KAD: A KAD is an acronym, a term, that a Korean adopted person may refer to themselves as (Korean Adoptee.) They may also refer to themselves as a KA, or simply, Korean Adoptee.
Diaspora: The dispersion of any people from their original homeland. It is also important to note the key differences between migration and diaspora. Diaspora refers to a population that shares a common heritage who are scattered in different parts of the world. Migration refers to people moving to different areas in search of a settlement. Korean adoptees are a sub-group of the larger Korean diaspora.
Historical Context and the Impact of South Korean Nationalism:
Not until the 1990s did the South Korean government and South Koreans, both in South Korea and in the diaspora, pay any significant attention to the fates of Korean adoptees. The nation was not prepared for the return of their 'lost children.' The numerous adult KADs who visited Korea as tourists every year, in addition to raised public awareness of the KAD diaspora, forced Korea to face a shameful and largely unknown part of their history. South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung invited twenty-nine adult KADs from eight countries to a personal meeting in the Blue House in October 1998. During this meeting, he publicly apologized for South Korea's inability to raise them.
One factor that helped making KADs visible in the South Korean discourse, was a 1991 film called Susanne Brink's Arirang, based upon the life and experiences of Susanne Brink, an adult KAD from Sweden. who stated to have suffered abuse and racism in her adoptive home and country. After the movie, she became a celebrity in South Korea, and many South Koreans started to feel shame and guilt for the children their country had sent out. Since then, South Korean media rather frequently reports on the issues regarding international adoption. Most KADs have taken on the citizenship of their adoptive country, and no longer have Korean passports. Earlier, they had to get a visa like any other foreigner if they wanted to visit or live in South Korea. This only added to the feeling that they were 'not really South Korean'. In May 1999, a group of KADs living in Korea started a signature-collection in order to achieve legal recognition and acceptance. It is not unlikely that the number of KADs living in Korea will increase in the following decade (International adoption from South Korea peaked in the mid-1980s). A report from Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L) indicates that the long term returnees (more than one year) are predominantly in their early twenties or early thirties.
With the formation of the adult associations, KADs for the first time were gathering with others who shared a common experience, on their own terms and by their own initiative. KADs were making statements both for themselves and towards the public, that they were no longer children, but independent adults with their own unique concerns and issues. The first ever association to be created for and by adult KADs, was the Swedish Adopterade Koreaners Forening (AKF) in 1986. Since then, similar groups have emerged in most Western European countries, various US states and cities, as well as in Canada, Australia, and Korea. Before this, most organized events and activities for KADs had been arranged and administered by adoptive parents and Korean immigrants. These arrangements included culture camps and social gatherings, with a main focus on adoptive families and their children. Many cities in states in the United States have developed their own KAD social groups. One of my closest friends developed a KAD social group in the Minneapolis/Twin Cities area, and many KADs from the Twin Cities Metropolitan area have attended various social events when their schedules allow. Together, these varied groups and associations have tried to raise awareness locally and internationally about KADs' unique position in relation to South Korea and their adoptive countries. In 1995, the first KAD conference was held in Germany; in 1999, conferences were arranged in both the US and South Korea. During the last couple of years, numerous adult KAD conferences and social gatherings in various countries have been arranged, including world gatherings that draw participants from across the globe.
One of the best known conferences is IKAA, or the International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA). From the IKAA website: KAA was first made official in March 2004 when the European associations formed IKAA Europe, followed shortly after by the establishment of IKAA USA. IKAA has been established to better serve the Korean adoptee community, create a strong communication forum, build global relationships and provide a location where Korean adoptees can turn when in need of a resource. Common for all the IKAA associations is that they have demonstrated long-term stability, some who have been in existence for over 20, their organizational structure and membership is comprised overwhelmingly of adult adoptees, they have a long experience working with adoptees, and they organize activities and events for their members on a regular basis. The IKAA network reaches out to thousands of adoptees worldwide. The mission of the IKAA Network is to enrich the global adoption community, promote the sharing of information and resources between adult adoptee associations, strengthen cross-cultural relations and innovate post-adoption services for the broader international adoptee community.
In addition, works of KADs have become known both in art, literature, and film-making. Other KADs have received celebrity status for other reasons, like Soon-Yi Previn who is married to Woody Allen, actresses Nicole Bilderback, and Jenna Ushkowitz, Washington State Senator Paull Shin, former Slovak rap-artist Daniel Hwan Oostra, and Kristen Kish of Top Chef - Season 10.
