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Mia Lee Sorensen’s Danish parents used to tell her that her birth family in South Korea had put her up for adoption. According to her adoption papers, she was born prematurely in 1987 to a family that could not afford her medical bills and wished for her to have a “good future” abroad.
But when Ms. Sorensen found her birth parents in South Korea last year, they could not believe she was alive. They told her that her mother had passed out during labor and that when she woke up, the clinic told her that the baby had died.
South Korea has the world’s largest diaspora of intercountry adoptees, with more foreign adoptions overall than any other nation. About 200,000 children have been sent abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953, mostly to the United States and Europe.
Those adoptions have continued today, even as the country suffers one of the world’s lowest birthrates. In 2021, the top intercountry adoption hubs were Colombia, India, Ukraine and South Korea. (Before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, China had topped the list.)
Amid widespread accusations of corruption and malpractice in the past, South Korea opened its first official government investigation into its adoption industry last year.
South Korean families have long been reluctant to adopt children, despite government campaigns to encourage domestic adoptions. And in the decades after the Korean War, when South Korea was an impoverished country with poor medical services and threadbare welfare budgets, there was a pressing need to find adoptive homes abroad for orphaned, abandoned or disabled children, according to adoption experts.
Many children found the help and caring homes they needed abroad. But in its rush to promote overseas adoptions as a solution, South Korea had also spawned profound and widespread problems in the industry that stretched for decades.
Profit motives for adoption firms created an incentive in the past to falsify or obscure documents to make more children available for adoption, sometimes without the birth parents’ knowledge. Many unwed mothers were coerced into signing away their babies even before giving birth. And sometimes there was little or no follow-up from the firms on cases where children struggled with adjustment troubles or abuse in their new homes.
Many of the problems have diminished in recent decades, as South Korea took steps to overhaul its adoption practices, including expanding government support for single mothers who wanted to keep their children and requiring overseas adoptions to be approved by the courts. But numerous accusations of malpractice from earlier decades went without investigation.
The push for accountability has been led by hundreds of adoptees who have returned to South Korea in recent years with the time and resources to seek answers. They have partnered with a new generation of researchers and politicians willing to shed light on a painful legacy that was, for decades, considered too shameful to openly discuss.
“It’s like human trafficking,” Ms. Sorensen said of adoption in South Korea. “If this happened to me, how many others did they do this to?”
During the pandemic, Peter Moller, a Korean adoptee raised in Denmark, asked fellow Korean adoptees around the world to share their experiences. He expected to learn of isolated cases of document fraud. Instead, hundreds of people came forward with accounts of fabricated data, stolen babies and laundered identities, and of abuse in adoptive families.
“We only scratched the surface,” said Mr. Moller, who helped organize the global adoptee campaign that prompted the government investigation.
The baby export business in South Korea began with what critics called a deep-seated xenophobia and prejudice against biracial children. In its postwar years, the country’s first president, Syngman Rhee, pursued a policy he called “one state for one ethnic people,” which encouraged sending biracial children born to American soldiers and Korean women to “their fathers’ land.”
Many destitute mothers of biracial children faced a stark choice: place their babies up for overseas adoption or raise them alone in poverty and disgrace.
When Boo Chung-ha, a retired adoption agent, joined Holt Children’s Services, the country’s largest adoption agency, in 1967, his first job was to persuade women working in the sex trade around American military bases to place their biracial children up for overseas adoption. “Our society didn’t care for them and their mothers,” he said. “Their mothers lived and worked in rooms barely large enough to squeeze in a bed.”
Meeky Woo Flippen was born in 1965 to a Korean mother and a Black American soldier. She said that when she left the small alley where she lived in a home with her mother and biracial siblings, people would hurl racist insults at her.
“We had no future in South Korea,” said Ms. Flippen, who was adopted into a family in Oregon as a teenager after her mother died.
In South Korea, it was long left to parents to report the birth of a new child, a practice that adoptees say made it easier to leave newborn babies unregistered with the government and to pass them off as orphans who were then preyed upon by adoption agencies. Only this June, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a law requiring birth clinics and the authorities to register a child’s birth.
By the end of the 1960s, most children sent abroad were not biracial but born to unwed mothers, another target of prejudice in South Korea. Around that time, as many as 20 babies would arrive at Holt from across the country every Friday, said Mr. Boo, who headed Holt’s Korea operation until 1978.
“Some had no information on them, and doctors had to guess their age from their teeth,” he said. Others had been abandoned and starved for days and died soon after arrival. They were buried in a plot owned by Holt, with neither their birth nor death registered with the government, he said. He said that during his time at Holt, the agency did nothing illegal.
