Korean Adoption in the U.S.: A Brief Overview

As a result of the Korean War and as early as 1953, the U.S. began adopting children from Korea. During the 1980s adoption from Korea reached its peak with over 66,000 Korean adoptions. Although adoption from Korea has been declining since then, Korean adoptees are the largest number of transnational transracial adoptees within the U.S. In fact,

“Korean transnational adoption was the first sustained intercountry adoption program in history (all previous intercountry adoption programs were temporary, in response to national disasters or emergencies); the current permanent practice of transnational adoption, whereby prospective adoptive parents in the United States or another receiving country can expect to have a choice of countries from which to adopt children, can be traced to Korean adoption” (Park Nelson 2009:5).

While popular understandings of Korean transnational adoption often center on individuals and ideas of Christian or humanitarian aid, such tropes mask the historical and social contexts that enabled these adoptions as well as how transnational adoption was institutionalized. A mix of social and historical factors in both Korea and the U.S. facilitated Korean transnational adoption. As a result of the Korean War (June 25, 1950 – July 1953) and the separation of the Korean peninsula into two nations, countless children were orphaned or homeless; among those orphaned were the offspring of Korean women and U.S. G.I.s. Consequently, orphans of the Korean War were the first Korean adoptees.

Korean orphans were depicted in the media as ‘Korean waifs,’ ‘waifs of war,’ and military ‘mascots’. In fact, many U.S. G.I.s returned to the U.S. with ‘mascots’ (i.e., Korean boys), and U.S. soldiers and chaplains often wrote home asking for supplies for orphanages they had set up. In this way, Korean orphans were framed as objects in need of humanitarian aid and American serviceman were framed in a “paternalistic role as the main supporters of orphanages and conduits for charitable donations from concerned Americans at home” (Kim 2008:7) even though some were actual fathers to children of Korean women who did not fulfill their paternal role due to stigmas of illegitimacy and miscegenation. These early depictions of Korean orphans spurred many families to adopt from Korea, and it was after Harry and Bertha Holt’s very public adoption of eight Korean children in 1955 that the demand for Korean children soared. The Holts, and then the Holt adoption agency, were key in relaxing adoption standards of foreign children. Although by the late 1950s the population of abandoned mixed-race Korean children declined, the rate of child abandonment in the general population soared, and “by 1965, 70 percent of children being sent overseas were of full Korean parentage” (Kim 2008:18).

Social factors that influenced the increase in and general availability of adoptees in Korea include its patriarchal society, stigma of single motherhood, and increase in facilities to address orphaned children and facilitate adoptions. Within the U.S., social factors that contributed to the likelihood of transnational adoption include use of “matching” in social work for adoptions, which privileged white, middle-class, heterosexual couples, and the decrease in available domestic adoptees. Efficient and widely accepted methods of birth control and decreasing public opposition to unwed mothers and adopted children were also contributing factors.

Although Korean transnational adoption may have been initially framed as a humanitarian effort, transnational adoption practices have become more critically interrogated. Regarding Korean adoption specifically, the 1988 Seoul Olympics saw criticisms against Korea for “exporting” Korean children. More recently, some adult Korean adoptees have created groups advocating against transnational adoption. In regards to transnational adoption broadly, traditional ideas of humanitarianism have been replaced with examinations into the commercialization, commodification, and imperialism embedded within these adoption practices.

For more in-depth history and analysis of Korean adoption, see:

  • Brian, Kristi. (2012). Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Choy, Catherine. (2013). Global Families : A History of Asian International Adoption inAmerica. NY, NY: NYU Press.
  • Pate, SooJin. (2014). From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Oh, Arissa. (2015). To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption . Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

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