Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Modderman
By Kim Young-jin
Her birth mother’s care package, which arrived that first winter after she arrived in the United States from Korea as an infant, was ostensibly a Christmas gift.
But nearly four decades later, Jane Jeong Trenka says the gift, a traditional Korean dress, was also a sign that her mother was desperately trying to contact her and her sister after an adoption process that was far less than transparent.
Trenka, now a Seoul-based advocate for adoptee rights, says while her mother chose to give them up due to her husband’s alcoholism, she was misled into thinking they would eventually come back after studying for a time in Minnesota.
Her papers, which she acquired with the permission of her birth family, also say that the two were deserted by their mother, who later said no such thing occurred.
“It was not an ethical adoption,” said Trenka, the 39-year-old head of the group Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK).
She is among the more than 200,000 Koreans who have been adopted abroad since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Many return to Korea to search for their birth parents or the circumstances of their adoption.
Trenka says that while many of the adoptions appear to have been processed legally, countless adoptees find that abuses occurred in order to facilitate them.
Korea, she says, must take a hard look at the corruption and learn from the experience.
“Korea has been held up as a model country for international adoption,” said Trenka, who reunited with her mother in 1995 and detailed the experience in her book, “The Language of Blood.”
“But when you come here and meet all these adoptees who tell what happens to them, you find that is totally false.”
The call for action comes at a time of momentum for the adoptee community after TRACK and others spearheaded the recent passage of a reform bill by the National Assembly that could significantly improve adoption conditions if properly implemented.
The law, which takes effect in January, will give adoptees better access to information held by international adoption agencies and shift government focus to providing services to help Korean parents keep their children.
Time for reconciliation
The past, however, is an entirely different story, a fact that many adoptees attest to after coming to Korea only to find a web of falsified information about their past, if any at all.
“What happens most of the time is that the agencies say there are no records, which isn’t always true. But it’s our human right to know where we came from,” she said.
Though many do reunite with their parents, others are told that records weren’t kept back then or that they burned in a fire.
The problem seems to begin with the agencies but stretch back further ― and higher up.
International adoptions from Korea picked up pace during the country’s rapid industrialization under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.
Some scholars suggest that like other exports of human resources during that era, babies, especially those born out of wedlock, may have been seen as a tidy source of profit.
TRACK has found a number of abuses of the process that Trenka says were more than likely committed to expedite adoptions.
Among them are many cases of unclear relinquishment where, for instance, a person other than the parent gave a child away or did so for domestic, not international adoption. Many signatures appear forged.
The group has also documented cases where the children were kidnapped by relatives prior to adoption.
In some cases they were kidnapped by the orphanages, which told parents the children were not there, or had died.
Agencies still give parents a relinquishment of parental rights form, which works outside of the law, by which they can give up a child still in the womb, she said. Starting in January, when the revision takes effect, parents will be required to wait seven days to do so.
Misrepresentation on records, contradictions in the adoption files and forgeries are all rampant, she said.
Such abuses were brushed off when brought them to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission in the process of pushing the revision bill, prompting TRACK to take up its current awareness raising campaign.
It is pushing for the National Human Rights Commission to create a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate past adoption practices, which, at its peak were estimated to have sent 8,000 children abroad annually.
Such a body could interview social workers and parents to get the whole story to provide answers not only for adoptees but the entire nation. It is estimated that one in 48 Koreans have family ties to an adoptee.
“There’s a historical void over the whole adoption system. Koreans all know about the comfort women but when it comes to international adoptees, it’s like ‘huh?’” she said. “We don’t exist in the history books. There should be a record that we existed.”
It would also help bring a much-needed catharsis for the birth families, especially many mothers ridden with guilt.
“A poor woman can’t send a child overseas herself; you need a giant government mechanism for that. But at the end of the day the person that gets blamed is the woman. They need to understand that the whole society was making it so there was no other choice.”
Even if such a body is formed, TRACK and other organizations would still have plenty of work to do monitoring the government and agencies to ensure proper implementation of the law.
Then, perhaps, they can tackle other major problems in the domestic system, including a registration system that allows the vast majority of adoptions to go unrecorded.
But the country should not put the cart before the horse to solve such issues.
“We have to bring out the past even though a lot of people don’t want to think about it,” she said, “because those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”