Maria was stolen and adopted to Sweden: My biological parents demanded me back
17 April 2022

When Maria Lundberg Ström's mother and father learned that the biological parents demanded their daughter back, it was the beginning of one of history's worst adoption scandals. It turned out that Maria had been stolen from her home in Seoul. Her new Swedish parents became desperate.

FJung Yoon Huh's life in Sweden began on 18 February 1968 at Arlanda. It was the day when her expectant adoptive parents, Ulla and Stig, received their adopted child from Korea.

They were a childless couple in their 40s who had longed to start a family, but did not succeed. The 2.5-year-old Korean girl was received with open arms. They called her Mary.

The girl was precocious for her age. In fact, she was four years old. But about that and about Mary's real background, they knew nothing. They thought she was orphaned.

Maria Lundberg Ström, who is now 56 years old, agrees that her story is exceptional. Few adoptees find their biological parents. In her case, on the contrary, it was the biological parents who, after two years of searching, found their lost daughter. Because she was anything but poor and orphaned, she came from a wealthy entrepreneurial family in Seoul.

- Maria and I have known each other for a long time and when she told me her story, I hardly thought it was true. After she and two younger sisters were abducted from their Seoul home, authorities spent 16 days finding the biological parents.

- But it is doubtful if they really applied. After that, the children were quickly adopted abroad. They traded with Korean children, who were sent to Sweden, one of the largest recipient countries at the time, says journalist Catrin Villaume Fägerstrand.

What happened to Maria is scandalous

After delving into Maria's government documents and letters, she decided to turn the strong and important story into a book. Maria told and Catrin wrote. The result was Stolen Child.

- What happened to Maria is scandalous! Sweden's trade in South Korean children from the late 60s onwards must be seen in the light of the dictatorship that prevailed in the country and the extensive corruption that permeated the entire society, says Catrin.

In recent years, many Swedish adoption stories have been about bad mood due to the adoption itself. It is also assumed that the adoptee will feel grateful to have had a better life.

- But I would probably have had a better material standard in Korea, because my parents were well off. My Swedish parents were simple people. But they loved me and always wanted my best, so I have not felt bad at all about being adopted, says Maria, who thinks it is important that the good examples of adoption are also highlighted.

Maria has never been subjected to racism

- I had a happy childhood. I have never been exposed to racism or felt different or outside. This was probably partly due to the fact that mother and father were salvation soldiers. We lived in a strong community in the congregation, where everyone was equally valuable, says Maria with a smile.

While attending preschool in her new homeland, her biological parents searched desperately for her and her siblings.

Exactly how they disappeared is not entirely clear. The parents ran a hotel and restaurant business and when the property burned down, the father was innocently accused of arson by his brother.

The children were handed over to the police

While serving a short prison sentence, his brother would take care of his wife and children. Instead, the children were handed over to a police station as orphans. The mother was hospitalized.

Later the brother took his life, the pangs of conscience probably overwhelmed him.

The parents had high-level contacts and money to pay bribes. Couriers were hired and one of them managed to trace the children to Sweden. But they also lifted the lid on a scandal that would soon break out internationally. After the 1988 Summer Olympics came revealing reports on South Korea's child trafficking, and in 1998, President Kim Dae Jung made a public apology to 150,000 Korean adoptees.

Maria understands the immense pain

- But what did they say in Sweden? What did the Swedish Adoption Center answer in the debate? We have not found a word about the matter, Catrin and Maria state.

Catrin adds that it was the adoptees themselves who demanded an investigation and proposals for measures so that the adoptions would be legally secure in the future.

As a mother of three, Maria can understand the immense pain the biological parents must have felt when they realized that their children had disappeared.

- Later, my Korean mother thankfully gave birth to a son. But without him, I do not think she would have survived the trauma, Maria says slowly.

After two years of searching, the parents found Maria and demanded her back. But an adoption can not be dissolved unless the adoptive parents agree to it. In May 1970, Ulla and Stig were visited by social workers who suggested a change.

The parents received the proposal to change children

- My parents had lined up to adopt another child from Korea and the consultants then suggested that the new child should take my place. It sounds completely nonsensical, but that was it. To be questioned and further scrutinized must have been awful for them. But my adoptive parents left the queue and refused to return me.

- My poor biological parents had to content themselves with writing letters that went via the adoption agency in Seoul to Sweden, says Maria and tells that it also took a while before her mother and father in Sweden got home all the adoption papers with the right stamps.

- Everything was extremely poorly managed. It is incomprehensible how Swedish authorities continued to renew permits for adoption agencies that clearly saw between the fingers on the trade in children, says Catrin.

During adolescence, sporadic letters were exchanged with umma and appa, as Maria calls her biological parents.

The father asked permission to write a letter

- It has been so touching, yes painful, to read the letters where Maria's biological father asks her adoptive parents for permission to write to their own daughter. She is a young woman then and can decide for herself, but for him she is still four years old, his little girl, says Catrin.

Ulla and Stig were devastated when the truth came out; that Maria had been stolen from her Korean parents. As deeply Christian, they suffered from remorse and had strong compassion for their biological parents. But none of them were to blame for what happened. It was just downright tragic.

Growing up, Maria felt no need to visit Korea. But when she and her then love - and later husband - Håkan decided to backpack in Asia in 1989, it was he who suggested that they stop over in Seoul, both on the way there and on the way home.

The meeting with Korea would change Maria's life.

- Because I look Korean, people came up and talked to me. But when I could not answer, they became openly contemptuous, they thought I was half Korean and these are looked down upon. I had never encountered such pronounced racism before!

The meeting with the biological parents, on the other hand, was fine. She felt an immediate belonging.

Maria became convinced that blood ties are for real

Maria sits quietly for a while and thinks about how to explain the feeling.

- Before I met them, I did not believe that blood is thicker than water. But I became convinced that blood ties are real when I met them. It's hard to explain…

She and Håkan were treated like royalty and treated to the very best. The parents had even decorated a Western-style room for the young couple, hoping they would return.

During her first stay in Seoul, Maria received the explanation for why she has never liked to eat Swedish breakfast.

- In Korea you eat hot food in the morning and I was used to that when I came to Sweden. After a while, my mom tried to give me yesterday's dinner leftovers for breakfast. Then I ate with good appetite!

Together with her biological parents, she got to see her population register and only then did she discover that she was born in 1963, not 1965, which was stated in all adoption documents. However, the name had not changed.

It took a few years to make me more attractive for adoption, Maria states.

During the Asia trip, Maria discovered that she was pregnant with her first child and returned to Seoul with the wonderful news.

- I could see how umma's face was smoothed out during our absence, she was so happy to have me back, she says.

Maria's visit to Korea naturally caused concern among the adoptive parents, although they in no way envied their daughter to meet her biological parents. On the contrary.

- It is clear that it was sensitive for them. What if I were to prefer my biological parents? Mom and I quarreled a lot during this period, partly because I did not want to live according to the Salvation Army's standards and rules, and she admitted much later that she thought it was nice that I went! But during the trip, we started writing letters and getting closer to each other again.

Get to know the family

Over the years, Maria has returned to Korea several times and feels grateful to have had the chance to get to know not only umma and appa, but also her brother.

2017 got called umma to Maria. The phone line was bad, but Maria understood that her app was dead. Stig and Ulla are also gone, but umma is still alive. She is soon 80 years old.

- I would like to go back to meet umma one last time. I am lucky to have been loved by four parents, says Maria and smiles.