“We sent children overseas so they could have better medical care and homes,” Mr. Boo said.
Another aim, at least for the government, was to alleviate the country’s bloated, postwar welfare rolls.
To streamline the adoption process, South Korea allowed four private agencies, including Holt, to earn fees by sending adopted children abroad. Rather than requiring adoptive parents to travel to South Korea, the agencies delivered the infants directly.
Overseas travelers were often hired by the agencies to escort the babies to their new families at a low cost. In 1970, a daily newspaper in South Korea reported that 10 children bound for France through Holt were tied together in pairs with clotheslines as they made their way to an airplane. The American who was escorting the children with his wife was quoted as saying that he did so to prevent them from scattering.
Even as South Korea’s war-torn economy began to improve, the country continued to promote adoption. In the 1970s, the country briefly considered phasing out overseas adoptions after North Korea accused it of selling babies to foreigners. But in the 1980s, it further liberalized intercountry adoptions, this time in the name of promoting “emigration and private diplomacy.”
References to South Korea as a “baby exporter” and to “mail-order babies” became popularized in international media, and have since stuck.
In 1985, 8,837 South Korean children were sent abroad for adoption, 6,021 of them to the United States.
For each baby, adoption agencies collected a $3,000 to $4,000 “facilitating fee” from the adoptive family, as well as airfare and a separate $1,450 adoption fee, according to internal government documents from the national archives, which were reviewed by The New York Times. (South Korea’s per-capita national income in 1988 was $4,571.)
To help keep business humming, the agencies ran or subsidized shelters for unwed pregnant women, where the women were asked to sign agreements to relinquish their babies, according to a report published in January by the National Human Rights Commission.
Lawmakers at the time began to worry that adoption agencies had become “human trafficking” centers, according to one of the government documents that described a meeting between welfare ministry officials and the agencies. Another document quoted the presidential office as warning that the agencies “focused on making profit” and handed out “cash and gifts” to clinics and orphanages that served as adoption brokers.
Holt said its adoption fees were approved by the government. It also said that it processed adoptions based on information provided by orphanages and other institutions. When it received babies directly from parents who had not registered their children’s births, the agency said it was allowed by law to treat the children as orphans.
Korea Social Service, another adoption agency, declined to answer questions for this article. But in letters to adoptees that were reviewed by The Times, the agency admitted that some of its paperwork had been invented. “You’d be very confused,” the agency said in one such letter to Anja Pedersen, admitting that her adoption paper had been falsified.
When Ms. Pedersen was sent to Denmark in 1976, she was an orphan named Lee Eun Kyung. Three decades later, the agency told her that her actual Korean name was Son Eun Joo and that when she was put up for adoption by her uncle without her father’s permission, a dead girl’s name and papers had been used.
Ms. Pedersen eventually found her biological family in South Korea, but when she asked the agency about the real Lee Eun Kyung, she was just told that the baby had died. There was no record of her death or her biological parents. She only existed in Ms. Pedersen’s Danish middle name: Lee.
“I carried her around with me,” she said.
The news media in South Korea often highlights the successes of Korean adoptees abroad, but those who have returned in recent years describe being haunted by questions of identity and belonging.
William Alan Vorhees said when he was adopted by an unmarried American businessman, his papers listed him as an orphan. But he says he now struggles with lingering childhood memories of visiting a rural market in South Korea with his mother and being dragged away suddenly by a stranger.
When some returning adoptees asked the government to investigate corruption in the industry in 2005, their grievances were dismissed for not rising to a level of national significance. Their searches were also stymied by incomplete and falsified records and local laws that prioritized birth parents’ privacy over the rights of adoptees.
“We’ve always been greatly disadvantaged here because of culture and language,” said Han Boon Young, an adoptee who returned two decades ago. “It’s really tough to survive here, to just get a regular job and actually integrate.”
Investigators plan to release their findings by the spring. They do not have the power to prosecute any of the agencies, but the government is required by law to follow their recommendations.
Jin Meyerson, a Korean adoptee who became an artist, pointed out that South Korea is usually obsessed with addressing historical wrongs, like seeking apologies from Japan for its sexual enslavement of Korean women during colonial rule.
But when it comes to owning up to its painful adoption history, the country has failed, he said.
“As a country, as a culture, as a community, what right do we have to demand an apology from Japan when we can’t even take care of this situation in our own home, with our own children?” Mr. Meyerson said.