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«Claiming Rights: Organizational and Discursive Strategies of the Korean Adoptee and Unwed Mothers Movement* Paul Y. Chang** Andrea Kim Cavicchi*** ...»

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Claiming Rights:

Organizational and Discursive

Strategies of the Korean Adoptee

and Unwed Mothers Movement*

Paul Y. Chang**

Andrea Kim Cavicchi***

Since the Korean War, the South Korean adoption industry has

grown to be one of the largest in the world today. In 2011, the

National Assembly of the Republic of Korea changed the name of

the Special Law Relating to the Promotion and Process of Adoption

*** This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2013S1A3A2055081). We thank Laura Klunder, Kim Stoker, and Jane Jeong Trenka for their helpful comments on early drafts; and Tabitha Kwon and Dennis Lee for their research assistance.

Direct correspondence to Paul Y. Chang, Department of Sociology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA.

*** Paul Y. Chang is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. He is the author of Protest Dialectics: State Repression and South Korea’s Democracy Movement, 1970-1979 (Stanford University Press 2015) and coeditor of South Korean

Social Movements: From Democracy to Civil Society (Routledge 2011). E-mail:


*** Andrea Kim Cavicchi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Korean History in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and also holds a concentration in Asian American Studies.

She was a Fulbright scholar who worked with the community of Korean adoptee returnees and, by extension, unwed mother organizations during her fieldwork. She is currently completing her dissertation, which investigates the ways in which adult adoptee returnees have engaged in multiple forms of resistance in Korea. E-mail: andreakim@ucla.edu.

KOREA OBSERVER, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2015, pp. 145-180.


146 Paul Y. Chang and Andrea Kim Cavicchi to simply, the Special Adoption Law. The contentious debate sur- rounding the revisions to the Special Adoption Law reflects the complex problems associated with Korea’s long history of adoption.

This article contributes to the growing literature on Korean adoption by providing a descriptive overview of the mobilizing strategies adoptee, unwed mothers, and supporting groups pursue to address problems related to adoption practices in Korea today. We first introduce adoptee and unwed mothers service and advocacy orga- nizations. We then analyze three key documents produced by the adoptee and unwed mothers movement to highlight the discursive strategies these organizations use to frame grievances and motivate action.

–  –  –

In 2011, the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea (South Korea)1 changed the name of the Special Law Relating to the Promotion and Process of Adoption to simply, the Special Adoption Law.

While a seemingly minor change the new name, and indeed the revisions that went along with it, were a major victory for adoptee rights advocates who had mobilized to reform adoption practices in South Korea. In addition to deemphasizing the “promotion” of adoption, the revised law instituted a court system that regulates the registration of adoptable children.2 Furthermore, the revised law addresses several grievances of adoptee activists including increasing monetary and educational support for single mothers, rectifying irregularities in

1. South Korea and Korea are used interchangeably throughout the paper, unless otherwise noted.

2. Technically, the requirement to register births is universal to all Korean citizens.

The SAL birth registration mandate, instead, is specifically applicable to children who are put up for adoption, a requirement that was not enforced in the past.

Claiming Rights 147 the preparation of identity documents for children, and greater accountability for agencies that broker adoptions.

Not all agree with the changes to the Special Adoption Law (SAL). The revisions to the SAL have triggered a countermovement by adoption agencies, groups of adoptive parents, and some adoptees who argue that the renewed mandate to register infants will contribute to higher numbers of child abandonments. Their fears are currently motivating efforts to “re-revise” the SAL (Trenka, 2014a: 10). A central concern driving criticisms of the revised SAL is the assumption that the requirement to register a child before adoption will encourage mothers to unsafely abandon their children, or worse, commit infanticide. Motivated by these fears, Pastor Jong-rak Lee made headlines when in 2009, he set up a “baby box” that made it possible for parents to anonymously abandon their child. While some have hailed Pastor Lee as an agent of mercy and charity, others accuse him and the media attention surrounding the baby box of facilitating child abandonment.

The contentious debate about the revisions to the SAL highlights the complex problems associated with Korea’s long history of adoption. Since the first official adoptions in 1953, the South Korean government estimates that 165,603 Korean children have been adopted by foreign families (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2013). Some adoption scholars, however, believe the number is significantly higher at about 200,000 to 250,000 Korean children adopted overseas (Hübinette, 2006; Kim, 2010).3 In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953) biracial children born of Korean women and fathered by American and UN soldiers composed the population from which the first group of children was adopted to the United States and other Western countries. Won Moo Hurh reports that there were 12,280 American-Korean

children born by 1965, half of whom were adopted overseas (1972:

13). Orphanages also sprang up to house the prodigious number of

3. The discrepancy in figures partly has to do with the difficulty in accounting for children who were adopted without documentation and/or processed through informal channels.

148 Paul Y. Chang and Andrea Kim Cavicchi Korean orphans — roughly 100,000 children in 1951 — whose parents were killed during the Korean War (Hübinette, 2004). It was, thus, from the ashes of war that South Korea’s modern adoption industry emerged.

Since the Korean War, the South Korean adoption industry has grown to be one of the largest in the world today.4 This, in turn, has galvanized both public and scholarly interest. Situating the Korean case in a wider spectrum of intercountry adoption, and often relying on adoption agencies and adoptive parents as key informants, the first wave of Western scholarship focused on the ability of Korean children to assimilate and adapt to their adoptive families and countries (Bagley, 1993; Feigelman and Silverman, 1983; Koh, 1981; Mullen, 1995; Simon and Altstein, 1987; Valk, 1957; Wilkinson, 1985). Korean scholars, on the other hand, have highlighted the legal structures undergirding overseas adoption, as well as the development of ethnic and racial identity among adopted Koreans in the context of a growing Korean diaspora (Bae, 2003; Bae, 1990; Ch’oe, 1993; Cho and ˘ng An, 1994; Han, 2011; Kim, 2000; Kim, 1996; Kim, 1998; Pak, 1994; Yi, 2001; Yu, 2009; Yu, 2002). Building on this earlier research, but also critical of it, a new group of scholars, some who are Korean adoptees themselves, remind us that adoption is not simply a one-way journey.

