From the Ashes of War: Lessons from 50 Years of Korean International Adoption

Hollee Mcginnis. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

On January 13, 1903, the first Korean immigrants to the United States arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the SS Gaelic. In commemoration, President Bush issued a proclamation declaring January 13, 2003, as the Centennial of Korean Immigration to the United States, commencing yearlong activities to celebrate the contributions of Korean immigrants and their descendents over the past 100 years (Office of the Press Secretary, 2003). Since the Korean War (1950-1953), more than 1 million South Korean nationals have emigrated abroad, of whom a significant fraction—15%—have been children adopted by families overseas. According to official statistics from the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, between 1953 and 2004 a total of 156,242 South Korean children were sent to predominately Western nations for adoption, although it has been estimated that this total may be closer to 200,000 children, including unaccounted-for private adoptions. Of this total, 104,319 were adopted by American citizens, constituting 1 out of 10 Korean Americans, and 42,231 were adopted into European families, half of whom were placed in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Hubinette, 2005).

The Korean-born children who emigrated overseas for the purposes of international adoption in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War were pioneers in a new form of international child welfare. Although the first international adoptions occurred in response to the aftermath of the Second World War and consisted mostly of children from ravaged European nations and, some children from Japan, as well as children orphaned by the civil war in Greece (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Riley, 1997), the adoption of children from South Korea initiated the large-scale practice of international adoption known today. Since 1971, more than a quarter million children have been adopted from overseas by American families (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2001), and in the last decade the number of foreign-born children entering the United States for adoption has nearly tripled, from 7,093 children in 1990 to an estimated 22,728 children in 2005 (U.S. State Department, 2006b).

Currently, the practice of international adoption involves the transfer of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children from more than 50 countries annually, with the United States receiving the largest number of the world’s children (Lovelock, 2000; Masson, 2001). Although official statistics are not available, the United States also sends an estimated 500 children annually for overseas adoption to other Western nations (Smolowe & Blackman, 1994; Stahl, 2005). South Korea has the longest running international adoption program and has sent more children overseas for adoption than any other country in the world to date, since the mid-1990s, mainland China and Russia have surpassed South Korea in the total number of children received per year. South Korea, however, remains one of the top four sending countries to the United States, along with mainland China, Russia, and Guatemala, averaging 1,700 to 2,000 children annually (U.S. State Department, 2006b).

Today, the first generation of internationally adopted Korean children has reached adulthood, and research has generally found that the majority of them have faired well (Feigelman, 2000; Feigelman & Silverman, 1984; Tizard, 1991). Many of these pioneers of international adoption, the vast majority of whom were adopted by Caucasian parents and raised in trans-racial families, have prospered to become healthy, contributing members of their society, but for many this came at a cost. In the past 25 years, adult Korean adoptees have returned to South Korea to experience their birth culture or search for their birth families and have articulated the need for postadoption services that address issues of identity, race, and culture. Others have formed organizations and associations to share their experiences and provide support, and many are imparting their wisdom—through books, film, music, and art—to the next generation of international adoptees and their multiethnic families (Hubinette, 2005; McGinnis, 2003).

The experiences of this first cohort of international adoptees and the evolution of practice within South Korea provide powerful lessons and reflect current controversies that continue to influence international adoption practice. The following is an overview of the historical, social, cultural, and political forces that shaped the development of international adoption in South Korea over the past 50 years, including the contributions of adult adopted Koreans to the field. This chapter will also discuss the lessons that can be learned from the Korean adoption experience and the particular role of geopolitics, policies, and the media in practice, and argues that the future continuation of the practice of international adoption is not assured.

“Gi Babies”

There can be little denying the toll of war on Korea’s children. In 1951, one year into the war, there were already 100,000 orphaned children, and by 1954, one year after the war had ended, a total of 2 million children under the age of 18 had been displaced (Hubinette, 2004). In response to the plight of Korea’s children, Western relief organizations set up orphanages and hospitals, evacuated children to safety, and established practices, including sponsorship, foster care, and adoption. Some of the orphaned children had already been taken in by soldiers on military bases as regimental mascots, houseboys, or interpreters, with some informally adopted before the end of the war (Hubinette, 2004). In addition, thousands of children born to Korean mothers and Western military fathers serving under the United Nations auspices during the war faced an uncertain future in a country obsessed with notions of blood purity. Many of these children, referred to as Amerasian or GI babies, were stigmatized by their mixed-race status and illegitimate births and consequently abandoned by both parents (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000).

