An open letter to Dr. Park Sook-Ja

Dear Dr. Park Sook-Ja, Director General for the Bureau of Family Policy under the Office for Child, Youth and Family Policy at the South Korean Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs:

Thank you very much for meeting with representatives of KoRoot, ASK and TRACK, as well as single mothers and unaffiliated adoptees, on Tuesday, July 28, 2009, along with your colleagues from the Office for Child, Youth and Family Policy, Mr. Eun Sung-ho and Mr. Yoo Jae-deok. We very much appreciated that you initiated the meeting at KoRoot in Seoul, marking the first time in five years that government officials of such high rank have made an effort to approach the adoptee community. We appreciate your sincere interest in engaging us in the Korean adoption law revision process, which concerns both domestic adoption and international adoption laws.

Most of all, we are very pleased that you have decided to reopen the public hearing process on the adoption law revisions. You promised professional translation for the hearing in November, and we are thankful for that. Likewise, we would like to remind you that the country that took the highest number of Korean adoptees, next to the U.S., was France. Therefore, we respectfully request both English and French simultaneous interpretation, as well as translation of documents, for the next public hearing.

Your positive gesture toward us brings us hope that we have reached a watershed moment where adoptees will have not just a spot at the table, but a real say in what happens in South Korea’s social welfare policy. After all, the overseas adoptees are walking, breathing examples of the failure of South Korea to provide a welfare system that gives its children the basic necessities for life with their families.

Reparation for this failure must start with the acknowledgment that the decision-making process for social welfare policy — which has been framed as being in the “best interests” of adoptees, their birth parents, and Korean “unwed mothers” — has never actually included those parties. A successful social welfare policy cannot possibly exclude the parties who are most affected by the policies. Nor can such a policy be in compliance with the Hague if it fails to firmly acknowledge for future generations that a child’s best interests is to remain with her/his family in Korea.

Overseas adoptees can be expected to voice their own opinions in their own languages. However, we cannot be expected to speak Korean, and therefore we cannot be expected to answer questionnaires issued only in Korean, or reach out to Korean birth parents, unwed mothers, or Korean domestic adoptees. The adoption agencies and the government may actually be in the best position to locate those people, and we hope that any future research that the ministry conducts will make a sincere effort to reach out to them.

The truth and reconciliation movement in South Korea, addressing abuses of power committed during the American military occupation of Korea after liberation from Japan, during the Korean War, and under succeeding authoritarian regimes, has been a healing force in Korean society under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. In all cases — from truth-telling at Nogunri and Jeju Island, to restoring blacklisted families’ honor after being branded as Communists — the heart of the truth and reconciliation process has been listening to thousands of witnesses and documenting their testimonies. In the case of adoptees, one way that the government can extend an olive branch to the adoptees is simply by listening to the testimony of the masses — not a few token adoptees — and acting on their recommendations as the laws are being shaped. After all, how can a just law be shaped without intimate knowledge of what the past law has created? What has this law created? For one, it has created a diaspora unprecedented in the history of the world – a diaspora of 200,000 made up completely of children — who now, as adults, demand to be heard. Perhaps our participation in the current revision of the adoption laws can be seen as one step toward South Korea’s recognition that a formal truth and reconciliation process is urgently needed for the adoption community of Korea.

At the last public hearing, TRACK and KoRoot pledged that 30-40 adoptees would attend and require translation. We are grateful that translation was provided, thanks to the Korean Women’s Development Institute. (KWDI receives major funding for research on unwed mothers from Dr. Richard Boas, an American adoptive parent and adoptee ally). However, only 30-40 translation devices were provided. The meaning of that situation is that the adoptees were meant to listen. But they were not meant to speak. However, all of the speakers at the public hearing who participated in the public question and answer session – with the exception of the president of Holt — were either adoptees or allies of single mothers and adoptees. We hope that in the future, the Korean government will provide the adoptees with the means to both speak and listen. We are aware that the government has a budget for translation, and we think that providing translation for matters concerning the revision of the adoption law would be a good use of those funds. Translation and interpretation — a service that is freely given at many government levels when “foreigners” attend — can and should be institutionalized for adoptees as part of government transparency.

