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South Korea to look into more cases of adoptees whose records might have been falsified

A man hands over documents to another man while two people watch.
Peter Moller, second from right, attorney and co-founder of the Danish Korean Rights Group, submits documents to South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
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South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said Thursday that it would investigate 237 more cases of South Korean adoptees who suspect their family origins were manipulated to facilitate their adoptions in Europe and the U.S.

The new cases in the commission’s expanded inquiry into South Korea’s foreign adoption boom involve adoptees in 11 nations, including the U.S., Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who were adopted from 1960-90. More than 370 adoptees from Europe, North America and Australia filed applications last year demanding that their cases be investigated.

When the commission announced in December that it would investigate an initial raft of 34 cases, it said the records of many adoptees sent to the West had clearly been manipulated to describe them falsely as orphans or to fake their identities by borrowing the details of a third person.

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The commission said most of the applicants claimed that their adoptions were based on records that falsified their status or origin to ensure their adoptability and expedite custody transfers across borders. Some applicants asked the commission to look into abuse that they say they experienced at South Korean orphanages or under the care of their foreign adoptive parents.

The commission’s potential findings could allow adoptees to take legal actions against agencies or the government, which would otherwise be difficult because South Korean civil courts put the burden of proof entirely on plaintiffs, who often lack information and resources.

Of the 271 cases accepted by the commission so far, 141 concern Danish adoptees, including members of the Danish Korean Rights Group co-led by adoptee activist Peter Moller, which submitted an initial 51 applications in August last year. Other cases accepted by the commission include those of 28 U.S. adoptees and 21 Swedish adoptees, officials said.

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The commission, which is reviewing the applications in the order they were submitted, is likely to investigate the remaining cases, too, according to officials.

About 200,000 South Koreans, mostly girls, were adopted by parents in the West in the last six decades, creating what’s believed to be the world’s largest diaspora of adoptees.

Most were placed with white parents in the U.S. and Europe during the 1970s and ’80s. South Korea was then ruled by a succession of military dictatorships, which were focused on economic growth and saw adoptions as a tool to reduce the number of mouths to feed, erase the “social problem” of unwed mothers and deepen ties with the democratic West.

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The military governments implemented special laws aimed at promoting foreign adoptions that in practice allowed adoption agencies to bypass proper child-relinquishment practices as they sent thousands of children to the West year after year during the adoptions’ heyday.

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Most adoptees were registered by agencies as orphans found abandoned on the streets, although they frequently had relatives who could be easily identified or found. That practice often makes their roots difficult or impossible to trace.

It wasn’t until 2013 that South Korea’s government required foreign adoptions to go through family courts, ending a decades-long policy that allowed agencies to dictate child relinquishment and international transfers of custody.

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