BirthmarksKim Yeong-soo, the younger of two children, grew up wealthy, like "a princess with the perfect family."
In middle school, she shared her monthly allowance of $350 with poor friends; instead of berating her, her mother gave her more money. When she reached her teens, her mother bought her designer clothes. Once she entered Danguk University, her parents provided her with a car and driver. She went on to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from Moscow State University.
A few years ago, when she returned to Korea, she found a job teaching at a university. Life seemed to be going her way. Then, last October, her charmed life was torn apart: Ms. Kim, 32, found out she was adopted.
Her parents, in their 70s, had decided to tell her the truth only after being blackmailed by their son, Yeong-soo's older brother.
On this recent day, Ms. Kim sits in a coffee shop in downtown Seoul. "My parents thought it was time for me to know," she says, "but they don't want the world to know."
She has told few people of her story and now her words spill out in a rush. Her hot chocolate goes untouched as she reveals a rags to riches to rags tale that finally brings her back to claiming her birthright as a person much loved by the people she holds dear.
"Everyone knew except me," she says, leaning forward, her eyes widening. As a child, she used to shrug off indignant comments by family friends who would tell her parents, "Why are you going out of your way? All you need to do is clothe and feed her,'" she recalls. It never connected, but she now realizes they meant "her, an adopted child."
In the decades following the Korean War, which left tens of thousands of orphans and parents too poor to care for children, most children given up for adoption went to families overseas. International headlines criticized a nation unwilling to care for its own and, essentially, selling its orphaned children.
When Koreans did adopt, it was often in secret. Genealogy has always been important Koreans. Taking in an adopted child was discouraged because it meant disrupting the family tree, taking in the unknown and what could be "dirty blood." The secrecy was intended to protect the child, but also the parents.
More than 90 percent of adoptions in Korea are by parents who are unable to have children, according to Holy Family Child Adoption Center, a Roman Catholic agency that promotes in-Korea adoptions. "Parents are ashamed to show what might be considered a personal defect," says the agency director, Sister Renate Lee.
The number of Koreans adopting Koreans is increasing. Last year, a record 1,770 children were adopted by Korean citizens, according to Holt Children Services. The culture surrounding adoption is also starting to change.
Last October, Ms. Kim's paren?s called her cell phone to say they wanted to catch up and talk. "We're like friends," Ms. Kim says about her mother. "Even though we're busy, we make time for each other, so I didn't think it anything unusual." Ms. Kim called back to postpone, but her parents told her it was urgent.
When she went home -- she lives with her parents -- her father, Kim Byeong-sil, and mother, Kim Yeo-sin, met their daughter in her room. Sitting on a bed, her mother said, tentatively, "You're a mature woman now. There's something we think you should know, and we don't want you to hear it from your brother."
With voices soft, her parents explained that they had been unable to have children. Mr. Kim's younger brother was poor, but had four children. At the end of the 1950s, Mr. Kim adopted that brother's second son, who was then 1 year old.
About 11 years later, Yeong-soo's birth mother abandoned her on the street. A policeman found the newborn and brought her to Seoul Children's Hospital. By then, the couple wanted a daughter. They went to the hospital and adopted a chubby 1-month-old baby -- Yeong-soo. The parents kept the adoption a secret from as many people as possible in order to raise her as their own.
Once Ms. Kim heard the story, it marked the end of her life as she knew it. "My world collapsed," she says. "I began wondering how my parents could love me if they didn't give birth to me.'"
But out of concern for her mother, Ms. Kim tried hard not to look surprised. Instead, she simply said, "Thank you," and hugged her mother as they both cried. Her father stood silent.
Ms. Kim's parents were forced to tell her the truth when earlier that October her brother asked them for money to start a business. They told him, "Enough is enough; every time you ask for money, we've given it to you."
He said, "If you don't give me money, I'll tell Yeong-soo about her birth."
Ms. Kim says her brother was always cold to her. "I never received love from him," she says. "It turns out that he knew he was adopted, and he knew I was adopted. He grew up twisted and resentful. I never liked him, but he's my brother." The brother has since returned to his birth family and severed ties with his adopted family.
