A personal look at South Korea's long history of adoptions

  • The author’s adoption file from South Korea given to her adoptive parents with her date of birth and the name she was given at the orphanage. Dherbeys’ parents gave it to her when she was a teenager. It contains very little information, just a medical report and a note saying “father and mother unknown.”
  • En route to Incheon, South Korea. “The trip gave me a completely decomposing and illusionary feeling of what my life could have been.”
  • “I can’t stand not knowing what my little daughter has become.” Mrs. Shin Kyung Hee, 58 years old at home in Incheon, South Korea. Her daughter was born July 28, 1975, and was given the name Lee, Sang Ha. She would have arrived in France in 1979. “I got married really young” says Mrs. Shin, her hands a little shaky holding her tea cup. “My husband used to beat me up. While I was in hospital (because I broke my pelvis while trying to escape his violence), he and his new girlfriend took my child and put her up for adoption. I have never forgotten her and I can’t stand not knowing what my little daughter has become. I only know she was adopted in France. Please, help me to find her.”
  • Buddhist lanterns line a public garden in Seoul celebrating the Buddha’s birthday. That morning the author met Mrs. Shin Kyung Hee who gave up her infant daughter in 1975. In spite of her pain and reluctance to be recognized in images, she agreed to meet Dherbeys again on subsequent trips to South Korea as both her baby and the author were adopted by families in France. Later that day, surrounded by all the prayers of Korean Buddhists, she prayed for Mrs. Shin to find her lost daughter.
  • A woman and two small children out for a walk in Seoul, South Korea.
  • “I have no idea at all of how to find her.” Mrs. Lee Suk Yun, 58 years old pictured here at a cafe in Seoul. She shows the author photos of herself and her baby daughter who was born in 1979. “My husband was not a good husband. I got divorced. I was very poor and at the time, it was mainly the fathers who take care of the child. He put her for adoption without asking me first, and with no help from adoption agencies. Maybe he sold her. I have no idea at all of how to find her.”
  • “Everyday I go to the Church of Myeong-Ryun and I pray for her. If my daughter wants to find me, she just has to go there.” Mrs. Lee Suk Yun at church  in Seoul.
  • Trees at night blowing in the wind in Seoul. Stunned by the beauty of South Korea’s nature and deeply contemplating the mysteries of her birth and the country and culture to which she was was born, the author traveled throughout South Korea meeting women and men who had given up their babies for adoption many years ago.
  • “My husband who has passed away would have been ashamed when my daughter found me.” Mrs. Yang Hay Suk, 59 years old at home in Seoul with her biological daughter Laure and her boyfriend Romain, who were visiting from their home in Switzerland. Laure calls Yang “Omone” a respectful term for “mother.” Mrs. Yang convinced herself that she had to give up her daughter for adoption when the baby was 15 months old. The father of the baby died when she was 22 years old. She later remarried and her second husband passed away from cancer then her son died in an accident during military service. “I try to stay positive,” she says, “I know my husband would have been terribly ashamed when Laure found me, because he is the one who convinced me to abandon her.”
  • “We thought our premature baby was dead at birth. The nurse didn’t show him to us.” Mrs. Park Woo Sik, 66, with her husband Mr. Lee Sun Hwa, 72, in Nonsan, South Korea. Their son was born on the January 4 or 5, 1972. “We had tried to get an abortion, and because the nurse didn’t show him to us, we thought he was dead.” A few years ago though, a friend convinced them that there might have been another outcome where the infant didn’t in fact die but was taken from the hospital after birth and given or sold to an adoption agency. They have no proof, only suspensions. They are now members of KAS [Korean Adoption Services] a governmental agency that assists families with adoption inquiries. “We so want to meet him.”
  • “I wondered if she is still was alive, if she was well. I wanted to help her.” Mr. Lee Man Woo. A few years ago, he found his daughter who had been adopted in Denmark. “I often hear that paternal instinct is not as strong as maternal one.” She was born in 1979 with severe malformation in her palate. Mr. Lee, explains they were too poor to pay for the corrective surgeries. “This type of handicap is very badly seen in Korea, and life would also have been tough for her.” Thirty years later, he tried to find her “to know if she was still alive, and since my income had improved, I wanted to help her financially. She told me since that she went through 13 surgeries and now works as a web designer. She is married with a professor. I am happy for her and we talk sometimes.”
