Hyun Sook Han, social worker who helped thousands of families with international adoptions, dies at 83

27 November 2021

Hyun Sook Han never tired of her role as a matchmaker of sorts, connecting thousands of Korean children with American adoptive families over four decades in Minnesota.

Her work as a social worker and pioneer in international adoption fulfilled a promise she made to children she saw left behind in snowbanks as she fled her home on foot during the Korean War.

She vowed to one day come back to help them — and made building families through adoption her life's work.

Han, 83, died of kidney cancer Nov. 5 at her home in Shoreview.

Han was born in 1938 in Seoul and lived during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War.

After graduating from Ewha University in Seoul with a degree in social work in the early 1960s — despite her father's wish that she become a lawyer — she set off to help orphaned children find homes.

She helped start a foster home program and promoted Koreans adopting Korean children at at time when both were new ideas, said her daughter, Shinhee Han.

She married her husband, Young Han, in 1962 and soon gave birth to Shinhee. She and her husband, a North Korean orphan himself, complemented each other, Shinhee Han said.

"He really supported her mission," said Shinhee Han, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. "He and my mom had a shared vision."

Both wanted to emigrate to the U.S. in the 1970s — Han to better support Korean children post-adoption and her husband because he believed being American would help him find his birth family, she said.

Han participated in a social work exchange program to Minnesota in the early 1970s; in 1975, the family moved permanently to the Twin Cities. By then, they had adopted a son, Mike, and Han began working at the Children's Home Society of Minnesota.

There, she helped start the Korea program, the agency's first international adoption initiative, said Heidi Wiste, president of the Children's Home Society of Minnesota.

Han also created initiatives to help families post-adoption, including supportive cultural groups for pre-teens and teens. She cooked so the kids could have authentic Korean meals and she helped start a Korean culture camp, too.

"I think she helped continue to keep Korean adoptees connected to their culture ... and to know the importance of being Korean in an adopted family," said Wiste, whose own adoption as a child was facilitated by Han.

Wiste recalled Han's "fantastic" smile, sense of humor and revered status at work, where spotting her "was like seeing a celebrity in the office."

Despite retiring from the Children's Home in 2004, Han continued working for several years, reforming policies in Indian orphanages. A devout Christian, she also became involved in missionary work in retirement.

Her daughter said that even when Han was ill, she would still take phone calls from adoptees searching for birth families.

"She was very clear about all of us living with a purpose," Shinhee Han said.

Han received a 1987 award from the president of South Korea for her child welfare contributions and a proclamation for Hyun Sook Han Day in 1989 by Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich.

She is survived by her daughter, Shinhee Han, of New York City; her son, Mike Han, of Bloomington; and four grandchildren. She is also survived by her sister, Hyun Yoon Shim, of New Brighton and brother, Mike Shim, of Fort Wayne, Ind. Services have been held.