The plight of Korea’s mixed-race orphans was disseminated through Western media raising awareness of their situation. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck was one of the most vocal supporters of Americans adopting Amerasian children abandoned after the Korean War. She had herself adopted seven mixed-race children from China through her agency, Welcome House, established in 1949 to place Amerasian children from China and Japan (Hubinette, 2005). The Christian relief organization World Vision created a documentary on the situation of mixed-race Korean war orphans, which toured America in 1954 and inspired one farmer and his wife, Harry and Bertha Holt from Oregon, to adopt eight children (Hubinette, 2005). The Holts’ efforts inspired others to adopt, and in 1956 Harry and Bertha Holt founded what is known today as Holt International Children’s Services, a leading agency in international adoption placements; the Holts would also be instrumental in establishing permanent legislation to permit international adoption placements. In the years immediately following the war, from 1953 to 1959, 2,899 Korean children, the majority of whom were mixed-race war orphans, were adopted overseas (Hubinette, 2005).

At the end of the Korean War and the division of the country at the 38th parallel, North Korea also faced the problem of thousands of orphaned children. The communist state response was to designate these orphans as national heroes, establishing special orphanages and schools to help orphans advance in society and encouraging domestic adoption. More recently, information has revealed that during the war North Korea also sent war orphans overseas to various Communist countries, including Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Mongolia, China, and Russia (Hubinette, 2002/2003). Some scholars argue that a cold war mentality and anti-Communist foreign policy contributed to the motivation by Americans to “rescue” the mixed-race orphans in South Korea as well; in addition, Christianity, missionary work, and religion played important roles in initiating international adoption from Korea on a mass scale, as many of the relief organizations establishing orphanages and arranging adoptions were Christian (Hubinette, 2005).

In Korea, children who were orphaned were traditionally taken care of by the extended family, with the first Western-style orphanages introduced by missionaries in the late 19th century (Hubinette, 2004). Although the Western practice of adoption by nonrelatives through an agency was generally not practiced, cultural beliefs rooted in the Neo-Confucian doctrine since the 17th century recognized adoption for the purposes of inheritance and continuation of paternal lineage, although adoption was generally viewed unfavorably (Kim, 2004). After the Korean War, cultural beliefs in ethnic homogeneity, discrimination toward children born out of wedlock, postwar chaos, poverty, social upheaval, and the decline of traditional Korean society contributed to the continuation of intercountry adoption practices. Close political and economic ties forged after the Korean War between the United States and South Korea facilitated the growth of international adoptions between the two nations and the practice’s eventual establishment as an important component of South Korean social policy for orphaned and abandoned children (Sarri, Baik, & Bombyk, 1998).

From Humanitarian Aid to “Supply and Demand”

In the decades following the Korean War, international adoption continued to expand in response to changing economic, social, and political realities. The nation faced problems of massive poverty, overpopulation, and child abandonment as it began a process of transformation from an agrarian society into a modern, industrial nation. Massive internal migration (between 1967 and 1976, 6.7 million people migrated from rural areas to cities), urbanization, and economic instability eroded traditional family structures and supports. Industrialization led to the abandonment of children born to young unmarried women recruited to work in new factories, and thousands of other children were abandoned due to urban poverty, family breakup, disability, neglect, and prostitution (Hubinette, 2005). Cultural attitudes contributed to the abandonment of children, including a pervasive stigma regarding adoption, cultural preference for boys, and a belief that abandoning a child would provide a better future, as well as nominal government support for single mothers and limited legal rights for women (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Kim, 2004). Under the Family Law of 1960, which codified patriarchal Neo-Confucian beliefs into modern law, a child was legally considered the father’s property, and women had no rights to inheritance or custody of a child; the law would not be revised until 1991 (Kim, 2004).

In addition, governmental policies supported the practice of international adoptions as a means of addressing the problem of overpopulation and integrated the practice into national family planning and emigration programs (Hubinette, 2005). The national family planning measures, implemented during the military dictatorships under Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) and Chun Doo Hwan (1981-1987), included a one-child policy, sex education, contraception, legalized abortion (in 1973), and economic incentives to reduce family size, as well as overseas adoption (Hubinette, 2005; Sarri et al., 1998). The government also encouraged emigration, which resulted in the migration of 1 million Koreans overseas for work as cheap laborers, international adoption, and international marriage (Hubinette, 2005). By the end of the 1960s, the majority of children being sent overseas for adoption were no longer mixed-race war orphans but abandoned ethnic Korean children, the preponderance being girls (Hubinette, 2005). During the 1970s and mid-1980s, most of the children relinquished for intercountry adoption were born to young, unmarried, middle-class mothers; since the 1990s, the absolute majority of children sent abroad have been born to young, single mothers who enter homes for unwed mothers and make adoption plans (Hubinette, 2005; Rahn, 2005).