Emphasizing the continual process of the adoption experience, recent studies have explored transnational migration, especially as it relates to the growing number of Korean adult adoptees returning to South Korea (Eng, 2010; Heit, 2013; Hübinette, 2006; Kim, 2010; Kim, 2012;

Nelson, 2009; Prébin, 2013; Yngvesson, 2010). Eleana Kim’s (2010) recent study, for example, examines “adoptee kinship” and the emergence of a distinctive adoptee identity and community in Seoul. Her scholarship, along with others, paves the way for further research on the dynamic experiences of Korean adoptees who have returned to their country of birth.

–  –  –

Today, thousands of adoptees return to Korea every year as adults. There are multiple reasons motivating adoptees to visit, or relocate to, South Korea. Some return to satiate a vague curiosity in their ethnic heritage, while others pursue a more focused agenda, such as searching for their “original parents.”5 With the returning adoptee community growing in South Korea, a core group of adoptee activists has established several service and advocacy organizations that mobilize around issues related to Korea’s adoption practices.

Although the various adoptee organizations often work together, each is unique in purpose and strategy. Some provide services such as aiding adoptees with visa processing and original parent searches, and others engage in political action. While it is important to recognize the diversity of the adoptee community in Korea, it is possible to conceptualize the collection of adoptee service and advocacy organizations as constituting a loosely aligned adoptee rights movement.

Furthermore, other stakeholders in Korea’s adoption industry have begun to mobilize including most importantly, unwed mothers.

Indeed, a significant recent development in the adoptee rights movement is the alliance between adoptee activists and unwed mothers.

Challenging the sociocultural values that pressure vulnerable mothers to relinquish their children for adoption, adoptee activists work with unwed mothers to address the structural conditions that have led to the large number of adopted Korean children.

This article contributes to the growing literature on Korean adoption by providing a descriptive overview of the mobilizing strategies adoptee, unwed mothers, and supporting groups pursue to address problems related to adoption practices in Korea today. We focus our analysis on two dimensions social movement scholars have shown to be critical to collective action: organizations and movement frames (McCarthy and Zald, 1977; Snow and Benford, 1988; Snow et al., 1986;

5. We chose to use the terms original parents, original families, original mothers, etc., as opposed to birth families, because they are more often used by both academics and adoptee rights advocates. Exceptions were made in cases where we reference specific programs, such as G.O.A.’L’s Birth Family Search Department.

150 Paul Y. Chang and Andrea Kim Cavicchi McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1996). We first introduce adoptee and unwed mothers organizations, and discuss the coalition work they engage in. We then analyze three key documents produced by the adoptee and unwed mothers movement to highlight the discursive strategies these organizations use to frame grievances and motivate action. Central to the movement’s discursive strategy is the appropriation of the human rights master frame which, in turn, draws on the expansion of the global human rights regime. The prevalence of human rights in Korean civil society allows Korean adoptee and unwed mothers groups to make claims that hold multiple parties accountable, including adoption agencies and the Korean government.

II. The Mobilization of Adoptee Activists and Unwed Mothers

When attempting to understand the Korean adoptee and unwed mothers movement, it is important to remember Susan Cox’s deceptively obvious point that “Adoptees are usually identified and defined as children. That we mature, grow up and come into our own wisdom is often not acknowledged. We can and wish to speak for ourselves” (Cox, 1999: 2). Although there are no statistical data on the exact number of adoptees who visit Korea each year, scholars place it anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 (Kim, 2010: 176). Adoptees entering Korea are categorized by immigration authorities with the larger Korean diaspora (e.g. Koreans who emigrated to the United States), making it difficult to determine the number of yearly adoptee returnees. According to the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A.’L), in addition to shortterm visitors, there are approximately 500 adult adoptees who have taken up long-term residence in Korea (defined as more than one year). This estimate, however, only includes adoptees who have accessed G.O.A.’L’s services, and does not account for those who remain uninvolved with adoptee communities in Korea.

A noticeable number of adult adoptees returned to Korea in the

early 1990s through short-term motherland tours (Hübinette, 2006:

Claiming Rights 151 92). However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they began to reside in Korea for extended periods of time. One factor that contributed to the long-term relocation of adult adoptees was the creation of the F-4 visa. In 1999, G.O.A.’L successfully lobbied the Korean government to have adoptees included in the Overseas Koreans Act, which provides adoptees and other overseas ethnic Korean groups (e.g. KoreanAmericans, Korean-Chinese) F-4 visa status upon approval from the Korean Immigration Office. The F-4 visa grants indefinite stay in Korea structured around three-year visas with unlimited renewals, while also allowing visa holders the right to study, work, own businesses, and purchase property (Park and Chang, 2005). Although not all adoptees residing in South Korea participate in the adoptee rights movement, the possibility of extended residence has led to the emergence of formal organizations that service, and advocate for, the adoptee community. In order to appreciate the diversity of organizations mobilizing around Korean adoption, we distinguish them based on their memberships and agendas (see Appendix for a summary of the organizations discussed).

A. Adoptee-Run Organizations

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