Dozens of South Korean adoptees who were sent to Danish parents as children in the 1970s and 1980s have demanded the South Korean government investigate the circumstances surrounding their adoptions, which they say were corrupted by practices that falsified or obscured children’s origins.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the South Korean capital Seoul has up to four months to decide whether to accept the application collectively filed on Tuesday by the 53 adoptees in Denmark.
If the commission accepts the request, it could trigger the most far-reaching inquiry into foreign adoptions in South Korea, which has never truly come to terms with the country’s child export frenzy engineered by past military governments.
About 200,000 South Koreans were adopted overseas during the past six decades, mainly to white parents in the United States and Europe.
“None of us are orphans,” said Peter Møller, lawyer and co-head of the Danish Korean Rights Group, as he described the group’s members who filed the application to investigate on Tuesday.
“(In) a lot of papers, the Korean state at the time have stamped papers that say people were found on the streets,” he said.
“If you do a little bit of math, that would mean that from the 1970s and 1980s Seoul would be flooded with baskets with children lying around in the streets. Basements will be filled with lost child reports at police stations.”
Møller, who was adopted to Denmark in 1974, said about 50 more of the group’s members are expected to join the application and that he plans to return to South Korea with their files in September.
The application cites a range of grievances emphasising how scores of children were carelessly or unnecessarily removed from their families in South Korea amid loose government monitoring and a lack of due diligence.
Perhaps more crucially, special laws aimed at promoting foreign adoptions practically allowed profit-driven agencies to manipulate records and bypass proper child relinquishment.
Aggressively solicited newborns
Denmark was one of the biggest destinations for South Korean children in Europe, receiving about 9,000 adoptees – most of them from the 1960s to late 1980s when South Korea was ruled by consecutive military governments.
During the height of the adoptions in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, agencies aggressively solicited newborns or young children from hospitals and orphanages, often in exchange for payments, and operated maternity homes where single mothers were pressured to give away their babies.
The agencies were run by board members close to military leaders, who saw adoptions as a tool to reduce the number of mouths to feed and remove the socially undesirable, including children from unwed mothers.
It was not until 2013 when South Korea’s government required foreign adoptions to go through family courts, ending a decades-long policy of allowing private agencies to dictate child relinquishments, transfer of custody and emigration.
Most of the South Korean children sent abroad were registered by agencies as legal orphans found abandoned on the streets, although they frequently had relatives who could be easily identified and found.
Their status as abandoned children made them more easily adoptable as agencies raced to send more kids to the West at faster speeds.
The complaints described by adoptees who filed the application include inaccurate or falsified information in adoption papers that distort their biological origins, such as wrong birth names, dates or locations, or details about birth parents.
Some of the adoptees say they discovered that the agencies had switched their identities to replace other children who died or got too sick to travel to Danish parents, which made it highly difficult or often impossible to trace their roots.
The adoptees called for the commission to broadly investigate the alleged wrongdoings surrounding their adoptions, including how agencies potentially falsified records, manipulated children’s backgrounds and origins, and proceeded with adoptions without the proper consent of birth parents.
If the truth commission decides to investigate the adoptions, its findings could later be used by adoptees in possible damage suits against the agencies or government, said Philsik Shin, a Seoul-based scholar who has helped the Danish adoptees prepare the application.