Prejudice, Poverty Batter Korea’s Amerasians


After a decade of hesitation, Tommy’s South Korean mother has decided to write to his American father to ask for help. She just doesn’t know how to phrase it.

Worn, haggard and suffering from arthritis, Kim Jong-bun digs out photos, a Social Security number and carefully folded letters: memorabilia of her amorous year with an American serviceman, an encounter that trapped her and their Amerasian son in limbo in a society that prizes racial purity.

One photo shows the father holding a days-old Tommy in his lap and feeding him milk.


“As Tommy grows older, I am more worried about his future,” said Kim, 44. “I want to ask his father to give him a chance to study in America. But how am I going to say it after all these years?”

Tommy, a chubby 13-year-old, is one of thousands of Amerasian children born of American GIs and Korean women. Many are abandoned by their mothers and live on the streets near U.S. military bases. They are treated as social outcasts, children born of sin.

A week after Tommy was born in 1984, his father, a New Yorker, returned home after a one-year tour. Three years later he wrote: “It won’t work out for us. Please, don’t hate me.” Kim has not heard from him since.

For years, mother and son drifted around the country trying to make ends meet. But the boy’s dark brown hair, prominent brow and pointed nose marked him as an object of curiosity and ridicule by neighbors and classmates.

Five years ago they returned to this city 17 miles north of Seoul, settling back into a shantytown next to a U.S. military base, where people are less surprised by the boy’s mixed-race appearance.

Of course, Tommy remembers nothing about his father. “Still, Tommy believes he is an American because his father is an American,” Kim said.

Armed with the man’s Social Security number, Kim found his address recently with the help of the Red Cross. But she says she has been advised by the U.S. military that she cannot press a claim for child support because she was never married to Tommy’s father.

The American military and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul both disclaim any responsibility for tracking down fathers or providing assistance to the children and women left behind. Since the mid-1970s, the South Korean government has provided a monthly stipend of 40,000 won ($46) for each Amerasian child.

No one is sure how many Amerasians the 50-year-old U.S. military presence has produced. About 2,500 have gone to America under a 1982 U.S. law that lets Amerasians immigrate if they have American sponsors. But thousands remain.

At school, Amerasian children are often ridiculed. Many drop out early and grow up to languish in manual labor.

A few Amerasians have made their mark as entertainers, including Insooni, one of the country’s top pop singers. But none holds a government job.

“I don’t want to remember my past,” said pale-skinned, sandy-haired Park Chil-ho. “I don’t think about the future. Just living a life is tough enough for me.” Park shines shoes for a living.

Most Amerasian children are reared by their mothers, poor, undereducated women who often work nights.

Koreans assume the mothers of Amerasian children are prostitutes--a double curse in a country that has suffered frequent foreign invasions, including its 1910-45 colonial rule by the Japanese.

American soldiers came with the 1950-53 Korean War. Their presence spawned a vast sex industry, a source of badly needed hard currency for the war-torn Korean economy. Tens of thousands of war widows and peasant girls flocked to camp towns to survive and support their families. Some never left.

“Many women and their kids attempt again and again to escape, but they return after failing to fit into the outside world,” said Cha Eun-young, a social worker at Saewoomtuh, a charity that looks after children while their mothers work at night.