Battling pride and prejudice
Despite Korea's increasingly open mindset, the nation still remains
closed toward its once-unwanted children, failing to accept
responsibility for and embrace overseas adoptees.
When Ami Nafzger, an American adoptee, arrived in Korea in 1997 to
find her birth parents, she found her experience even more difficult
than she had expected. "The attitude toward adoptees is extremely
negative here, and adoption agencies themselves say they never
expected us to come back here and haven't prepared for the needs of
those returning," she said.
Her time in Korea convinced her that something had to be done, and
after much research, she established Global Overseas Adoptees' Link
(G.O.A.L.) in March 1998 as an independent volunteer organization to
assist returning adoptees.
Last Saturday, G.O.A.L. held its fourth annual workshop at the
National Assembly, regarding "Common Issues for Overseas Adoptees,
Need for Blood Ties and Identity." With Korean adoptees from Europe
and America talking about their experiences of adopted life and
returning to Korea, Nafzger hopes to increase awareness and
understanding about the problems experienced by overseas adopted
"Many adoptees leave Korea feeling angry and bitter because of
society's reaction toward us. I want OAKs who come here to feel
comfortable and welcome. G.O.A.L. provides the resources necessary
for adoptees to make their time in Korea as rewarding as possible,"
G.O.A.L. acts as an intermediary between OAKs and various
organizations in Korea, offering services that would be of help to
them. These services include support networks, birth-parent search
departments, home stays, translators, guides and employment agencies.
G.O.A.L. was the first organization run by foreigners in Korea to be
designated a non-governmental organization, receiving the status this
past February. But the government still has a long way to go in
tackling the issue, and until it takes real positive action, Korean
society is less likely to take its first step toward accepting
adoption as part of its culture, according to Nafzger.
The nation was once labeled the world's number one exporter of
orphans. Some called it a national shame, considering the country's
economic prosperity, but domestic adoption is rare in this nation
that clings strongly to patriarchal bloodlines.
In fact, Ministry of Health and Welfare figures show that between
1952 and 1998, there were 140,735 overseas adoptions compared to
56,065 domestic adoptions. Based on data from the U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service, an analysis shows that between 1980 and
1998 the total number of Korean children adopted in America was
60,326, 36.8 percent of all adopted children brought from around the
world to America. Latest figures report that 1,794 Korean orphans
were adopted in America in 2000.
Some believe Korea's attitude and Confucian tradition contribute to
the high overseas adoption rates. Orphans and adoption are sensitive
subjects in this country, where the importance of family bloodlines
has for decades produced unwanted children. The importance of lineage
is one reason why illegitimate or orphaned children are abandoned and
why there are so few domestic adoptions in Korea.
Nafzger explains that there is a stigma attached to being an
adoptee. "Here in Korea, the poor, handicapped, adopted and orphaned
children are put under a category. Korean society feels threatened by
us, as we are a reminder of what they consider their shameful past."
Irene DeKoning, a Korean adoptee who was raised in the Netherlands,
was one of the panelists in last Saturday's workshop. She also found
her return to Korea difficult. "I feel more discriminated against
here than I did in my adoptive country. I get very frustrated. Korea
is so focused on image."
She understands the disappointment many adoptees feel after coming
back to Korea. "Adoptees want to come here to embrace their birth
country and find out what it would have been like to live here, but
instead they often leave feeling hurt and rejected."
The Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK), founded in April
1999, encourages Koreans to adopt openly, not secretly. It believes
that when adoptive families are open about their experience, adoption
will become more acceptable in society. Most Korean families practice
secret adoption, in fear of the possible ridicule and discrimination
their adopted children may face as they grow up.
Han Yun-hee, co-chairwoman of MPAK, said, "We will keep promoting
adoption for as long as it takes until Koreans embrace the concept of
adoption as something beautiful and worthy."
Organizations such as G.O.A.L. and MPAK are experiencing slow and
painful progress in breaking down the walls of prejudice,
misunderstanding, shame and pity. Adoptees often are not looking for
sympathy. In fact, they regard themselves the lucky ones.
DeKoning remarked, "Koreans sometimes feel sorry for us, but we're
not pitiful. We've had a good education and shouldn't be treated like
we've been dealt a bad hand."
Nafzger went on to explain that adoptees returning to Korea often
visit their former orphanages. They feel very sad to meet adult
orphans, as they realize these people have no future here. Because of
discrimination in Korean society, they often never have the
opportunities given to OAKs.
With adoption policies, the government does not concentrate on the
core problem - Korean society's attitude. For example, to boost
domestic adoptions, the government offers various forms of support
for families with adopted children, including special loans,
assistance with expenses and exemptions from middle and high school
fees. However, many adoptive parents are unable to claim these
benefits due to their reluctance to publicize the fact that they have
Government legislation regarding adoption in Korea is often a means
of saving face and a reactionary rather than proactive solution. For
example, the 1988 Seoul Olympics brought the issue of Korean adoptees
into the international spotlight. The people and government of Korea
took this as a direct criticism and a source of national shame.
To reduce the number of overseas adoptions, the Korean government
introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987. Under the
system, the nation has reduced the number of children permitted for
overseas adoption by 3 to 5 percent each year from about 8,000 in
1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate
the number of foreign adoptions by 2015.
However, adoption by non-relatives in Korea was and still is not
widely practiced. The result was that the decreased number of
children permitted to be adopted by foreigners directly correlated
with an increased number of children in Korean orphanages.
In 1998 the government temporarily lifted the restrictions after the
number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of
At a time when Korea is attempting to polish its image as a key
international player in competitive markets, Nafzger believes the
government is missing out on a big opportunity. "The government
should take advantage of OAKs. We have thorough knowledge of Western
systems. They say they're trying to make Korea more global, but it
seems to me they're going about it in a very strange way."
To find out more about G.O.A.L., visit www.goal.or.kr or call 02-755-
By Louise Elliott Staff reporter