Last year, I was accepted by a European Union-sponsored journalism program, and all of my classmates and I were dispatched to Denmark for our foundation year. There, I got to know a Danish student of Asian ethnicity. Initially I thought he was a Korean student like me but, as you can probably guess, he was actually a native but a Korean adoptee. I knew there were Korean adoptees in Scandinavia, but he was the first one I'd actually met. And thanks to him, the protagonist of this story, I've come to understand more about the world of Korean adoptees in Scandinavia. He was willing to share his experiences as an adoptee, as well as impressions and thoughts he felt after meeting his biological mother in Korea. We met at a book store cafe near the University of Copenhagen. Afterwards I decided to write a story about Korean adoptees. I started gathering materials and reasons why the Korean adoptees in Scandinavia deserve more attention from the not-adopted public, meaning, you and me (the reasons are contained in the below article!).
In a dimly lit chamber at the Holt Daegu Community Service Center in South Korea, a man in his twenties and an elderly woman who appears to be in her fifties stare at each other in silence. Between them stands an official-looking person with a name tag that reveals she's from Holt Children's Services, one of the largest international adoption agencies in the world. The man begins to speak in English but with a mixture of Danish (which is obviously his native language), while the woman impatiently eyes the Holt officer, silently urging the official to translate what the young man says into Korean. From afar, one would mistake them for three regular Koreans engaged in conversation. Showing the young man a photo of a girl with strikingly similar features to him, the woman begins to sob. The young man, his eyes brimming with confusion, watches the woman's tears fall.
The above anecdote is about 28-year-old Mikkel Lund Andersen's first meeting with his biological mother. He was born in Daegu, South Korea, but adopted when he was five-months-old by a Danish couple from Silkeborg, Denmark. All his life he grew up a Dane, hardly ever curious abut his identity, though cognizant that his dark hair and eyes looked different from his parents and friends who had blue eyes and blonde hair. Then in 2012, while working as a volunteer with international students at Aalborg University, he got his first taste of what Korean culture is about after meeting some exchange students from Korea. It was by accident, but his interest in Korea grew and grew, which resulted in his visiting the country of his birth. In the aftermath, however, he experienced a drastic case of identity conflict about who he really was. Later, after taking part in a summer camp in Korea for Korean adoptees from around the world, he became motivated to search for his biological mother. Since meeting her, Mikkel is more aware of his Korean identity and interacts more with other Koreans in Denmark. However, he's still confused about what his true identity is. He says it's like "standing between two chairs." It might be a surprise to him, but there are many other Korean adoptees in Denmark -- and members of the community they form -- who feel the same way that he does.
South Korea, "Go-Ah-Soo-Chool-Gook (Orphan Exporting Nation)"
In 1955, an American couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, adopted eight Korean orphans in the aftermath of the Korean War. The following year, the Holts founded the adoption agency that still bears their name, the Holt Children's Services, in the belief that adoption is a banner of love, not a badge of shame. Since then, more than 200,000 South Korean babies have been sent abroad for international adoption.
Source: Holt International Children's Services
There are many reasons why Korean babies have to leave their birth country. Initially, it was the aftereffects of the Korean War that left so many children orphaned. Then in 1961, a special adoption law was passed to allow four private adoption agencies to be founded, resulting in what's come to be known as the country's "efficient baby exporting system." But around the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Western media began taking notice and criticizing Korea for its baby exports. The Korean government was forced to take the matter seriously, and since then, lawmakers have issued and revised several adoption regulations to reduce the number of babies going abroad and to encourage more domestic adoptions. In fact, the number of international adoptions did decrease overall, but since the latter half of 2013, after an international adoption procedure was legally recognized in Korea, that number has been on the rise again.
According to South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare, 535 Korean babies went overseas in 2014. Babies are put up for adoption for several reasons: They are handicapped; their biological parents are destitute or prefer to have boys instead of girls (Koreans traditionally prefer sons to daughters, though not as much these days); but most often because their biological mothers are unmarried (single mothers) in a country where abortion is restricted. There are even some who surmise that the large amount of money that goes to the adoption agencies is a factor. For example, it's estimated that about $38,000 per baby went back and forth between the United States and Korea in 2011, a $ 27 million dollar money trail. It's a fact that South Korea has been one of the biggest baby exporters, an inconvenient truth ignored by Korea's citizens.
