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The truth about our ‘abandonment’ and reclaiming our Korean identity

This article is the eighth in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Korea’s nationality law facilitated the procedure of restoring their Korean nationality and allowing dual nationality of their adoptive country from 2010. Kara Bos, who restored her family registration with her birth father, shares her story when she tried to reclaim her Korean nationality and what she found out during the process. Her story provides an opportunity to contemplate the true meaning of nationality to the identity of an individual.

By Kara Bos

The Korean Nationality Act Article 12 states: “Any national of the Republic of Korea who falls under one of the following subparagraphs shall lose his or her nationality (1948-present Art. 15) … A person who has been adopted by an alien and has acquired the parent’s nationality…”

I, Kang Mee-sook (as shown in my Korean passport), was adopted in 1984 from Korea, and according to this law, I should have lost my Korean nationality when I was naturalized as an American citizen on Dec. 5, 1989, through my adoptive parents in the United States.

As a result of my paternity suit that I won in June 2020, I have gained the right to be legally recognized as my biological Korean father’s daughter and be put on his family register as “Oh Kara.” This suit allowed me to reclaim my Korean nationality and citizenship.

However, in processing this extremely difficult family registration (the process to register my name in the family register lasted five months, as it was the first time the Ministry of Justice had ever processed such a claim) as a foreign citizen, I found out that my Korean nationality was never expunged. Furthermore, I had to prove that I was indeed naturalized so that Holt could expunge my Korean nationality. This naturalization process was never followed up on after my adoption was finalized with Holt back in 1984.

If it had been, you could also conclude that there wouldn’t be a single adoptee from Korea living without citizenship or deported from their adoptive country. If government institutions had mandated that adoption agencies expunge every finalized adoptee’s Korean nationality, then they would have had to confirm that the process of naturalization was completed. The adoption agencies in the receiving countries would have needed to send a naturalization certificate to their Korean counterpart adoption agency, just as I recently did. However, once we were adopted out, the final checks were not in place and that is the reason why there are an estimated 26,000 Korean adoptees currently living without citizenship in the US alone.

Furthermore I recently learned via a lecture given by Dr. Lee Kyung-eun, hosted by KoRoot in Seoul ― a nonprofit organization that fights for Korean adoptees’ legal rights to their origins ― that when adoption started in Korea (1955) after the Korean War, it was actually illegal to relinquish your child. So, in order to combat local laws and follow international requirements for adoption, they circumvented them by creating the category of “abandoned” children. Even if a family member physically relinquished their child to an adoption agency, they would fabricate a story in order to comply with local laws and international standards.

This goal of evading local laws and complying with international standards is the reason so many of us were “found on the doorsteps of…” or “in a parking lot,” “at a train station.” If a child was labeled as “abandoned,” then a new family register was created to easily process the paperwork for adoption. I’ve encountered so many adoptees that post-reunion have found out that even though their paperwork from their adoption agency states that they were “found;” in reality, their parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles had actually physically relinquished them at the adoption agency.

“Father: No Record. Mother: No Record. Need for Protection: Abandoned Child.”

When/if an adoptee gains access to their file from their adoptive parents or adoption agency, seeing these words above, immediately gives a discouraging affect an adoptee’s motivation to search for their birth family.

When strangers ask us as we get older, “Don’t you want to find your birth family?” they cannot possibly comprehend how weighted a question like that is, when we constantly hold “abandoned” in the back of our minds. Since Korea used the term, “abandoned,” as a legal way to bypass local laws and accommodate international laws, it created for us adoptees a lie that we carry with us our entire lives. It was the reason why I never searched for my birth family until five years ago. I believed fully in the “lie” used by the Korean government and agencies to cover up relinquishments, that I was “abandoned” and therefore could never find my birth family, even if I had any urge to do so.

However, with the development of DNA testing the whole ball game has changed. DNA has pushed wide open a door that government institutions and adoption agencies could never have imagined. Adoptees are finding out the truth behind their “abandonment,” and in the majority of cases we are finding that we were never abandoned. Governments need to take responsibility for their creation of these lies, and one step in doing so is to give adoptees their legal right to origin, open up their records completely, and allow direct contact between birth families and adoptees. Only then can forgiveness and peace ever be found amidst the trauma of inter-country adoption, which was founded on such lies.

To be legally registered as being “abandoned” allots for the continuous turmoil many of us who search for our identities later in life face. As a result of this label, the search is painful, defeating, tiresome, degrading, and thus many of us simply give up.

I, however, have not given up. I’ve found my biological father and part of my story; I’ve applied for Korean citizenship to reclaim what was stripped away from me as orphan Kang Mi-suk, to replace it with a new Korean identity under the name of Oh Kara. Oh Kara scoops up the helpless crying child Kang Mi-suk at the bus terminal in Goesan and comforts her as a strong, determined woman helping lead her to her mother. Oh Kara will protect her mother, give her peace and healing after a lifetime of shame. Oh Kara may seem like just a name but it represents my grueling fight for justice and truth.

To the Korean government I say, “I urge you to give us our legal right to origin, restore justice for those of us who were never abandoned and who want to know who our families are.” To fellow adoptees I say, “I urge you never to give up and to fight for your right to know!”

Originally published in The Korea Times.

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