  • “I have nothing to offer to my son now. I am just old and poor.” Mrs. Kim Jihee, 64 years old, smokes in her little apartment near the US naval Camp David. “I used to be a comfort woman [prostitute] for the US soldiers based in South Korea. Pregnant, I got married with a soldier who took me to Virginia. Life was so dull and boring! I came back to Korea with my son. But here, the children were bad to him because he was mix blood. When he turned 8 years old, he begged me to send him to the United States. I don’t know why I didn’t just send him to his father. I went to see an adoption agency. I regret it. The pimps hammered us with drugs and alcohol.”
  • “In spite of our shame, we feel it is our duty to share our story.” Mrs. Choi Soon Im in Dobongsan. “I got pregnant very young. Our son was born in 1983. We were not married. We had no idea of what to do. Some members of our family pushed us to abandon our baby. Later, we married and had two sons. We were totally ashamed but we did everything to find our son Shinyoung [adopted in France]. Each time we moved home, we let Holt [adoption agency] know our new address. Eventually he found us in 2006. We are so lucky. In spite of our shame, it is our duty to share our story.” When Mr. Jeong passed away suddenly in 2013, their son came to the funeral and performed the part of the ceremony that is reserved for the eldest son in a traditional Korean service.
  • A parking lot in Dobongsan, South Korea, near where Dherbeys met and spoke at length with Mrs. Choi Soon Im. “Those parents from an earlier time are victims of massive and irrevocable trauma. They have for decades carried their burden — sorrow, regret and shame — with no support. Even if they see their vanished child again, it doesn’t compensate for the lost years, nor assuage their feelings of guilt. They remain destitute and deprived of their motherhood, facing the uncertainties of severed bloodlines.”
  • “My husband took our 11th daughter to the midwife,” Mrs. Park, 79, at lunch in Geoncheon, South Korea. She was reluctant to speak at first but eventually she offered to take the author to lunch where they discussed the circumstances of her giving her child up for adoption. Over lunch she opened up a little, it was very difficult for her to express her painful memories and it caused her obvious pain. “After we had our 10th daughter, we really expected to have a son. But again, a girl came, the 11th … My husband took her and without my consent he took her to the midwife, Mrs. Song.”
  • Bubbles float at a park in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, South Korea. Having arrived a few days earlier in South Korea the author embarked on a journey to meet a nun who worked in the orphanage where she was left. The author sat alone in the park, excited and apprehensive of the journey ahead she watched with delight as families played with their young children.
  • Mrs. Park Sook Ha and Mr. Cho Sang-Hwan wanted a boy. When her fourth daughter was born, they made the decision to leave their newborn baby with Mrs. Song, the village midwife. After the birth they tried to forget what they had done and didn’t speak of it again for decades. They cannot even remember the exact year or season of the birth of the baby. Mrs. Park thought there was a possibility that the author could be her child. Here, at her home near Geoncheon, Mrs. Park and some friends look through old family photos to see if there is a resemblance to the author. It turns out, a DNA test confirmed that she was in fact, not her mother.
  • After closing the White Lily Orphanage in Daegu, South Korea, the nuns kept the archives of the 11,000 orphans who went through the facility. The author’s file includes just one sheet of paper with one name and one address, that of the midwife, Mrs. Song, who brought her to the orphanage on the day of her birth. The midwife was well known in Geoncheon and was responsible for taking 13 other babies from this village to the orphanage during this time.
  • Insects fly near the canal in Seoul. The author’s experience diving into the country and origins of her birth and the many troubling meetings she had with others who had had similar experiences left her with the conviction that her French adoptive parents were her true family. She explains, “Above all, it settled once and for all — in spite of my appearance, I am a stranger in South Korea.”