Less Recognized Scandinavia-bound Korean Adoptees
About two-thirds of the adopted babies have ended up in the United States. That's partly due to South Korea's blind faith in the American Dream, according to the activist, writer, and one of the more well-known Korean adoptees, Jane Jeong Trenka. As such, many of the Korean adoptee issues have centered around adoptees in America, while matters regarding the bulk of other Korean adoptees, sent mostly to European countries including France, the Netherlands, and three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden), hardly ever merit any notice. But they, too, bear consideration, especially those in Scandinavia.
Geographically, the three Scandinavian countries, with a total of 25,000 Korean adoptees, represent the second largest bloc of the Korean adoptee population; an estimate says that there are 10,000 adoptees in Sweden, 9,000 in Denmark and 6,000 in Norway. According to Tobias Hübinette, who has a PhD in Korean Studies from Stockholm University, Koreans constitute half of all international adoptees in Denmark and Norway and one-fifth in Sweden, making up the lion's share of the Korean presence in the region, as there are few Korean immigrants. There may be various reasons for why there are so many Korean adoptees in Scandinavian countries but, as of yet, there's no in-depth study on the cause. However, Fredrika Ornbrant, from the Embassy of Sweden, has a theory. She says it could be due to the Sweden's welfare state, which began to take serious root in the 60s. As unmarried mothers were now in a position to keep their babies with the help of the state, domestic adoption in Sweden necessarily dried up and families wanting to adopt had to turn their sights overseas. And since adoptions were already in full progress in South Korea, ever since the late 50s, it was natural for the Swedes to look to Korea to meet their needs. The same was true for Denmark and Norway.
There's no official record on ethnicity that the Scandinavian governments track, but one look and it's obvious that Scandinavian countries are ethnically far less diverse than other European countries or the United States. That context leads to such questions as what Korean adoptees' lives are like in these more homogeneous countries and how they identify themselves vis-a-vis their Caucasian parents in such settings. The result from the interview with 10 Scandinavian Korean adoptees reveals that the answer "depends on the person." Half had no curiosity about their ethnic roots while the other half did. What's notable is that the adoptees who had questions about their identity went on to voluntarily form ethnic communities, specifically Korean adoptee communities. In fact, the world's first Korean adoptee community did not start in the United States, the proverbial melting pot, but in Scandinavia where there are generally fewer discussions about ethnicity and race.
The First Korean Adoptee Association, Established in Scandinavia
The first Korean adoptee community, the AKF, Adopterade Koreaners Förening (in English: Adopted Korean Association), was established in Sweden in 1986. By the early 90s, the so-called Korea Klubben had formed in Denmark, Norway and other European nations. By the late 90s similar organizations were also chartered in the U.S. The whole thing began when purely out of curiosity, some young Korean adoptees in Sweden, including Mattias Tjeder, got together, sort of as a precursor to the formation of AKF. Later, they began to seek out their birth parents and to more actively recruit like-minded adoptees with similar backgrounds. According to Hübinette, this aligned with a long tradition of social activism in Scandinavian countries, where practically every demographic group forms and organizes in associations and, as such, also served as the impetus for forming the first Korean adoptee community, the AKF.
As technology advanced, especially with the invention of the Internet, AKF, as well as other Korean adoptee communities, have grown rapidly. In the early days, AKF communicated mostly via letters and phone, but with quickly expanding membership, it had to get individual lines for founding members. Now AKF has more than 1000 members, but communication is much better than before. Using the Internet, adoptee members talk to each other and set up offline gatherings where they can even learn the Korean language and dabble in Korean culture. Most importantly, it's a platform that serves to help them understand and develop their own identities and share as Korean adoptees who straddle Korea and Scandinavia, even amidst their identity crises.
Neither Korean Nor Swedish, Simply Korean Adoptees
Each Korean adoptee experiences a different identity crisis. Some remember feeling confused from very early on when they would try to reconcile the image they saw in the mirror with the people outside. Some maintain that they never had any identity problems. Perhaps they were helped by having a similar-looking adoptee sibling or maybe it was that they construed merely wondering about their own roots and identities as betrayal to their adoptive parents. What is common is that Korean adoptees, returning from a trip to their homeland, often profess to have conflicting feelings about their identities after encountering Korean people and culture back home. Some also say identity issues become more acute after they themselves become parents. Desiring to find answers, their next step is often to join a Korean adoptee community in their region in order to discover what their "Korean side" is. Some have already found their answer, and they are raising their voices about it: that they are neither Korean, nor Scandinavian, but simply Korean adoptees in Scandinavia. This is a portrayal that Eva Tind, an ethnic Korean artist who was adopted by a Danish couple, aptly illustrates in her work.
