Tales of Wonderlost

I'm a Korean-American adoptee living in Seoul, just finished my MA in Anthropology (yes, i took all of my classes in Korean TT). In my spare time, I volunteer at two great organizations: Korean Unwed Mothers' Families Association (KUMFA) and the Women's Global Solidarity Action Network (WGSAN) - a group that works on various issues, including with the survivors of military sexual slavery during WWII ("Comfort Women"). I also love cooking and baking and going to the noraebang ^^ To make a monthly donation to the Korean Unwed Mothers' Families Association, please click below!!
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Asker Anonymous Asks:
Being an adoptee and rather forthright with your opinions on the matter, how do you feel about the recent discussions in the US about adopting North Korean children/orphans? Interesting blog/tumblr/whatever, by the way.
peaceshannon peaceshannon Said:

Ok, I’m finally getting to this (as I’m procrastinating writing my paper). Also, thanks for your sort of compliment, by the way? ^^


I have a personal story about this first. I know a North Korean mother who actually ended up sending her child for adoption. She was a defector living in China and she was basically fooled by a South Korean man who she met there (he came there regularly on business) who actually had a family back here in South Korea. She became pregnant at the age of 20 (they started dating when she was 19 and he was over 30) and then she found out about his family. When she left China to come to South Korea, she left her son (then around 1 year old) with a Chinese woman that she knew who promised to care for her son until she came back for him (she was crossing over via dangerous routes in Laos and Cambodia). However, when she arrived in South Korea, her parents, who had crossed over before her, had already registered her (people register family members who may cross over later so that they can be alerted when they arrive), but had intentionally registered her 4 years younger than she actually was (at the time she was 21 so they registered her as 17). The reason they did this was because while she was in China she was illegal and therefore not able to go to school, so they knew she would be behind (plus, they just thought it would be better for her to be younger). By law, NK defectors receive a free apartment and a lump sum to help them get on their feet from the South Korean government when they cross over. So she thought when she came to South Korea she would be able to receive that and send for her baby immediately. However, since she was technically a minor now, she was not eligible for any of those benefits. After telling her parents about her baby, they told her to give it up for adoption. She refused but after two to three years, eventually that Chinese woman said she could no longer afford to raise her son and that had left him at the Korean consulate in China (at this point she was just getting ready to graduate high school and had no financial means to support herself or her baby either). The consulate then sent the baby to an adoption agency in South Korea. North Korean babies are technically ineligible for adoption - both domestically in South Korea and abroad but ironically, since the father is a South Korean citizen, the baby was eligible for adoption and he was sent to Canada. She has been tormented by that decision to this day although she now maintains a somewhat open-adoption like relationship with her son and his parents. But I preface all of this to say that I find it ironic that the South Korean government makes it illegal to put up North Korean babies for adoption - essentially, for diplomatic purposes, they have more incentive to protect NK babies than SK babies because the SK government sees all defectors as basically diplomatic bridges if the two countries were to unify and an orphan is even better because they can be indoctrinated and educated exactly as you wish.


Moving along, in regards to your actual question regarding the US trying to pass laws about North Korean children (I say children because VERY FEW of them are actually orphans). A fellow adoptee scholar has done more research on this topic so I leave you with her response to your question:

Actress Sandra Oh has taken on a new starring role: North Korean adoption activist.

In a public service announcement for the Korean American Coalition’s Topple Hunger in North Korea (THINK) program, Oh pulls heartstrings for the rescue of North Korean children who have escaped and who “are living alone and without family in foreign lands” like China. “They need us,” she says against a backdrop of fleeting images of emaciated children, “and [The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act (H.R.1464/S.416)] will help us to adopt them.”

Who are these children Oh urges us to fantasize about saving?

In contrast with Oh’s pathos-laden portrayal, human rights organizations operating in northeastern China agree that there are few unaccompanied North Korean children annually crossing the Tumen River and that these individuals are, by and large, in their late teens. More numerous is a second generation of younger children consisting of mixed-ethnic children who are born in China to Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers and who, by law, are Chinese nationals.                                                                                                                                              Although H.R. 1464 appears to distinguish between these populations by directing the State Department to propose solutions for orphaned mixed-ethnic Chinese-North Korean children who lack access to Chinese or North Korean resources, the bill’s extreme response to the needs of unaccompanied North Korean minors—a tiny population—should inspire caution, not expedited action.