At the same time, by the early 1970s, South Korea’s international adoption program was gaining popularity among Western nations, who perceived the practice to be highly successful and who were also experiencing cultural and societal changes. The advent of effective contraception, legalized abortion, weakening of cultural taboos regarding unmarried mothers, and government support for single parenthood, as well as the strengthening of women’s rights in the 1970s, contributed to a decline in the number of White, healthy infants available for adoption as more mothers chose to parent (Lovelock, 2000; Masson, 2001; Vonk, Simms, & Nackerud, 1999). At the same time, fertility rates in Western nations began to drop while attitudes toward adoption became more liberalized. In the United States, adoption agencies began to shed traditional notions of physically “matching” children with adoptive parents, and transracial adoption became a new option. In addition, a growing number of socially progressive middle-class couples saw adoption as a way of expanding their families without contributing to population growth, and adopting across race as a demonstration of social tolerance (Benet, 1976). As a result of opposition to domestic transracial adoptions of Black children into White homes, many of the predominately Caucasian, middle-class and upper-class parents seeking to adopt saw a new option in international adoption (Lovelock, 2000; Vonk et al., 1999).

Thus, some scholars (Alstein & Simon, 1991; Lovelock, 2000) have distinguished two waves in the development of international adoption. Although both waves were motivated by humanitarian concerns, the first wave, which lasted until the mid-1970s, has been characterized by the need to find families for children; the second wave, shaped by falling fertility rates and scarcity of infants for domestic adoption in the United States and other Western nations, has been characterized by the demand for children. The latter development of international adoption has thus been characterized by the “language of economics” and transformed what had initially been intended as a humanitarian measure meant to provide one of several child welfare options for a child in need of out-of-home care into—in certain cases—a lucrative commercial business (United Nations Children’s Fund International Child Development Centre, 1998, p. 3). The second wave of international adoption has also been distinguished by the development of international declarations and conventions in the 1980s and 1990s to address the protection and rights of children involved in international adoption.

Developing Politics and Policies

The United States lacked a permanent policy to permit international adoptions until 1961. Early legislation provided temporary provisions for the immigration of certain groups of refugees and set strict quotas. The first formal international adoptions from South Korea occurred in 1953 when the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act granting 4,000 special nonquota visas for orphans to enter the United States for adoption (Lovelock, 2000). In 1957, Congress passed the Orphan Eligibility Clause of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced the Refugee Relief Act and allowed the continuation of international adoption practice. In 1961, the Orphan Clause was adopted as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, firmly establishing international adoption permanently in U.S. law (Lovelock, 2000). The South Korean government formally set up an overseas adoption program in 1954, with a presidential order establishing Children Placement Services (presently Social Welfare Society) for the purpose of placing mixed-race children with families in the United States and Europe through proxy adoption (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000). A legal and permanent framework for international adoption in South Korea would not be established until 1961 with the passage of the Orphan Adoption Special Law (Sarri et al., 1998). The law continued to evolve and in 1966 was amended to allow only licensed agencies, working with Western counterparts, to conduct international adoptions.

The decades of the 1970s and 1980s, during which South Korea would be ruled by military dictatorships, were also the decades in which the largest number of Korean children were sent overseas for adoption, with the number peaking at 6,597 children in 1976 and reaching an all-time high of 8,837 children in 1985 (Hubinette, 2004). At the same time, in these decades, the South Korean government would twice attempt to stop overseas adoption practice. In response to North Korea’s public accusations of South Korea’s “export” of babies for profit, the South Korean government revised its adoption law in 1976 and enacted the Five Year Plan for Adoption and Foster Care (1976-1981), aimed at reducing international adoptions (except for mixed-race and disabled children) and increasing domestic adoptions, with the eventual phasing out of international adoptions by 1981 (Sarri et al., 1998). Changes in the adoption law included restricting the number of receiving countries to 11, requiring adoption agencies in South Korea to be run by Koreans, and limiting the number of agencies that could conduct international adoptions to four: Social Welfare Society, Holt Children’s Services, Korea Social Services, and Eastern Child Welfare Society (Hubinette, 2005).