Race and National Control:
Most of these adopted South Korean children grew up in white, upper- or middle-class homes in suburban settings. In the beginning, adoptive families were often told by agencies and ‘experts’ to assimilate their children and make them as much as possible a part of the new culture, thinking that this would override concerns about ethnic identity and origin. Many KADs grew up not knowing about other children like themselves. The first generation of KADs have long since reached adulthood. Every year, South Korea welcomes back a few of the children it has sent abroad for adoption. Among the adult KAD returnees are Swedes, Americans, Danes, French, Belgian, etc. In this respect, the so-called re-Koreanization of the KAD's is often reproduced in South Korean popular media. The 're-Koreanization' can be reflected in Korean ethnic based nationalism (both North and South of the 38th parallel). Even in its capacity as a global economy and OECD nation, Korea still sends children abroad for international adoption. The proportion of children leaving Korea for adoption amounted to about 1% of its live births for several years during the 1980s; currently, even with a large drop in the Korean birth rate to below 1.2 children per woman and an increasingly wealthy economy, about 0.5% (1 in 200) of Korean children are still sent to other countries every year.
In the 1980s, adoption became a huge business, bringing millions of dollars to Korean agencies. The government benefited, too. For each child South Korea sent away, it had one fewer child to feed. By 1985, South Korea had earned the reputation as the Cadillac of adoption programs because of its efficient system and steady supply of healthy babies. The number of adoptions reached unsettling heights, with an average of twenty four children leaving South Korea each day. The continued growth was all the more striking because South Korea’s economy had improved significantly. That year, its G.D.P. ranked 20th globally, just below Switzerland’s, and continued to climb over the next decade. During NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the world saw a newly democratic country lined with skyscrapers and freshly paved highways, Bryant Gumbel noted that South Korea preferred to keep quiet about its “exportation” of babies. North Korea also criticized its neighbor for its liberal adoption policies. Embarrassed, the South Korean government promised to reduce international adoptions, in part by providing subsidies and extra health care benefits to South Korean families who adopted. But the government showed far less interest in helping single mothers keep their babies. To stem the number of overseas adoptions, the South Korean government had introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987, and under the system, the nation reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5% each year, from about 8,000 in 1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015, but in 1998, the government temporarily lifted the restrictions, after the number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of growing economic hardships.
For several decades, the South Korean international adoption program provided homes for more orphans per state than any other country in the world. Some called it a "national shame", considering the country's economic prosperity, but domestic adoption is rare in this nation that clings strongly to patriarchal bloodlines. Official numbers show that approximately 170,000 Koreans have been adopted by North American, European and Oceanic peoples (Overseas Korean's Foundation), but the actual numbers could be as high as 200,000. Over the past six decades, at least 200,000 Korean children — roughly the population of Des Moines, Iowa — have been adopted into families in more than fifteen countries, with a vast majority living in the United States. Children are given case numbers (mine is Case No. 86C-978.) Many Korean adoptees feel as if they were a transaction, a number in the same way that people who are criminalized and institutionalized are given numbers. It is a curious fact that Scandinavians are much more likely than those of other countries to adopt South Koreans, especially when population in Scandinavian nations is taken into account.
Based on experiences of discrimination and feelings of alienation both in South Korea and in their adoptive societies, some KADs have increasingly begun to see themselves as separate and different from both South Korea and the culture of their adoptive countries. As (visible or cultural) 'minorities' within both societies, they are dispersed around the world, but they still belong to a unique culture (with multiple subcultures and factions inside) and common identity. The creation of a KAD culture emerged from ethnogenesis, the evolution of a new ethnic group through the blending of other cultures with subsequent creation of a new and distinct culture, which is made up of more than merely the sum of its parts. Depending on how to define 'ethnic group', in its simplest form, it means that members identify themselves as belonging to the same general category, which again can be subdivided depending on various classification systems. Identity is more about self-identification than clear-cut, scientific boundaries. Multiculturalism is also key to the KAD 'ethnic group'. Despite the diverse experiences and even origins of its members, many KADs still manage to maintain a common identity based on shared experiences and circumstances.
Creation of KAD ethnicity and culture started with KADs themselves. In reclaiming their own culture and heritage, KADs aimed to overcome feelings of not belonging in either South Korean culture or in the cultures of their adoptive countries. For example, among the first generation of KAD, local adoption policies stressed the importance of full assimilation, the idea of 'a better life', removal and replacement of Korean names, language and culture, a lack of respect for South Korean heritage, racism, and discrimination. Upon their return to South Korea, KADs sometimes felt pressure to be 'more Korean', learn Korean language, and be interested in South Korea and Korean culture.
Transcending these narrow paradigms of identity and cultural belonging is the first step towards forging a meaningful and fulfilling form of KAD identity. Recognizing that KADs comprise their own ethnic/cultural group (which cannot be simplistically distilled into a dichotomy of 'Koreans' or '_____'), enables them to embrace their identity and heritage in a way that is not constrained by the stereotypes, expectations and preconceptions of either Korean or adoptive societies. That is the point from which KADs can educate themselves, and later the world, about who and what KADs really are, and thus dismantle myths and stereotypes and move beyond notions of inferiority about belonging. Many of us have been returning to the land of our birth, and not just to track down our biological parents, but to stay and put down new roots of our own.