said that while Siegel-Dalton’s father — Irvin Rogers — had passed away in 2010, he had spoken all his life about a child he may have left behind in Korea.

"You’ll find some people who are very willing to help you and others who will close the door."

As it turned out, Rogers had been scheduled to return home to Kentucky in 1961. But he learned that his girlfriend, a Korean named Lee Jung-hee, was pregnant.

Instead of returning home, Rogers went AWOL in order to stay with Lee. The authorities found and relegated him to a military prison, Siegel-Dalton learned. Rogers eventually found Lee’s family, but was told that his girlfriend and baby had died during labor.

He returned to Kentucky, and in time, married twice and had six children.

“He never knew if he had a boy or a girl, if I lived or died, or anything,” said Siegel-Dalton, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. “But he told the story to the family when he got home, and he kept telling the story until his dying breath.”

Kim, 325Kamra secretary, has connected with biological family members including an aunt, who recalled sending hand-me-down baby clothes to a newborn niece in Korea nearly sixty years ago.

Her birth father’s family “knew about me, they even have a picture of my mother and of me as a baby, which they’ve since lost,” Kim said. “They knew I existed.”

Kim does not know the reason her father abandoned her or why he did not marry her mother.

Her father “was married in June 1959 in the U.S. and I was relinquished for adoption in November 1959, so I’m guessing my mother was holding out hope that they were going to get married,” she said.

Connecting biological families

Kim said that one’s biological family members might not want contact with an unknown relative.

“You have to approach it very gingerly. You’ll find some people who are very willing to help you and others who will close the door,” she said.

325Kamra president Savidakis this month met two of her half-siblings in person. Her half-sister, Debbie Crawford Butler of Scottsboro, Alabama, said meeting Savidakis was “the most amazing experience of my life” and that she could “see my daddy in her face.”

“It’s been nothing but a blessing…except for the years that my sister didn’t know who she was or where she came from,” she told NBC News.

To help build a bigger pool of biological information, 325Kamra ships free DNA kits to Korean adoptees living outside the United States. It also provides kits to Korean relatives, available at a Seoul-based adoptee advocacy organization called KoRoot.

The kits were donated by Thomas Park Clement, a mixed-race adoptee and founder and president of medical device company Mectra Labs. Clement has pledged to provide $1 million worth of DNA kits to the Korean adoptee community. As part of his efforts, he has provided kits to Korean adoptees in the United States as well as to U.S. veterans of the Korean War.

Kim said 325Kamra also plans to reach out to Korean women who moved to the United States as military brides and offer a DNA test to any who have relinquished a child.

325Kamra asks Korean mothers and relatives who wish to join the database to provide basic medical information and a photograph, and participants can share as much or as little as they want. The DNA samples are sent to a U.S.-based company for analysis.

Adoptees who have a close DNA match in the system are referred to 325Kamra. Once contacted, the group releases the medical information and photographs that have been provided, along with contact information, if the relative has consented.

DNA testing is “a big game-changer as long as you have that data to compare with and right now we don’t have that (in Korea) and that’s what our organization is trying to do,” Savidakis said.

The group will visit South Korea in April to collect samples from former camptown sex workers. It also plans to provide food packages to the women, many of who struggle with poverty and health issues.

The group members stressed that they will do all they can to educate the women about the collection process and that participants can control how much information they share. Savidakis said their DNA, when sent for analysis, would be identified only as a kit number — and not by name — and that 325Kamra would manage the women’s profiles within the company’s database to be completely anonymous.

“They knew I existed."

The trip follows a fact-finding mission in December 2015, where Savidakis said she was shocked to find some former camptown workers “digging out of garbage cans to eat.”

Savidakis met a 95-year-old woman who traveled by foot to a social services center to see if any of the group members was her daughter.

“There are women out there who want to meet their [children], because, and she told us, because she wants to know they’re okay,” Savidakis said.

Savidakis said the women should not feel ashamed.

“They feel like their children are going to be ashamed of them,” she said. “And they don’t realize that we are not ashamed of them at all. We just know that they were dealt a really bad hand in life."

“Our organization, we want to try to help as much as we can and also connect families,” she said.