[INTERVIEW] Defender of inter-country adoptees' rights

25 May 2022

Lee Kyung-eun to meet Korean adoptees during Europe book tour next month

By Jung Min-ho

If inter-country adoption truly was intended "for the best" of children born in poor countries, why doesn't anyone listen to them when they finally have a voice to say that it wasn't what they wanted?

Inter-country adoptees' access to knowledge of their origins is still denied over their biological parents' right to privacy in Korea, a nation that remains as one of the leading "baby exporters" despite being the world's 10th-largest economy today.

Lee Kyung-eun, 53, one of the most famous, indefatigable defenders of adoptees' rights and author of "The Global Orphan Adoption System," will listen to the voices of Korean adoptees in person next month during her book tour in four European cities ? Amsterdam, The Hague, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

"I hope my tour will serve as a momentum for a collaborative effort between 'sending' and 'receiving' countries for adoption system reform," Lee said in a recent interview.

Lee, who has served as co-editor of the "Dialogues with Adoptees" series on The Korea Times' website for more than a year, plans to meet government officials, members of the media and human rights activists between June 8 and 30.

Her book, which was published on Nov. 30, 2021, tells how the current transnational system for adoption was born and what roles Korea played ? and still plays ? in developing it with case studies from around the world. It is a collection of her years of research on the topic at Seoul National University.

"Are you an adoptee, too?" This is the question she has been frequently asked.

"After receiving the same question so many times, I asked an adoptee why they would want to know it. He said when adoptees talk about their difficulties such as identity confusion, no one, not even their family members, understands them. So adoptees probably assume that I was one of them," Lee said.

Translating her research into English was an arduous work, which took more than two years. But she thought it was necessary because the most important readers of the book would be adoptees, not just from Korea but all over the world, most of whom do not read Korean.

"After publishing the book, which explains many complicated issues with much legal jargon, I was worried. I wondered ? nervously ? how adoptees would react to it," she said. "It did not take long for me to realize that there are many readers who understand my intention. I'm deeply grateful."

Reforming the inter-country adoption system will take many years, if not decades, because it involves different countries and, in Korea's case, the rights of Korean adoptees ? holders of other citizenships ? conflict with other rights. When asked about the most urgent reform area, Lee said that setting up a reasonable system for those searching for their origins here should be a priority.

"Currently, they are left without any legal support, even though Korea recognizes 'the right to know' … In reality, many seek help from private adoption agencies which have extensive discretion over how much information they can have," Lee said. "In most cases, they give up before trying."

According to the International Social Service, a nonprofit organization that supports children, Korea sent 266 children overseas through adoption in 2020. The number is the world's third largest.

Lee, former deputy secretary for the presidential office for overseas PR and former Amnesty International Korea director, established Human Rights Beyond Borders last year to "create a global movement that campaigns to defend adopted people's right to origins."