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Image by Drew Graham

Why pursue the right to origins

The intercountry adoption program of Korea has sent over 200,000 children abroad for intercountry adoption since 1953. In 2019, it sent approximately 400 children overseas, and its practices have come to serve as a prototype that other countries have replicated. Despite a common view that Korea represents a "professional and transparent system," concerns over human rights violations, especially in light of the deportation of Korean adoptees from their receiving countries, continue to haunt the Korean government. Even today the citizenship status of nearly 19,000 adoptees remains unknown and adoption agencies maintain adoption records as private property. The Korean government has made little, if any, effort to fulfill adopted persons' right to their origins. As long as adoption records are the private property of adoption agencies, beyond the reach of the government, the access and extent of access that adopted people have to their records will depend on adoption agencies.


Each year, adopted people search for their origins, whether this is through birth family searches or visits to Korea. However, only a fortunate few of those trying to find their birth families or the stories surrounding their adoption are successful in their search. The lack of rights adopted people have in terms of accessing their records, the limited understanding they have of their rights in Korea, and the absence of means to advocate for their rights prevent adopted people from exercising a basic right enshrined in international law.


The right to origins encompasses more than just access to birth records. It is a holistic right stipulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which Korea is a State Party. 


Article 8

1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name, and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.

2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.


Adoption is lifelong and the support and protections required to fulfill the right to origins reflect this. However, the fact that this entitlement for adoptees is not fully recognized, let alone enforced, neglects the needs of and violates the rights of adult adoptees.


This right essentially means that Korea is bound by international law to take measures to protect against the government and private parties (e.g., adoption agencies, etc.) from unlawfully interfering in the elements that make up a child's identity. This obligation entails taking measures to enable children to not only preserve but to discover and develop their identity.


Therefore, the Korean government has an international duty to ensure the preservation of adoptees' records and to ensure that adoptees may access these records. As identity consists of more than birth records, but also entails cultural, social, and political elements, the government must also provide a range of assistance, such as counseling around contact, access to language services and translation, acknowledgment, and inclusion of Korean adoptees in Korean history, and other types of measures that ensure adoptees fully enjoy their right to origins. 

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