South Korea will investigate dozens of adoptions of children who were sheltered by parents in the United States and Europe, including the Netherlands, in the second half of the last century. These are adoptions of children who were taken without the consent of the South Korean parents, especially in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These were often orphans or street children and often girls. But during the adoptions, documents were allegedly falsified and identities were deliberately changed. Children were also abducted and registered as orphans or abandoned by their parents.
The international adoption of South Korean children started in the years after the Korean War (1950-1953). In the beginning, it was mainly about orphans. After this, the focus increasingly shifted to “socially undesirable” children, for example from unwed mothers, a cultural taboo in South Korea, and children of South Korean mothers and African-American soldiers stationed in the country. There was also a taboo on those children.
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In the 1970s, sometimes five thousand South Korean children a year went abroad through adoption. The military leaders who ruled South Korea after the Korean War also saw adoption as a way to improve ties with the friendly West.
The investigation into the adopted children, which was decided on Thursday, is being carried out by the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 2005 to investigate abuses from the last century, including under military regimes, to the 1990s. Over the past three months, more than three hundred adoptees from various countries – mainly Denmark, but also from the Netherlands – have approached the commission in Seoul with complaints about fraudulent practices in connection with their adoption. It happened on the initiative of the Danish lawyer Peter Regel Møller, himself adopted from South Korea when he was six months old, on behalf of the Danish-Korean Rights Group (DKRG). Denmark has around 9,000 adoptees from South Korea, which makes it the ‘leader’ in Europe.
In early December, South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission decided to hear the complaint; it has now been decided to investigate 34 concrete adoption cases of children who were sent to Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the USA between the 1960s and the 1990s. DKRG demands, among other things, that “the truth about overseas adoptions, ethnic cleansing and deportations” comes out and that “adoption companies” be held responsible “for the theft of Korean children”. The group also wants research into sexual abuse of children adopted from South Korea.
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Some adoptees who have reported to authorities in Seoul say they discovered that adoption agencies had switched their identities with deceased children, so they were never able to investigate who their birth parents are. The complainants want South Korea to investigate whether the authorities themselves were responsible for the corrupt practices. They also want to know whether the high sums sometimes offered from abroad for adopted children led to a greater ‘supply’ from adoption agencies.
Healing for victims
Belgian Yung Fierens, whose adoption from South Korea is also being investigated by the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said on December 8 on VRT that it is “very healing” for the victims, “that they can tell their story and that they are heard in the country where they were born and where they were victims of all these crimes.” But the most important of the investigations, she says, is the release of the “original adoption files that are still privately owned by the adoption agencies in Korea.” Fierend suspect that the identity of the biological families is disclosed in 80 percent of the files.
Fierens herself says that she was given up for adoption by her grandmother, without her own parents being aware of this.
To this day, the Dutch Alice Delhaas does not know exactly under what circumstances she came to the Netherlands in 1973. In 1995, she wanted to see her original South Korean adoption case in the orphanage where she lived at the time, but she was not allowed to. Delhaas, active for the Dutch sister association of the Danish DKRG (NLKRG), hopes that the research in South Korea will lead to all files becoming available. “We’ve always accepted that we don’t get access to the files and that we don’t know exactly how it happened,” says Delhaas. “We have always taken that for granted, also because we grew up with the idea that you should be grateful that you are allowed to live in the Netherlands. But only now do we know how big it is, how unethical these adoptions have been – still are.”
Thousands of South Korean adopted children arrived in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1967, a television interview by Mies Bouwman with the bestselling author Jan de Hartog led to a veritable wave of adoption in the Netherlands. With the words “Even if you only save one,” he said in a call to save “one Korean boy” from rejection, neglect or malnutrition. These were mainly children with South Korean mothers and black American fathers. The TV program Other times dedicated a broadcast in 2006 (Give me some Korean) to the adoption craze as a result of the interview with De Hartog, who had himself adopted two Korean orphans.
In the run up to the Olympic Games in Seoul (1988), the number of adoptions decreased; the South Korean government wanted to get rid of the image of a ‘child exporter’.