By the early 1980s, this policy was abandoned as a result of the government’s failure to significantly increase the number of domestic adoptions. In 1981, the government reversed its policy and expanded international adoptions by incorporating them as part of an emigration and “good-will ambassador” policy to foster ties with Western allies (Sarri et al., 1998). However, in the face of massive international criticism in Western media of South Korea’s adoption practices during the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, this policy was overturned. In addition, reports in the early 1980s of trafficking, corruption, and agencies hastily sending children not available for adoption overseas (which ended the practice of sending abandoned children for international adoption) led the government, in 1989, to enact a policy that would terminate international adoptions by 1996, except for mixed-race or disabled children, and provide tax incentives to promote domestic adoption (Hubinette, 2005; Sarri et al., 1998).

In 1994, with continuing low rates of domestic adoption, this policy would be abandoned again. In 1996, the South Korean government revised its adoption law to what is currently known as the Special Law on Adoption Promotion and Procedure. The new law called for an annual decrease in international adoptions by 3% to 5%, with an eventual phasing out by 2015; two small revisions to the law were made in 1999 and 2000 (Hubinette, 2005). Since then the number of children sent overseas for adoption has hovered around 2,000 children annually, except during the Asian economic crisis (1997-1999), when international adoptions increased slightly to 2,400 “IMF orphans” (Hubinette, 2005). The South Korean government has continued to try to promote domestic adoptions. In 2005, the government designated May 11 as National Adoption Day, and in March 2006, the government was considering financial aid for adoptive parents (Bae, 2005; Lee, 2006). Despite these efforts, of the 9,420 children available for adoption in 2005, 1,461 were adopted domestically while 2,001 children were adopted overseas (Lee, 2006).

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, awareness of corruption in international adoption practice, including black markets, stories of baby farms, and poor women being coerced into relinquishing their children, drove an interest in developing international instruments to protect children involved in international adoption and address abuses (Lovelock, 2000). In this climate, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (hereafter referred to as the Hague Convention) and its Recommendation on Displaced Children was convened and adopted on May 29, 1993, and entered into force on May 1, 1995 (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 1993). The Hague Convention was created to establish a legal framework for the arrangement and formalization of international adoptions through a system of national central authorities. In addition, the Hague Convention reinforced the importance of adoptions being arranged in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, while acknowledging international adoption as offering a permanent family to a child “for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin” (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 1993, Preamble).

The Hague Convention is limited in that it is not an international criminal code but rather only a secure framework that works against abuse indirectly (Masson, 2001). In addition, the Hague Convention only applies to contracting states, although in 2000 a recommendation was adopted to encourage the application of its standards and safeguards to all international adoptions, including those countries that had not joined the Convention. As of January 2006, 68 countries have joined the convention, including mainland China, which ratified the convention in 2005 (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2005). The United States was an original signatory to the Hague Convention in 1994, and in 2000 the U.S. Congress passed the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 (IAA) to authorize the ratification of the Hague Convention once preparations for its implementation had been established. In February 2006, the final regulations for implementation needed for ratification were published, and it is estimated that the Hague Convention will be in force in the United States by 2007 (U.S. State Department, 2006a). South Korea has not signed the Hague Convention, although in 2005 the government was evaluating possible adoption (Bae, 2005).

Adult Adoptee Experiences

The first generation of Korean-born, adult, adopted people began to return to their birth country by the late 1970s as participants in motherland tours organized by adoption agencies and associations in South Korea, or independently (Hubinette, 2005). By the end of the 1980s, advertisements submitted by adopted Koreans searching for birth parents began to appear in the South Korean media, and by the 1990s a Korean television show to assist adoptees in finding birth families had developed (Hubinette, 2005). Since the late 1980s, myriad services have sprung up in the United States in response to the maturation of the first generation of international adoptees, including the development of culture camps for internationally adopted youth. The adult adopted Korean community continued to evolve throughout the 1990s, facilitated by the advent of the Internet, as formal and informal associations developed throughout the United States, Europe, and South Korea, where some adopted Koreans were choosing to live permanently.

