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