Tuesday, October 9, 2012

South Korea: Adoptee Justice/Adoptees Return

Two stories about South Korean adoption came across my radar today.  First, from a German magazine, South Korea's Lost Children Return, highlighting the life and work of Jane Jeong Trenka:
When South Korea was left in ruins following its war with the North in the 1950s, many children were sent to families in the United States or Europe. Western families were convinced they were giving these Korean orphans a better life.

Meanwhile, some of those international adoptees have returned to the land of their birth to learn more about their own history.

Jane Jeong Trenka was born in 1972 and adopted with her sister to northern Minnesota. Trenka says she always had questions about her adoption. Some of the stories her American parents told her didn't make sense. In 1995, she visited Korea and tracked down her birthmother.

It was then Trenka found out that her adoption was a lie and that her biological mother had been trying to find her.

"My American parents were told that I was the child of a single mother, that I was an unwanted child," she told Deutsche Welle. "When my birth mother made contact with my American parents, they really didn't welcome that, because the agency had lied to them."

Trenka found out her mother was married - to an abusive husband. She apparently never wanted to give up her children. An adoption agency worker simply took them from her.
Second, from the Korea Times, Adoptee Justice is About Social Justice, by Korean/Danish adoptee Anders Riel Muller:
The conventional narrative surrounding adoption is one of poverty but as I began to dig into Korean economic history I started to question the conventional narrative of a poor country who had no other option to sending children overseas. Rather, my understanding of overseas adoption has now come to the point where I see adoption as a political choice to address the social problems that came from rapid economic transformation. The highest numbers of overseas adoptions occurred during a time of radical and accelerated economic transformation.

By 1980, when I was sent overseas for adoption, Korea no longer belonged to the poorest countries in the world. But by then overseas adoption had become a very effective tool for population control and limiting social welfare expenses by the government. For each adoption, Korea received several thousand dollars in good hard foreign currency. Foreign currency was tightly controlled by the state, because in order to industrialize, the government took loans from overseas and they had to be paid back in U.S. dollars.

Every dollar earned was vital to the continued ability to industrialize. It is estimated that overseas adoption contributed between $20 and 40 million in hard currency every year in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, if any Korean company exported even $1 million in goods, they were acknowledged by the government. Also, by sending children from marginalized groups overseas, the government saved a lot on social welfare that could instead be reinvested in economic development.

This understanding of history leads me to the conviction that adoptees contributed to the economic miracle and that we have a place in the history of Korean development and hence to be critical of it.

* * *

As an adoptee, who now has a better understanding of how my adoption history relates to Korean development, my duty to Korea is to get involved in changing the system and work for a more just and equitable society. Many adoptees are doing the same. They are actively engaged in different kinds of political activism such as supporting single mothers, migrant workers and adoptee justice. Hopefully adoptees will continue their involvement with other groups working for justice and equality in Korea. But it is a two-way exchange. Progressive Koreans also have to recognize our place in their society and history. We may be outsiders in terms of language and culture but our place in history as laborers for Korean development should be acknowledged. Hopefully this can lead to new alliances, new networks of solidarity and ultimately a more just society for all.

1 comment:

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