How the Korean Government Fails
I was stationed in Korea for eight years and have made more than a dozen trips to Korea since I left in 2007. During my last visit to Itaewon, I came across a small bronze statue of a girl sitting on a chair, next to an empty chair, located at the stoplight intersection closest to the US military base. I read the inscription on the plaque and learned that the statue of a young girl wearing a traditional hanbok with clenched fists commemorates the estimated 200,000 girls and women who were forced into prostitution to service the Japanese during WWII.
Currently, there are 40 comfort women statues erected in and outside of South Korea, located in the United States, Canada, Australia and China. The statue is a visible reminder of the abhorrent pain and suffering the Japanese brought upon so many lives. It’s believed that three-quarters of all comfort women have already died and those that survived, told unspeakable accounts of torture.
In recent years, many comfort women have been outspoken and demanded apologies and reparation for what they endured. In 1994, the Japanese government set up a public fund called the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to provide compensation to the countries where the Japanese had occupied during the war and enslaved the women for sexual exploitation. In recent years, there has been a public outcry by the Korean citizens against the Japanese government for sweeping this gross violation under the rug. The Japanese government has never officially recognised nor apologised for the exploitation of women in this manner.
The Japanese could learn how to do the right thing from their WWII allies. The German government has apologized for their atrocities during WWII and they’ve erected a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The US government apologized five times to the American Japanese for their involvement in rounding up citizens and sending them to internment camps. Furthermore, the US House and Senate apologized for their wrongdoings to their own citizens, apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the United States.
However, this story doesn’t end with the Japanese. I agree that the comfort women deserve both an apology and reparation for their pain and suffering. I believe this is the proper thing to do. But I want to point out the hypocrisy of the Korean government as they use the same tactics and verbiage of the Japanese government as to how they also deal with the issue of the 200,000 children displaced through intercountry adoption. Korean society ignores that adoptees suffer from adoption trauma as well as a moral injury. Many of my fellow adoptees can remember being forced on planes and sent into the arms of strangers. The psychological damage for many adoptees go beyond that one experience and the US Department of Health and Human Services study estimates the percentage of adopted people seen in mental health settings fall within the range of 5 to 12%, or 2.5 to 6 times the percentage of adopted children in the general population.
Adopted people are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a study published in the online journal of Pediatrics. The Institute for Family Studies learned through their studies that adoptees are more likely to have difficulties through school and are four times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to be expelled from school. The rosy outcomes promoted by pro-adoption groups in the US and elsewhere are very misleading. The media largely ignores the adoption stories that are about death, rape, abuse and neglect. Numerous adoptees have endured horrific lives, not unlike those of comfort women.
Like the comfort women, adoptees are being ignored by the same government that caused the initial pain and suffering. Adoptees are asking for honesty when their histories are being shared. They ask for honesty and transparency. It’s statistically impossible for all adoptees to have been abandoned and left on doorsteps of every police station in Seoul.
Adoptees have taken matters into their own hands and have become videographers, sharing their stories and showing the flaws in the records and the stories that were told to them. The truth may be that the records of children were switched at birth or exchanged with other children who had more favorable stories.
Adoptees are speaking out and want to be told the truth even if it means there is nothing in our files. The government programs providing assistance to adoptees are largely run by Korean Nationals and have little to no input from adoptees. How can the largest stakeholder have no voice in designing the programs that are meant to support them? Doesn’t it make sense for the Korean government to hire Korean adoptees to support fellow Korean adoptees?
The red tape and lies don’t stop here. Numerous Korean families have been outspoken because they were given lies and the run-around when they enquire to find their children sent abroad. Furthermore, the organizations supposedly providing support to Korean adoptees are largely tone deaf and not motivated to provide assistance. I met a Korean adoptee who was diagnosed with liver failure and when he turned up for assistance, he was given little to none and died a slow and painful death.
Sadly, that is not an isolated case. Adoptees who are stranded and deported to Korea have reached out to the Korean government for resources and support. They were met with a plethora of demands from the Korean government in order to obtain assistance. Individuals with possible learning difficulties or prior formal educational experience were expected to pass Korean language classes to receive benefits. The benefits given were not enough for these adoptees to meet their basic needs. These adoptees then turned to their adoptee peers to pay for basic necessities such as food and clothing. I know this from first hand experience.
I met an adoptee just prior to his death and I have worked with adoptee-led organizations who raise funds to support the deported adoptees in crisis in Korea. I have also met with adoptees who erected the statue in memory of murdered adoptee Hyunsu O’Callaghan. The reality is that the real work for adoptees still comes from fellow adoptees.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article stated: “Kang Tae-in, a representative of a group of Korean birth families, said it was untrue that most birth parents don’t want to be found. He said many members of his group have tried to search for their children, only to be insulted and lied to by adoption agencies”.
The Korean government imposes restrictions that make it hard for adoptees to find their biological families. Adoptees have been forced to resolve issues on their own. A group of Korean adoptees got together to start a non-governmental organization (NGO) called 325KAMRA, largely funded by Thomas Park Clement, a Korean adoptee sent to America. 325KAMRA was formed because there was no consolidated DNA database widely available for Korean adoptees around the world to search for their biological families. There are approximately 150,000+ Korean adoptees in America and 50,000+ Korean adoptees in Europe – many of them wish to find biological family in Korea.
The South Korean Police have a separate database that started in 2004 and it has been used largely for missing people. Adoptees can access this but only if their adoption paperwork states that they were not given up by their parents. According to a news article in 2013, this police database had 24,764 samples from “missing people (mainly people with intellectual disabilities at institutions) while only 1,732 family members of missing persons had registered their DNA in this database. As of 2013, since 2004 there had been only 236 cases of reunion (children under age 14 (110 cases) and disabled (112 cases)).
325Kamra has been extremely successful compared to the closed system established in Korea.
As of November 2018, 325KAMRA has enabled 70 adoptees to be re-connected with biological families through DNA matches, genetic genealogy and DNA detective work. Moreover, there have been at least 100 matches to close family members using autosomal DNA tests. That means 170 Korean adoptees have found biological family through the use of autosomal DNA tests in the last three years. This is 72% of what the Korean police database yielded in over a decade. To date, Thomas Park Clement and 325Kamra have distributed over 4,700 DNA kits to Korean adoptees – primarily in the United States, Europe and Korea.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article states: “According to the law, one can access their birth records without their birth parents’ permission only if the birth parent is dead or cannot be found, or the adoptee has a medical condition or other reason for doing so.”
I personally think the Korean government needs to be reminded of their own obligations. We should use the same tactics that have been used by the Korean government against the Japanese. We should erect statues by every comfort woman to remind them that another group of individuals is also being overlooked.
I recommend we erect a statue of a younger girl squatting on the ground in her hanbok crying. The girl is crying is because she is forcibly removed from her homeland and exported to a foreign country via intercountry adoption. It’s a girl because a larger percentage of adoptees sent out of Korea are females.
If we don’t speak out, then the Korean government will continue to reduce the support promised for adoptees. To date, the Korean government has already slashed operating expenses which funded adoptee programs – programs such as the travel exchange program that facilitated the return to homeland for adoptees. What also needs fixing is the loopholes in Korea’s legal system. For example the 2012 Adoption Law gives adoptees the right to petition for their birth records but the same request cannot be granted to biological parents wanting to search.
Korea can be a beacon for other countries involved in intercountry adoption but there is still much work that needs to be accomplished. It will require adoptees to speak up and petition the Korean government in order to make real changes. I pray we can accomplish this before all our parents pass away.
Further Reading (articles cited):
Be Tenacious – How to get your Identity Back