The realization of a distinct adopted Korean community culminated in a 3-day conference held in September 1999 in Washington, D.C. The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees (hereafter known as the Gathering), sponsored by Holt International Children’s Services, the New York-based adult adoptee organization Also-Known-As, the Korea Society, and the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, brought together nearly 400 adults adopted from Korea between 1955 and 1985, representing more than 30 U.S. states and several European countries, for the first time (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000). This conference was unique in its purpose to provide an opportunity for the first generation of adopted Koreans to share their experiences and connect as a community. Participants discussed (in small groups based on birth years) topics such as memories of Korea and arrival at their new home, impact of early experiences on adoptees’ lives, discrimination, identity, dating and relationships, feelings toward Korea, search and reunion, and perceptions of adoption (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000). To gain greater insight into the experiences of adult adopted Koreans, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute surveyed participants and published one of the first reports to examine international adoption from the adult adopted person’s perspective. This conference was covered widely by both U.S. and South Korean media, propelling recognition of these pioneers in international adoption.

At the same time, the South Korean government under the presidency of Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) took a strong interest in adoption and vastly increased awareness and support for adopted Koreans. President Kim Dae Jung, whose democratic election marked the first peaceful transfer of power in South Korean history, had met overseas adopted Koreans during his time in exile as an opposition leader. In his inaugural address, in early 1998, he stated that international adoption would be one of the main issues during his presidency and 8 months later invited a group of 29 adopted Koreans from eight nations to the presidential Blue House in Seoul (Hubinette, 2005). During this meeting in October 1998, the president formally apologized on behalf of the nation for sending so many children abroad for adoption and encouraged adoptees to take pride in their Korean roots while remaining loyal citizens of their adoptive nations (Savasta, 1999).

At the Gathering, First Lady Lee Hee-ho wrote a letter and recorded a video welcome to greet the participants. In her welcome address, she reiterated the president’s view of adopted Koreans being unique bridges between South Korea and Western nations, and members of the larger overseas Korean community (Hubinette, 2005). Efforts to include adopted Koreans as part of South Korea’s diaspora included the creation of the F-4 Visa for overseas adopted Koreans in 1999, which allowed them, as well as other overseas Koreans, to legally reside and work in South Korea indefinitely (Global Overseas Adoptee Link, 2001). Since 1999, numerous organizations in South Korea have developed programs for adopted Koreans to help them embrace their cultural roots, including motherland visits, guest houses, language programs, and searches for birth families (Hubinette, 2005). In 1993, the Ministry of Health and Welfare began to track the number of adopted Koreans returning to visit their adoption agencies in South Korea; this number has more than doubled from 1,236 visitors in 1993 to 2,760 visitors in 2001 (Hubinette, 2004).

Since the Gathering, adopted Koreans in the United States have continued to meet at “mini-gatherings” throughout the country, new organizations of adopted Koreans have sprung up, and a plethora of Web sites now connect adopted Koreans throughout the world. A second gathering, organized by adopted Korean associations in Europe, took place in Oslo, Norway, in July 2001, and in 2004 a third gathering of adopted Koreans was organized in Seoul, South Korea; a fourth gathering is also being planned for Seoul in 2007, sponsored by the newly formed International Korean Adoptee Associations network. In addition, adopted Koreans are collaborating with internationally adopted adults from Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Colombia, and some have formed mentorship programs for internationally adopted youth, particularly the thousands of girls adopted from mainland China since the 1990s.

Some adopted Koreans are now scholars, contributing to the growing body of research on international adoption, while others have written memoirs and anthologies and made documentaries and films expressing the challenge of balancing identities—one by birth and the other by adoption—and the paradoxical losses and gains inherent in adoption. When the first adopted Koreans were sent overseas 50 years ago, most adoption professionals assumed those children would never return to their country of birth or be interested in their countries of origin. Today, most adoption practitioners know that this is not true, and many parents adopting today are encouraged to maintain connections to their adopted child’s birth culture. The formation of a community of internationally adopted adults is also a unique evolution of international adoption, demonstrating how adopted adults are not passive recipients but active agents. Over the past 50 years, adopted adults and their families are bending traditional notions of family, ethnicity, and race to accommodate their unique experience, and transforming the societies in which they live.

Lessons Learned

International adoption in South Korea began in the ashes of war, reflecting the geopolitical nature of international adoption and ties to wars, disasters, political and economic crises, and social upheavals. The effort to adopt Amerasian children born to U.S. military fathers and Vietnamese mothers would be echoed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Economic crises and civil wars resulted in many children from Latin America being adopted in the 1970s, and, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and massive media attention to the plight of children in former Soviet states, such as Romania, in the late 1980s, many children from Central and Eastern Europe were adopted overseas (McGinnis, 2005). Most recently, overpopulation in mainland China, a cultural preference for boys, and a “one-child” policy have contributed to the availability and adoption of thousands of abandoned Chinese girls overseas since the 1990s.