Because the meeting came at your invitation, we hope that you now seriously acknowledge us as equal partners in the law revision process. We are thankful for the positive decisions you announced at the July 28 meeting. These decisions are as follows:

  1. Task Force and Public Hearings: Dr. Park Sook-ja said that TRACK’s lawyer, Rami So of the Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, will be appointed to the task force created by the South Korean Ministry of Health Welfare and Family, which will participate at the next public hearing in November. This task force will meet around 10 times and deal with civil law, the “special” international adoption law, civil law between individuals, adoption dissolution, and birth parent rights.

We welcome this decision and look forward to Rami So’s participation as our representative on the task force. While this is a step in the right direction, the task force should in principle also include a domestic adoptee, an international adoptee, a birthmother and an unwed mother. These are the Koreans who are most affected by the adoption laws in Korea. In addition to appointing such representatives to the task force, we would like to request an ongoing formalized relationship with ministry resulting in regular meetings with such parties.

2. Budget Support for Unwed Mothers: You let us know that the budget for support for unwed mothers will be raised next year to reflect the ministry’s focus on keeping children with their own mothers instead of sending them to adoptive homes. You said this support for unwed mothers includes a stipend for raising children, medical care support, and job training.

These are wonderful developments that we support. Specifically, we would like to know how much budget is going into supporting unwed mothers as opposed to promoting adoption. We would also like to know when the budget will be implemented. In addition, we call for the government to respond to unwed mothers by including them in the process of the budget revision.

3. Regulation of Unwed Mothers’ Homes: You let us know that a high percentage of the unwed mothers’ homes are actually run by adoption agencies. You said that while the ministry would like to better regulate these homes, which are the major source of children for adoption, it is not easy because these homes are under the jurisdiction of the local governments. One way you suggested that this can be done is through internet counseling of unwed mothers. You also said that the intake and counseling system for unwed mothers should be controlled by the government, not by the agencies, and that all children should be registered medically by their birthparents, meaning secret adoption (when the child does not know s/he is adopted and appears to be a biological child of her/his adoptive parents on paper) is an abuse of children’s rights.

We agree with you wholeheartedly, and look forward to your steps in regulating such businesses not only through the internet, but also through concrete steps in the real world. The unwed mothers have many good suggestions that speak to their experience, such as the need for strengthening mothers’ custody of children and changing the way information comes up on Korean internet portals such as Naver and Daum so that they can access information about their options more easily. We would like to be kept informed of your progress, whether through direct outreach to the adoptee diaspora or through your Web site in English and French.

4. Decreasing Unwanted Pregnancies: You mentioned in our meeting that the ministry aims to decrease unwanted pregnancies.

We would like to know what strategies you will use to do that, whether through sex education in schools, legalizing abortion, promoting abstinence, or other means.

5. The Function of KCARE: You have let us know in broad terms that KCARE is meant to be a “one-stop service” that will collect all the adoption files and that will be able to contact the police to find people if the information is outdated. Our understanding is that KCARE is positioned to become the “central authority” if and when South Korea ratifies the Hague Convention.

Specifically, we would like responses to the following questions:

A. What are the general guidelines for the function of KCARE? May we see them in writing?

B. How will KCARE ascertain that they have all the agencies’ files?

C. By what date will KCARE have all the files?

D. What kinds of action can KCARE take as a watchdog and regulator?

The Legal Power of KCARE: We believe that KCARE should act as an objective third party that can be the first option for searching adoptees. KCARE has been informed by TRACK in writing of the fees, going up to $700, charged by the American agencies for search and advertised on the Internet. The fees of European agencies are similar. These fees are only one part of searching adoptees’ expenses. American adoptees in particular often have only two weeks of vacation per year if they are employed full-time. That means they may spend their entire yearly vacation, plus airfare, food and lodging to come to Korea following unsuccessful searches by their American agencies, which they have already paid for, only to be met with more challenges at their agency in Korea. According to its own data, the ministry says that the agencies in Seoul have reunited only 2.7% of the 61% of adoptees who have searched. Therefore, it is extremely important that KCARE has legal authority over the agencies, as well as all control of all their records.