Proponents draw a tearstained, hollow-cheeked orphan figure to stand in for all the children this bill claims to help, but such conflations and exaggerations promote a fictive orphan crisis. What legal protections will prevent an aid worker from misidentifying a mixed-ethnic Chinese national for an imagined “North Korean” orphan and removing this child—in circumvention of Chinese law—from her family and community? 

Yet the bill’s potential for harm doesn’t end there.  

Several paragraphs into the legislation, the bill establishes a new category of orphan, a “stateless orphan.” It proposes that American adoption agencies and aid organizations will be authorized to identify and move “stateless orphans” to the United States for the purpose of adoption. Adoption agencies and aid organizations will be permitted to work around the adoption or child welfare authority of a child’s country of origin, bypassing the country’s sovereignty. In effect, the United States will supersede the sending country’s authority to locate, assess, and refer a child for international adoption placement. The host country, defined as the “foreign-sending country,” will serve a bureaucratic function to prove the child’s orphan status through “alternative mechanisms.”

As a signatory to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the United States is obligated to follow China’s adoption protocols. Rather than invent an extraordinary adoption framework that lacks accountability and that risks alienating China, the United States should work with China as a host country to refugees and as a sending country of adoptees within both countries’ preexisting Hague commitments. 

In light of adoption scandals in which aid organizations such as Zoe’s Ark in Chad and New Life Children’s Refuge in Haiti eyeballed “orphans” who actually had families and then illegally attempted to remove them, this bill’s unprecedented non-recognition of a child’s country of origin risks conferring extraterritoriality to adoption agencies and aid organizations and empowering them to baby scoop.

Adoptive father and Cumberland Law School professor David M. Smolin says, “Like too many efforts done under the banner of adoption and orphan care, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act represents zeal without knowledge—particularly knowledge of the safeguards necessary to prevent adoption from becoming trafficking. Like too many adoption-focused laws, the law mis-matches the solution of adoption to unrelated problems; the law baits us with visions of starvation and disease in North Korea that have little or no relationship to the proposed ‘solution’ of new intercountry adoption procedures.”

Historically, South Korea has been a laboratory for intercountry adoption, sending over 200,000 children to 15 mainly western receiving nations. The children of this adoption experiment constitute the world’s largest and oldest mass child removal. As Macalester professor SooJin Pate, author of Genealogies of Korean Adoption and a Korean adoptee, observes, “Contrary to popular belief, Korean adoption was not a humanitarian act of rescue; rather, it was a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War. History seems to be repeating itself, nearly 60 years after the first ‘official’ adoption of Korean children by Harry Holt. Korean adoption—this time involving Chinese-North Korean children—is currently being used to help the United States secure its position as a ‘Pacific power’ during what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the ‘Pacific century.’”

While on the surface the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act proposes a simple solution—American homes for North Korean children in urgent need—it’s actually a well-crafted Trojan horse full of chilling consequences for the children it purports to rescue. On these children’s backs, the bill threatens to break down almost two decades of intercountry adoption reform since the Hague Convention was ratified in 1993. Recalling the legacy of Korean intercountry adoption as war machinery, this bill’s circumvention of the children’s country of origin risks escalating geopolitical tensions along the already volatile China-North Korea border.

Already passed by the House of Representatives and set on a fast track through the Senate before Congress recesses in late September, the bill is quickly moving around the bend. While naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives cheer their horse on, they forget intercountry adoption’s most basic question: What are the best interests of the child?

Let’s not take the (red) bait. Let’s support real children and their families by engaging with their countries of origin to ensure their human rights. For those children who truly have no other options, let’s keep intercountry adoption safe as a last resort.



(A sneak peak of an earlier, unpublished draft of this article appeared on facebook to support community in the struggle against H.R. 1464/S.416. Going forward, please feel free to cite this final, published version. Thanks! JKD)

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