Photos contained in the book "DO" written by Eva Tind, an adoptee to Danish parents. The book delves into how to establish personal identity and belonging. Source: Eva Tind homepage http://www.evatind.dk/
Daniel Lee, vice president of International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) and the former president of AKF, argues that had it not been for Korean adoptee communities, the Korean international adoptees (KADs for short) would not have been able to develop their sense of identity. This is because being a KAD is "definitely a group-oriented phenomena," he says. "If you grow up in a small city in northern Sweden, for example, it would not occur to you to even contemplate this kind of self-identity because you are the sole person like you." Still, not all Korean adoptees know about and argue for KAD's cause. According to Lee, there are four types of Korean adoptees in relation to the degree of engagement they have to the Korean adoptee communities. "Visitors" are people who visit KAD communities out of curiosity but never come back, while "Inhabitants" just enjoy hanging out with other KADs without deep involvement. Then there are the "Ideologists" and "Activists" who are the advocates for KAD identity. While Ideologists focus on issues within their community, Activists work externally with non-adoptees, lobbyists, policymakers, etc. to spread new ideas in regard to adoptee matters and the group's identity. By engaging non-adoptees as well as adopted Koreans from around the world, KAD activists and communities have been able to foment the worldwide "Adopted Korean movement," which refers to whenever adopted Koreans get together for activities and meetings organized by the KADs.
What Korean Adoptees Really Want
Luckily, Mikkel hasn't had to contend with the practical problems that many Korean adoptees run into, such as trying to find their birth moms with incomplete or faulty birth-related documents. Thanks to the Global Overseas Adoptees' Link's (G.O.A.L.) lobby for inclusion of overseas Korean adoptees in the Overseas Koreans Act, Mikkel has been to Korea several times with his F-4 VISA, which allows Korean adoptees to reside and work legally in Korea. Starting this year, he can even apply for Korean citizenship if he wants; the Danish parliament passed a law in 2014 which allows dual citizenship. Mikkel wonders at his good fortune and wonders how long it can last.
He's also been looking for a job in Korea, where he hopes to discover more about his Korean side. Sometimes, though, he's disheartened by what he witnesses when it comes to Korean society's attitude. To him, negative perceptions about social minorities, including unwed and single mothers, orphans and Korean adoptees, persist. Laws and regulations are changing due to KAD's constant efforts, but still, the continuing apathy about adoption issues and social stigma over unmarried mothers is disappointing to KADs. "What's overlooked is that the genesis of all adoptee issues isn't the adoptive countries, but South Korea. The discussions we should be having should have cultural and social issues as a template, such as baby drop boxes, Korean single mothers' destitute states, and the Korean people's negative perceptions of such things. It is the people that need to change," said Lee. The KADs have stepped forward. Now, it's Korea's turn.
I don't know whether you have been to Scandinavia or not, but it's not difficult to run across a Korean adoptee in the three Scandinavian countries I mentioned. If you meet an Asian who looks well-integrated into Scandinavian society (the easiest way to know is by what they wear), he or she is most likely an adoptee from South Korea. You will also meet Scandinavians who have Korean adoptees as neighbors. Some of the Korean adoptees ('KADs' in the article) are concerned about their children. Then, there are even some Korean adoptees who marry each other and are therefore ethnically 100% Korean, yet don't consider themselves Koreans. But, how many non-adopted Koreans are aware of these kinds of issues and stories? Not too many non-adopted Koreans (meaning, regular "Koreans"), including me in the past, knew or gave much thought to international adoption and its consequences. Time has marched on, and now the Korean babies who were sent for adoption are all grown up; they want the Korean society and the world at large to know about their lives, the international adoption system, and about societies that neglect the single mothers and the poor. As a journalist, I felt it was my mission to communicate what was going on here, a matter openly acknowledged and discussed in Scandinavia but one that's often swept under the rug in Korea. That's why I wrote the story.
Soyoun Park : currently enrolled in Erasmus Mundus M.A. Journalism, Media and Globalization, specializing in multimedia content production, journalism on art and culture, and East Asian affairs. contact: email@example.com
The above was modified for grammar/clarity.