The workers at KCARE are already discovering that without any information about birth families in their database and without any actual files at their disposal, their ability to do everyday tasks necessary for search is severely limited.

For instance, in order to find out if a Dutch adoptee’s records were switched for an American adoptee’s records (the adoptees went through the same agency and had the same Korean name) KCARE has asked the ministry to issue a court order to open the file of the Dutch adoptee at the Seoul city district level because they cannot access the records of KSS. This is the right thing to do, and we are grateful for the service. However, with only one or two staff members at KCARE involved in search, this kind of activity is impractical because it takes too much time and staff effort. The agencies give the adoptees about five minutes with their files, but obviously this is not sufficient when a person’s very important origins are contained in that file. Out of sheer practicality, KCARE must be invested with legal power over the agencies to retrieve all of the files in their entirety, or it will be a useless organization for adult adoptees who are searching.

Any search, whether by the agency or KCARE, must be governed by law, not policy. Because there are many items on the sentence level that must be revised, suffice it to say for now that So Rami can share our specific legal recommendations about search with you through the task force. These recommendations draw upon the international precedents that the adoptees brought to the discussion.

Cooperation Between KCARE and the Ministry

The day after our meeting together, TRACK visited KCARE, where they proposed that adoptees participate on a task force at KCARE. When asked if this was the same task force that the ministry is forming, which will include Rami So, they did not know the ministry was proposing a task force. In addition, there seems to be some confusion between the ministry and KCARE itself as to whether KCARE is the first or last option for adoptees who are searching. It seems that this is a case of the “right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.” This is worrisome and we hope that you will deal with adoptee participation in decision-making, as well as any promotion of KCARE to adoptees, in a systematic manner.

6. Reveal the Board of KCARE: You have let us know that Stephen Morrison, an internationally adopted Korean who is president and founder of Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea, with chapters in California (where he lives) and Korea is on the board. The other board members were described in the meeting as:

  • One person representing one of the big four Korean international adoption agencies
  • One president of an unwed mothers’ facility
  • Two professors of social welfare
  • One person from legal studies
  • One lawyer
  • One person from the press
  • One prosecutor from the ministry of justice

Notably, the names of the board members of KCARE and their affiliations have never been officially revealed. It is nowhere on the Web site or KCARE’s brochures. We could not get a straight answer from the ministry, the secretary-general of KCARE, Ms. Kang Eun Hee, or Prof. Huh Nam-soon of Hallym University, who has been tasked by the ministry to do research and recommendations on the adoption law revisions, and who is in charge of the public hearings.

One of KCARE’s functions should be to act as a watchdog, since it is the organization that is being set up to become the central authority. It is a conflict of interest to have the president of Holt on the board of this watchdog, which he is rumored to be. However, we do not know that for certain because no one will reveal the board to us. In any case, overrepresentation by people with close ties to the adoption agencies – whether through unwed mothers’ homes, past employment, board memberships, or otherwise — would definitely be counter to KCARE’s mission of monitoring the agencies.

Publicly revealing who is on the KCARE board is a good way to start building trust with the adoptees. Those who work in social welfare in Korea, many of whom have earned advanced degrees in the U.S., should be able to understand this very simple request for a gesture toward the kind of transparency that is expected in international environments, and that takes almost no effort on your part to fulfill.

In addition, we request that the people most affected by adoption policy be named to the board. This would include single mothers, domestic adoptees, and birth parents. WE also request that an adoptee who is elected by the adoptee community in Seoul be named to this board because it is not physically possible for someone who does not live in Korea to be actively involved on this board that covers important matters inside Korea, such as birth family search.

7. New Organization in Ministry Under Dr. Park Sook-Ja : Effective May 1, 2009, the ministry has announced a new way of organizing “matters related to adoption of children and its post-management,” support for single mothers and facilities for them, and underprivileged families under a single department, as detailed on the ministry’s Web site at

We welcome this positive development and call on the ministry to continue to develop a comprehensive welfare policy. The adoptees who grew up in Western countries, particularly in Scandinavia, have a great wealth of knowledge about social welfare and gender equality. Their knowledge is a great asset to Korea, and they will enthusiastically share their knowledge. We understand that you, Dr. Park, have inherited the policies of your predecessors, and that you have many things to correct. We would like to support you in doing that. For us to support you, it is important that we are considered shareholders in this policy. In order for us to actively participate, the government must make a systematic, institutionalized method of communicating with the adoption community in a timely fashion.

