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The search for origins is also a search for dignity

This article is the 15th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children who were sent away via adoption would return as adults demanding answers to questions. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity. ― ED.

By Ross Oke

What began as a three-month vacation in 2004 eventually evolved into a permanent move. Instead of a birth family search, I came to Korea to see and experience a country that I could feel but never remember. I did not intend to involve myself in adoptee activism, and even after two decades of working with several adoptee human rights organizations, two of which I co-founded, I still do not consider myself an activist. I am just someone who wants Korea to be held accountable for the massive human rights abuses it has committed through its inter-country adoption program. Like many in the adoptee community in Korea, I’ve heard countless stories about fraudulent adoption records, forged documents and other means to procure children for the purpose of adoption. While the individual accounts have always been troubling, the most disturbing element has been the systematic nature that, when examined collectively, reveals the machination of Korea’s inter-country adoption program. Throughout the 2000s, I worked with an adoptee organization that tried through both official and unofficial channels to urge the government to investigate and address the wide-scale fraud found in adoptees’ records, but these attempts yielded little results other than dismissive statements by government officials such as: “We do not have any legal grounds to act against private entities…we need consensus among the public before initiating such action….” Frustrated by the lack of both progress and purported social consensus that seemed to discount these complaints of adoption-related fraud as isolated incidents, we decided to approach the United Nations (UN). The UN has ten human rights treaty bodies that consist of experts to monitor the implementation of international human rights laws. In 2011, during Korea’s review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, we brought a list of adoption-related human rights violations before its members. These complaints, all of which were recognized as breaches of human rights by the committee, centered on the absence of universal immediate birth registration for children, discriminatory policies and practices against single unwed mothers, incentives that promoted adoption over other forms of alternative care, and the lack of post-adoption services for transnational adoptees. Following composing and submitting this list, we engaged the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which issued their own respective adoption-related recommendations for Korea. Around the same time, Korea underwent its UN Universal Periodic Review, a process in which different states review one another’s human rights implementation. We met over 40 governments, which eventually led to Korea receiving a high number of recommendations that reaffirmed earlier adoption-related human rights complaints. Although the dominant adoption narrative has portrayed cases of adoption-related fraud as occasional mistakes that happened long ago, the human rights violations that we raised and were officially recognized were not about historic grievances but present-day transgressions. Ten years later, a series of recent high-profile abuse cases in Korea’s domestic adoption program only serves to provide evidence of Korea’s inadequate progress in reform. Throughout this journey, we were labeled the “angry” adoptees, which rarely bothered me as anger is a natural response against injustice. Instead, the more aggravating aspect of our work was confronting the campaign of malicious gas-lighting deployed to disregard our grievances as misplaced anger. Despite the UN human rights bodies confirming that Korea had been contravening its human rights obligations, we encountered a barrage of accusations that those rights abuses were rare occurrences. Even some adoptees attempted to undermine our complaints by saying, “Well, my adoption is good,” which seems to insinuate that our work only arose as a manifestation of bad adoption experiences. We also heard comments such as, “If you were in Korea, you would’ve been X” (Feel free to replace ‘X’ with a stigmatized social status or position). In other words, if we had remained in Korea, our lives would’ve been terrible. Besides the false dichotomy or the racist undertones laced throughout such statements, which implies that Korea is inferior to Western countries, such logic assumes that any engagement in activism or any critical stance towards illicit adoption practices is the sign of an “ungrateful” adoptee. Firstly, a person’s feelings about their adoption experience and the practices employed to carry out that adoption are not one and the same. One can have a complex assortment of positive and negative thoughts and feelings towards their adoption, but still maintain a critical position about the way in which it was conducted. Despite so much talk about “love” in adoption, all the love in the world does not erase a human rights violation, just as a lie does not erase the truth. A human rights violation, regardless of the outcome, is still a human rights violation. Furthermore, each individual’s adoption experiences have such complexity that they cannot be reduced to simple labels of “good” or “bad,” and trying to reach such a determination does little to address the heart of the matter, which is that when viewed collectively, Korea has violated, and continues to violate, the human rights of adoptees, as well as of their families of origin. It must be noted that a violation of one’s human rights thereby infringes on that person’s dignity. If there’s anything that readers may be able to draw from these articles, then let it be that the failure to address the historic illicit practices of adoption remains ever-present and persists in depriving people of their dignity. What is this dignity in relation to adoption? Individual dignity is having the services and support necessary to facilitate a person’s search for their origins. In other words, dignity is not having to travel throughout an unfamiliar country, scrapping together pieces of information, and always questioning whether it’s the truth or another set of lies. Dignity is not having constantly to question whether the story of your origins is a fabrication. Dignity is not having to wander the streets, passing out fliers, and asking people in broken Korean whether they’ve seen a particular person, nor is it having to go on television shows and be asked by the producers to cry for the purpose of entertaining the audience. There is also collective dignity, which is the recognition of adoptees and their families of origin as a part of Korea’s history. This acknowledgment extends beyond the government’s excuses of dismissing inter-country adoptions as an unfortunate but necessary humanitarian endeavor to save poor children from a poor country. Rather, it’s about investigating and understanding what truly happened, and continues to happen, to so many children and families. There’s also the collective dignity of a society acknowledging not only the love but also the loss of its children. Some may counter-argue that my statements are excessive, but I ask, based on what we’ve discussed thus far in this series: can we say that the hardships of these adoptees amount to dignity? Ross Oke is the general manager of Human Rights Beyond Borders. He has been involved in human rights activism for nearly two decades.

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