Imagining equality between Koreans and overseas adoptees

6 November 2021

This article is the 21st in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Han Boon-young, a Korean who was adopted to Denmark as a young child, returned to Korea in 2004. Here she shares her perspective as an international adoptee on this nation's official birth documents. ? ED.

By Han Boon-young

Overseas adult adoptees have resettled in Korea since the mid-/late 1990s but not before the early/mid-2000s was there a critical mass return. I doubt that Korea was ready for this influx and we might not have been quite ready for Korea either. My motivation for resettling in Korea was largely driven by a general interest and curiosity about this mythical-like place: a country which grants me special rights and privileges solely due to my overseas adoptee status, but at the same time, also a place that does not recognize or protect my most basic human rights for the very same reasons.

The reality of these arbitrary and discriminatory standards of both inclusion and exclusion had, at the time, already fostered healthy expectations and rich opportunities within the adoptee community to engage with locale stakeholders. We learned from scratch and we learned from each other, with a collective understanding that our position in history is in itself political.

The history of overseas adult adoptees' political engagement with Korea, and advocacy for adoptees' rights, often begins with our inclusion in the Act of the Immigration and Legal Status of Overseas Koreans, commonly referred to as the F-4 visa, in 1999. In the following years, Global Overseas Adoptees Link (G.O.A.'L) was able to hire its first paid staff, several major universities began to offer Korean language scholarships and various groups with specific political platforms came and went.

The deep irony of legal identities

Navigating the multiplicity of our identities is part of daily life; from the private to the public sphere, from unofficial to official matters, it is often left to the discretion of our counterparts to classify us. Will they register us under our Korean or non-Korean names, as a "foreigner" or as a "Korean?" Recognizing that both our pre-adoption and post-adoption identities are treated as legal identities raises more questions than answers! What has allowed for such ambiguity?

Drawing on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's notion of "homo sacer," the treatment of children in the adoption program is also an example of how political norms in Korea work: who is regulated and treated how? The figure of "homo sacer" is someone banned from society, someone who both cannot be sacrificed but may be killed by anyone. Such bare life is a life which has been exposed to the structure of exception, thus exempt or excluded from society, yet held in relation to the norm.

Inherent to the Korean adoption program is the widespread use of the "goa hojeok" (orphan family registry) which has produced generations of "orphans" on paper. Ordinary children have been made adoptable as they are stripped of their original legal identity, reduced to an empty body and recreated. But a body without an identity, without a name, without a family history is an incomplete life, precisely because it enjoys none of the rights granted to those with a legal identity. Consequently, the position as an adopted person begins in a space beyond the law, where common legal norms do not apply. This new identity, despite being a fully administratively legal identity, is born in a vacuum of legal protection.

Korean laws have always used identity ? name, family clan, sibling order, age among others ? to fulfill their purpose of maintaining order, establish standards, resolve disputes and protect individual rights and liberties. In doing so, the system recognizes an individual's relationship to significant others as a part of their uniqueness and innate qualities. One example is the Civil Law article 809, which up until 2005, did not allow marriage between a woman and a man with the "same family name and same ancestral origin," known as "dongseong dongbon." Another example is Civil Law article 875, which up until 1990, did not permit an eldest son to be adopted into another family. Civil Law article 1000 also revolves around identity, as it lists the order of inheritance, starting with lineal descendants and ending with collateral blood relatives within four degrees of the deceased.

Perhaps one of the most significant differences between identities created within and outside the law is the access to the document, "gajok gwangye jeung myeong seo" (family relations certificate). This document includes the names, dates of birth and social security numbers for one's father, mother, spouse and children, and can be printed from the electronic family registration system 24/7, 365 days a year. The ease with which any Korean can access these personal pieces of information stands in sharp contrast to the unique conditions created for adopted people. The new assigned identity, while recognized as a legal identity, is first and foremost an incomplete identity because it is conditioned by its detachment from the person's origins. Young and adult adopted individuals have in past decades had to deploy a range of strategies, tactics and creative finesse to obtain the most basic of information on their origins; sadly, too often these resources and efforts are spent in vain.

Translating good intentions into social change

With the establishment of the Overseas Koreans Foundation Act in 1997, the Korean state moved to give special treatment to its citizens abroad and foreign nationals who are lineal descendants of Koreans. While the F-4 visa signaled an intention to include overseas adopted individuals in Korea and its diaspora, the fundamental issue of creating adopted identities in a vacuum of rights has not been addressed, let alone resolved. Even today, the children involved in the adoption program are being stripped of their identities before becoming someone else.

The experience of having one's origins erased and replaced has been synonymous with having little reliable, if any, proof of origins. Without such a connection, adopted individuals do not qualify for full rights and protections, despite being granted the F4 visa, precisely because of a political mandate to recognize our belonging to Korea. The pathway to full rights will for most go through marriage or citizenship re-acquisition, which only highlights the fact that the position as an adopted person remains a politically incomplete identity.

Erased identities cannot be un-erased, and the vulnerability experienced from being stripped of one's identity cannot be un-learned, therefore merging adoption records with the existing family registration system remains a dream on a horizon far, far away. Building on good intensions, Korea now has all the tools to create real social change and eliminate adoptees' often years-long re-traumatizing process in search of origins. Will my generation of adoptees be able to experience equality before the law?

Han Boon-young is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Social Welfare at Seoul National University. She is a co-founder of Korean Adoptee Adoption Research Network.