After the shock of finding out about her past wore off, a sort of resignation came over her. "Then I got angry," Ms. Kim says. "My parents became strangers to me, an ajuma and ajeosi, and I wondered, 'Who am I?'"
In order to find her past, she visited orphanages. She saw rows of cribs with baby orphans, and thought, "That was me, I was one of them." She met teenagers who chose to bear their children instead of aborting them. She watched as one 17-year old mother gave her child away for adoption. The teenager was crying, but also hoping that her child would have a good future.
"I became thankful again," Ms. Kim says. "I don't know why my birth mother gave me up, but I hope one day to tell her, 'Thank you for giving birth to me. I have a good life now, so there is no need for sorrow.'"
Ms. Kim also started an Internet community, http://cafe.daum.net/loveadoption, at the end of October for fellow adoptees. "I know there are adopted children out there," Ms. Kim says. "If they've found out and want to maintain secrecy, but also find support, they can go online."
Her vision is to help others like her accept their pasts. She wants to encourage adoptees to give back to the community they came from. She wants to assuage the fear of adopted parents that the children they raise will one day turn on them in favor of their birth parents. And she wants people to adopt.
So far, more than 70 members have joined Love Adoption. But, tellingly, only one of them, besides Ms. Kim, is an adoptee. The rest are Korean mothers who have recently adopted.
The lone adoptee, a 22-year-old man who asked that his name be withheld, told Ms. Kim, "You're crazy to be open about being adopted."
But Ms. Kim is determined to make a difference. "I've come out because I want orphans to have homes," she says. "I know some adopted children are abused, but some turn out well. It was only through the blessing of God that I got good parents. Otherwise I would not be here now. I have nothing to hide."
Others like Ms. Kim are also trying to do away with the stigma of adoption. Three years ago, in California, Stephen C. Morrison, who was born in Korea and adopted by an American couple, founded Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea. The group encourages Koreans to adopt Korean children and parents to be open about adoption.
In the summer of 1999, Mr. Morrison, then in his early 40s, came to Korea. Through Holt Children's Services, he met Han Yun-hee, who advocates in-Korea adoptions. The wife of a Baptist pastor, Ms. Han says one of her responsibilities is "to care for the uncared for." After giving birth to a son, Yu Myung-gon, in 1981, she had her tubes tied. In 1990, she adopted a 6-year-old boy, Yu Hee-gon. In 1998, she adopted a 1-year-old boy, Yu Ha-sun.
For almost 10 years, Ms. Han never met another family with adopted children. "I felt estranged from the rest of society," she says. "There was no one to exchange stories with, no one to confide in." She adopted Hee-gon with the naive belief that the boy would love her as much as she loved him, that her relatives and friends would love him, and that life would be perfect. "We had to adjust to each other," Ms. Han says of the boy.
Ms. Han was excited by Mr. Morrison's philosophy and helped him start his association in Korea. She obtained a list of adopted parents and called to invite them to the first local meeting of Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea. Some parents, clinging to their secrets, reacted with anger and asked her never to call again. But 60 people accepted and met in her four-bedroom home in Gwacheon.
The association now has 250 families as members. The U.S. branch has 30.
The adoption agency Holy Family Child Adoption Center shares a similar story. About three years ago, adopting mothers started requesting a support network. The agency set up an inaugural meeting and sent invitations. Many returned marked "address unknown."
"It's sad, but when some parents adopt, they submit a bogus address, or move soon after, to hide the adoption," said Sister Lee.
Since starting the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea, Ms. Han, 57, has become a foster mother to two more boys. The family voted last year whether to adopt another child, this time a girl. The vote was unanimous -- all seven said yes. "It's a good thing we did, too," Ms. Han says. "She's quite the cutie."
Ms. Han often tells her children, "You're adopted; it's a fact of your history. But we are close to you and we love you." If her children want to look for their birth parents, she will support them.
Ms. Kim wants to trace her birth mother, but since she was not adopted through an orphanage, her search has been fruitless. She also has to consider the feelings of her adopted parents. "My mother has asked that I never bring up the word adoption in front of her," she says. "I don't, because I love her. But I want to tell adopted parents, 'When we look for our birth parents, it's not because we don't love you, but because we're looking for our history.'"
by Joe Yong-hee