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Some Adoptees Are Returning To South Korea To Trace Their Roots And Reconnect

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Korean War left more than 1 million Koreans dead and produced about 100,000 orphans. As a result, South Korea became the largest source of children for international adoptions, and the U.S. became their chief destination. Now nearly seven decades later, some of those adoptees are tracing their roots in South Korea and building ties with family members they often didn't know they had. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on one such family.

(LAUGHTER)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A group of Korean orphans are celebrating Chuseok, Korea's midautumn festival when people give thanks for an abundant harvest. With them is Barbara Kim from Seattle. She was born in South Korea in 1955, the eldest of four children in a poor family. Kim's mother abandoned her in the hospital after giving birth. Kim's grandmother picked her up and raised her. Her parents shut her out of their room and later out of their house.

BARBARA KIM: I begged my father to let me in the house, and I just remember just crying and running after him and crying and begging. And finally, he let me in the house.

KUHN: Confucian societies traditionally prefer boys to girls, and Kim had a birth defect - hip dysplasia.

B KIM: My mother made it very well known that I was not wanted. She told me that I had brought nothing but shame to her. I remember her screaming, why don't you just go die? Why don't you just go die?

KUHN: When she was about 9 years old, Kim's father sent her to an orphanage run by Harry Holt, the founder of an international adoption agency. About a year later, she was adopted by a family of dairy farmers in Nebraska. The family fell on hard times, and they vented their anger on Kim by abusing her.

B KIM: And I remember one time thinking, dear God, wasn't it bad enough I had a first mother that was so horrible? Did you have to bring me to a second mother that was like this?

KUHN: Kim went into the U.S. foster care system. Studying became her refuge. She got a bachelor's degree, then a master's degree, and after that, worked for the very adoption agency that center to the U.S. In the late 1970s, Kim rediscovered her family in South Korea. But it was awkward. She hadn't grown up with her siblings, and neither side spoke the other's language. They only started to build their relationship in earnest over the past year.

B KIM: Eventually, I decided that I wanted to stay here, to learn the language so I can get to know my family. And we are - for the first time, we're developing this relationship.

KUHN: Fourteen years after she left her, Barbara Kim found her youngest sister, who had also been placed in an orphanage. Nobody adopted her, so she went to work in a factory. Barbara reunited the siblings, and they went to visit her sister. Until Barbara appeared out of the blue, she had no idea that she had any siblings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They came to visit me, and they all cried to see me because maybe they thought I wasn't doing so well. But I just didn't feel anything because I'd lived my whole life thinking I was alone. I didn't have anybody. So I just felt blank, empty.

KUHN: The sister asked that we not use her name due to the stigma of being an orphan in South Korea. Orphans' lives have also been shaped by a mix of geopolitics and domestic factors. America played a major role. Many of the early adoptees were the biracial children of U.S. GIs fighting the Korean War.

ELEANA KIM: International adoption initially was thought of as, like, the, quote-unquote, "solution" to mixed race children.

KUHN: Eleana Kim, an anthropologist at University of California, Irvine, explains that putting biracial babies up for international adoption fit into South Korea's state narrative of a racially homogeneous nation.

E KIM: The idea being that children who were not fully Korean would never be accepted in South Korean society, and the South Korean government realized that there was an interest among Americans to adopt these children.

KUHN: South Korea's government says in its defense that it's reformed its adoption system and adequately protects children's welfare. But Eleana Kim notes that South Korea spends less on social welfare than almost any other developed economy. This meant that many Korean adoptees were not orphans; their parents just couldn't afford to raise them, and international adoptions allowed South Korea to shift some of its welfare burden overseas. One criticism of such a system, Kim says, is that it ignores the children's welfare.

E KIM: Why do people believe that it's better to remove a child from its country of origin, rather than to provide money for the parents who can't afford to raise it?

(LAUGHTER)

KUHN: At the Chuseok holiday party, Barbara Kim reflects on what life might have been like had she remained in South Korea, perhaps in an orphanage like her sister. She says she feels thankful that she was put up for adoption in the U.S. because it created opportunities for social and career advancement that she wouldn't have had in South Korea.

B KIM: And I look at these kids and these adults that are - have disabilities here in Korea, and the contrast between them is just so - it's, like - I'm just thankful that I had that opportunity to go.

KUHN: Kim has been separated from her siblings for about 50 years. She says they have overcome their initial sense of awkwardness. They're proud to be part of the same family.

B KIM: And we have a lot in common. Even though we grew up so far apart, I feel like there's this sense of feeling like we belong.

KUHN: Kim looks at the orphans celebrating Chuseok around her and hopes that one day they, too, can find that sense of belonging to a family.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.