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South Korea’s economy currently ranks 14th in the world — an amazing leap after the devastation caused by the Korean War (1950-1953). But the conflict aftermath still reverberates in the number of children who were sent for adoption: During the 1970s and ’80s, South Korea exported more children than any other country. Statistics from the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare report roughly 170,000 children have been internationally adopted since 1953 — mainly in the United States.

I was one of the children who left Korea during that wave. I was adopted by a French family at the age of 5 months in 1977.

I visited Seoul for the first time three years ago for only few days. The trip gave me a completely decomposing and illusionary feeling of what my life could have been. I stared, searching for any recognition of the people around me. I saw at last how I will age: The face of aging women in the country acted like an anachronistic mirror. But obviously, that wasn’t enough to heal the mourning of abandonment — I needed to know why I was given up.

Numerous essays have already been dedicated to the issue of adoption and the questions of uprooting and identity. But to my knowledge, no one yet had given a voice to the mothers who could have been ours, those who have abandoned  — or lost — their child decades ago. Over the course of a year, I met and photographed some of these women. I flew to my birth country with childhood fantasies and my camera as my luggage.

The stories I found were so unique and often tragic, but they didn’t provide me with an explanation for the immense tsunami of adoption I was part of. But an “a posteriori” vision of how Korea was 30 years ago, slowly emerged. These mothers’ tales paint the portrait of a harsh and poor country, nestled in an ultra-conservative environment, where women had no ability to fight their husband’s decision of abandoning their 11th daughter because they wanted a boy. Where a woman could have her infant stolen by her in-laws (while she was at work) with no way to fight against it. Where single mothers had to hide their pregnancy in order to not be denied a place within Korean society. Those parents from an earlier time are victims of massive and irrevocable trauma. They have for decades carried their burden — sorrow, regret and shame — with no support. Even if they see their vanished child again, it doesn’t compensate for the lost years, nor assuage their feelings of guilt. They remain destitute and deprived of their motherhood, facing the uncertainties of severed bloodlines.

These times are hard to imagine given the present modernity of South Korea. But the stigma of conservatism remains. Adoption still exists, but the cause of the abandonment has become more clear and straight-forward: 90% of the children adopted are born to single mothers.

By uncovering the past, the kaleidoscope of these women confirmed that, in spite of the outward banality of adoption, the act of abandonment remains an extraordinary event for all involved. 

Looking for my birth parents had never been my goal of this project, but on June 24, 2013, I was given the chance to visit the orphanage where I’d stayed as an infant in March of 1977 and where more than 11,000 orphans had stayed before being adopted. Sister Theresa, who used to work there, had contacted me after I appeared in a TV broadcast. She showed me my admission sheet and told me of Mrs. Song, a well-known, now-deceased midwife from Geoncheon who took me to the orphanage and gave me my Korean name, Song Dong Hee.

Theresa insisted that I immediately meet with some of the older women from Mrs. Song’s village. Her tenacity disturbed me and confused me. Everything was happening way too fast for a process I really didn’t want to rush. After all, it is not every day that you find out your name comes from someone who was not your parent, that you never actually went through a foster family in Seoul (as the adoption agency informed me), or that you are born in a tiny village named Geonchon. “Oh well,” I thought, letting her convince me, “let’s stay in the energy of this crazy day.”

The women I met in Geoncheon were in their 70s and seemed so excited to help me and play investigators. Eventually, they were contacted by a woman who recently had a dream in which one of her ancestors told her she soon would have to go through a DNA test, although she had not thought of her abandoned child for years. She wanted to meet me.

Everything was quickly spinning out of control and I didn’t even get the chance to ask obvious questions, such as: Which year was her daughter born? Or at least, which time of year? Did Mrs. Song act as her midwife? The desire to be polite and the chaos of the situation stole my clarity of mind and any objections I might have had. An appointment to meet the woman was set for two hours later. 

Then suddenly, I was facing a woman who could be my mother. She was suspicious, scared, and kept staring at me — perhaps also feeling the chaos of the moment. “I don’t think it is her,” she told Theresa. Truly, this was one of the craziest times of my entire life. The two of us observed each other like wounded animals: We compared our nail shapes, our ear shapes. We had nothing rational or reasonable to hang onto — or even a shared language for communication.

I felt ashamed for hoping she wouldn’t be my birth mother, this peasant who abandoned her child because she already had three daughters and wanted a boy. I was some stranger who had showed up and caused her to relive a trauma she had tried so hard to forget.

We checked the family albums, searching for resemblance with her daughters, who are all older than I am. She got excited at the idea of a DNA test, and her sudden enthusiasm was truly moving. When we parted ways, we were each alone again, left to mull over our respective traumas. The wound of abandonment was reopened as much for her as it was for myself.

A few days later, we both took DNA tests. In August, I heard from Sister Theresa that the test was negative for a match. I think I am relieved.

Agnes Dherbeys is a photographer based in Paris.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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