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South Korea sets up a Truth and Reconciliation commission to investigate adoptions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Korea has set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of its goals is to investigate adoptions that took place while the country was under authoritarian rule. Adoptees around the world say private adoption agencies in South Korea faked documents to make children look like orphans when they actually had living parents. Korean American journalist Kaomi Lee is one adoptee whose case is under review. She was adopted by a white American family more than 50 years ago. She has since discovered that her adoption story is not what she was led to believe. And she's spent the last several years looking for answers.

KAOMI LEE: There is this common adoption narrative that our parents tell and tell us and our community tells us, that you are lucky to be here and you should be grateful, and also that you previously had a bad life and you came to a good life. I think we find that these stories about us being orphans, about not having parents and needing, you know, someone to care for us and a family - we actually find, through researching our own stories, talking to others, and now with this kind of formal examination of cases, that these stories were not always true. And now there is implications that adoption agencies falsified records and manufactured identities.

MARTIN: Do you know anything about your birth parents at this point?

LEE: Fifty years of my life - nothing. Of course, my paperwork that had came with me has an orphan registry that was created by the adoption agency. There's no parents listed. They were like ghosts growing up. And if you think about your story and the first 10 pages or the first hundred pages are missing, and it's something you don't get to know. It's something you accept growing up. But I was disturbed that through DNA, I discovered a half sister who was also adopted. In her case, she was adopted to Denmark. We met last year. She's about 10 years younger than I am. And in her file, there was some information about her parents, and we have a shared father. And that's when I discovered that he had been alive until about 10 years ago.

MARTIN: Wow.

LEE: And so that's kind of devastating, as, you know, someone who's, you know, around 50 years old, to realize that the story that they had been told had been a fabrication and that there had been a living parent at the time of my adoption - at least one. It begs the question, did that parent even consent to having me be sent overseas and, you know, basically vanish from Korea? I don't know. And that question will never be answered because he's now deceased.

MARTIN: There are allegations of, you know, switching babies' identities to make it look like they didn't have parents. Can you expand on that? What lengths were taken to ship these children out of South Korea?

LEE: Koreans all get a family registry. It's called a hoju. And it's essentially your family tree. And it puts you in Korean society officially, on paper, on the record. What's happened with Korean adoptees is the Korean private agencies created fake hojus. It's like a manufactured identity where they'll put a name, a birth date - it might not even be our true details - but under parents, it's blank. It's a way to isolate us out of Korean society, as if we'd never existed. And I think this is very damning because under further examination, I hope that the body will actually conclude that this was a systematic program to make 200,000 children disappear from society. We have been created new...

MARTIN: Why? Why did they want children to disappear?

LEE: I think part of it is perhaps you're talking about authoritarian regimes who had this kind of mandate that they wanted to purify the race and make sure that there were not unwanteds - children of mixed race, you know, American GIs and Korean women - one category. Children of single mothers - that's another category of not respectable or children that they wanted to keep around. And so it was a system of erasing people. And I think it's social engineering where it's dictating what kinds of people can be Korean and shipping out or removing people who didn't fit the profile that they wanted for Koreans.

There's another reason for it, though, which is U.S. immigration policy requires for Americans to adopt orphans. If they're going to adopt a foreign child from South Korea, that child has to be an orphan. It's almost like supply and demand. And so the Korean private agencies, under very little or no regulation themselves, sprang into action and created what the West demanded, and that was an orphan.

MARTIN: You have talked to all these other people who share at least this part of your experience of being adopted from South Korea and having this - these holes in their knowledge. What kind of guidance do you give others about how to live with not knowing the full truth of who you are and how you came to be?

LEE: If nothing else, adoptees are resilient. We have learned to go forward in life and even though perhaps we are missing the beginning pages of our story, to go out and try to live full lives. But it's something that you know has always been missing from yourself. And you have been able to go out and live without this very, you know, primal part of yourself. But I think it's something that is an ache that - like, you never really feel whole. But I do think that that is something that Korean adoptees should have the right to know - who our natural identities are and the people we came from. And until that right is restored to us, I think we'll always be living with this part of ourselves that can be a source of pain.

MARTIN: Korean American journalist Kaomi Lee. Her adoption is one of hundreds that will be investigated by South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thank you so much for talking with us.

LEE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.