The Korean international adoption experience also reflects many of the factors that continue to contribute to the development of this practice in sending countries, including poverty, social and economic collapse, cultural stigma toward illegitimate births, racial and gender prejudices, disruption of traditional extended families, overpopulation, limited rights for women, and lack of a developed social welfare system to support families, resulting in few alternatives besides the abandonment of a child. Similarly, factors contributing to the growth in Korean adoptions in the 1970s continue to be reasons for there being “demand” for international adoption by Western nations, including declining fertility rates, fewer infants available for domestic adoptions, postponement of childbirth and marriage, destigmatization of single motherhood, and equality of rights for women. In addition, the Internet and proliferation of adoptive parent organizations have facilitated information sharing about adopting internationally (Masson, 2001).

The history of adoptions from South Korea also shows the susceptibility of international adoption to changes in governmental policies and negative media attention. Although the United States has passed, legislation to make it easier for children who have been adopted overseas to become naturalized citizens (Child Citizenship Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-395) and other legislation to provide a tax credit to any parent who adopts (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-16), recently, other nations have begun to restrict the practice. In January 2005, Russia passed a law that extends, from 3 to 6 months, the time orphans must be on the federal data bank before they are eligible for international adoption; and after the untimely death of an adopted Russian child at the hands of his American mother in May 2005, politicians have called for even tighter regulations (McGinnis, 2005; Sector, 2005).

The European Union (EU) has required nations to “outlaw intercountry adoption as a condition for joining” (Bartholet, 2005, p. 10). In response, Romania enacted a law in 2004 eliminating international adoption (except for adoption by children’s grandparents), which left approximately 1,700 international adoption cases that had begun to be processed before the ban in limbo (U.S. State Department, 2005). Reports of baby trafficking in mainland China in early February 2006 were swiftly crushed by the government, which was quick to assure that none of those children had been involved in overseas placements with American families (Associated Press, 2006). An all-time high of 7,906 Chinese children adopted by U.S. families in 2005 (U.S. State Department, 2006b) was, coupled with the pending 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and stories of child trafficking parallel to those arising during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul; but only time will tell if this will have any impact on China’s international adoption policy.

Over the last half century, international adoption has become a multinational and multimillion-dollar industry, but considerable controversy remains regarding its practice, which leaves its future uncertain. Opponents of international adoption argue that the practice exploits impoverished nations, robs children of the opportunity to be raised in their community of origin and of their identity, takes away resources that could be used to improve the lives of a larger number of children, and contributes to the problem of abduction, coercion, and trafficking of children (Masson, 2001). Supporters of international adoption counter that the practice benefits children by removing them from the detrimental effects of growing up in institutional settings or on the streets by providing permanent families; helps children who might otherwise be marginalized in their societies as a result of illegitimacy, disability, or racial/ethnic difference; and provides children with families, in a context where there is little evidence that the elimination or restriction of international adoptions would remove the problems of poverty that contribute to the abandonment of children (Bartholet, 2005).

Thus, much has to be learned still about the implications of the practice of international adoption, so policies can be developed that reflect not only its impact on the lives of adopted individuals and their families but also its ramifications in society in both sending and receiving countries. The experience of adopted Koreans already provides some lessons on the impact of international adoption on race, culture, ethnicity, identity, and family and also the lifelong experience of adoption; however, research examining their experiences as adults and their effect on American society is limited. In addition, balancing the need to respect a child’s right to his or her ethnic identity and, religious and cultural background against the known detrimental effects caused by early deprivation of primary caregivers (as a result of institutional care, or multiple caregivers in foster care) is a challenge for all those interested in the welfare and protection of children.

What is evident is the great need to find families for children. According to a 2004 UNICEF report, an estimated 143 million orphans from birth to 17 years of age around the world are in need of care (UNICEF, 2004). International adoptions will never be able to provide all of those millions of children with homes and, in some cases, may not be in a child’s best interest. However, understanding the evolution of international adoption in South Korea can provide invaluable insights for the development of international adoption practices and their role in providing one of several options for children in need of out-of-home care. In addition, understanding the experiences of the first generation of internationally adopted adults—including the benefits and trade-offs—would turn the focus in the field to finding out what is truly in a child’s best interest from the perspective of those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the practice.