Eight-year-old Erik Reinertsen held a microphone about as long as his tiny forearm and twisted nervously during his first and probably last chance to question the first lady of South Korea.
“What’s it like in Korea?” the boy asked Lee Hee Ho.
On the surface, the question may have seemed trivial. But in truth, it was deeply symbolic. Erik, adopted from South Korea when he was just a few months old, had voiced a basic curiosity no doubt shared at one time or another by nearly all the 27 Korean American adoptees who attended Saturday’s first meeting between such children and the wife of a Korean president.
“We are having some economic problems in Korea,” a smiling Lee said to Erik, who returned her smile with delight.
The boy was the first person Lee embraced on her way out the door after a sometimes somber, sometimes joyous and sometimes moving two-hour discussion at the Park Hyatt hotel in Century City.
Lee visited the adoptees as part of a weeklong U.S. tour with her husband, President Kim Dae Jung.
The first lady expressed deep appreciation to American parents such as Don and Else Reinertsen who have adopted Korean children.
“We are like family,” she said. “We are like neighbors. We are all connected with the love we have.
“Let me extend my gratitude and respect to you,” she said to the parents. “I hope you will have a very healthy life, and a very healthy life for your children.”
But Lee later said she is now strongly encouraging South Korean families to adopt “our children,” a remark that caused a slight stir among older Korean American adoptees and American parents.
Still, Gary Larkin wanted to be among the first adoptive parents to thank Lee, so he shot to his feet when the microphone passed his way.
“I love my children very much” is all he could say before his lips quivered, his eyes teared and his voice broke.
Larkin was forced to sum it up. He didn’t have time for the full story--that he and his wife fruitlessly tried to conceive for six years before their adoption was approved.
“I love your country for allowing me to be a parent,” he said finally.
Unresponsive at first to Larkin’s English, Lee’s facial expression appeared to soften with each Korean word an interpreter whispered in her ear.
The gathering had deep meaning to Lee and the 61 adoptees, parents and siblings who attended.
Eighty-thousand of the 150,000 Koreans who have been adopted since the end of the Korean War in 1953 were taken by American parents, according to the Korean Roots Forum, which sponsored the event and carried it live on its World Wide Web site.
Many of the children long to visit the homeland of their biological parents.
“This is exploding,” said Susan Soon-Keum Cox. “Adoptees going back and their families going back. This is something that in the last few years has gone crazy.”
Cox said she was the 167th adoptee to be placed after the Korean War and has lived in Eugene, Ore., since age 11. She said her organization, Holt International Children’s Services, is scheduled to embark on a tour of Seoul next month.
Nicole Luna, 12, has pined for the 7,000-mile trip since her uncle, Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, said he would try to arrange it two years ago. After she saw the first lady, her desire deepened.
“I think she seemed nice,” Nicole said. “I wonder what she does in Korea.”
Part of what Lee does is encourage more Koreans to adopt children so they won’t have to travel so far to find their original homes.
“In the past, many foreigners, including the U.S. . . . adopted our children,” Lee said. “But we are now encouraging Koreans to adopt our children. I appreciate the spirit . . . but it is now our trend to encourage Korean families to adopt.”
In a way, the parents understood, especially when Lee exhorted them to teach their children Korean culture and language.
“The Korean people need to open their hearts,” said Steve Morrison, a Korean adoptee who is now a TRW aeronautical engineer living in Norwalk. “It’s their cultural mentality that’s not open to orphans and adopted children.”
Morrison wrote a letter about his adoption and the successful life he leads and handed it to the first lady. He wishes that Korea would emerge from the shell it developed because of foreign invasions and occupations over hundreds of years.
Still, he said, “I feel grateful that [Lee] took time to talk to the adoptees. It shows her level of interest and her care.”