8. The Hague Convention: We understand that the direction of the law revisions is toward ratifying the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, and that this may be done next year after the Ministry of Justice completes its research.

While ratifying the Hague Convention may be a step in the right direction, we know from the example of other countries, such as Guatemala and India, that abuses can continue to exist within “sending countries” even after ratification, and that “receiving countries” such as the United States are slow to react and do not care as much about birth parent rights as they do the demands of adoptive parents. Without domestic enforcement in practice and real monitoring and watchdogs in place, the Hague is only a smokescreen that will just cover existing abuses and discriminatory practices that the ministry, the parliament, KCARE, the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, and the South Korean media, are already well aware of.

For instance, KCARE workers came with TRACK members to visit Eastern Social Welfare Society in August, where they saw with their own eyes over 50 babies, half of them premature, being cared for by only three workers. They saw bottles propped up on towels next to babies’ faces because there was no one caring for the babies. And they saw two rooms full of files on rolling library shelves that belong in their office. (Their office is too small to hold the files of even just one agency.) Both the sign outside on the street and the window through which visitors may see the babies say in Korean, “Unwed Mothers Counseling.”

9. Our Bill: Our lawyer Rami So has alerted you that the coalition of KoRoot, ASK, and TRACK, and the single mothers who are raising their own children, have been developing their own bill on the adoption law.

As you know, we have developed this bill in response to our prediction that we would be shut out of the ministry’s law revision process, which until now, we have been. We had planned to submit our bill to South Korea’s parliament through lawmakers. Now that we are in close contact, we hope that you will incorporate our suggestions into the ministry’s bill.

10.  Invitation to Further, Meaningful Cooperation: We would like to invite you to engage with the adoptee community in Seoul and around the world further in a friendly but formalized way. The door is now open for you to help us help you engage with adoptees living all over the world. We will also continue to remind you of your responsibility to reach out to Korean birthparents, unwed mothers and domestic adoptees living here in Korea.

At the meeting, we presented over 500 signatures of adoptees and our allies living all over the world. We will continue to gather these signatures and bring them to you at each meeting to remind you not only that the adoptees are watching from each corner of the world where you have sent them, but also that we demand full, real, and meaningful participation in the legal processes that have shaped and continue to shape our lives.

Future policies should take into account the fact that adoptees are moving back to Korea, that we are ourselves parents and grandparents, and that we are moving through our lives often with unclear citizenship and documents. In addition, policies must take into account the complicated situations that have arisen because of sending children to so many different countries with so many different laws. For instance, birth mothers are specifically banned from having any special immigration privileges to the U.S., and it is difficult to legally prove that our siblings are indeed relatives when our own identities have been erased or altered. Will the adoptees’ children, many of them mixed-race, be included in overseas Korean policy? Will there be a blood quantum placed on our children and grandchildren to determine inclusion? These are some of the many complex situations that are starting to make themselves apparent.

This letter comes to you out of profound love and our hopes for the future of South Korea’s most vulnerable people, who we once were. It also comes out of a sense of justice for our Korean families, as well as our own self-respect as dignified human beings.

This letter will be disseminated to the adoptee diaspora in an effort to keep them informed about the latest developments. We are ready to give you suggestions on how to reach adoptees all over the world at our next meeting.

We have sent this letter to you by registered mail Wednesday, August 3, 2009. We are sorry for the inconvenience of sending this without Korean translation due to time constraints, but we understand that you, Dr. Park Sook-Ja, have completed your Ph.D. in the U.S. and are able to work in English, as Dr. Huh Nam-soon, the professor in charge of the ministry’s law revisions, is also able to work in English. This packet includes questions from adoptees who were present at the meeting. We eagerly await your reply. You can reply by email TRACK at

With best wishes and hope for our continuing cooperation,

Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK)

Jane Jeong Trenka, President


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