Korean War (1950-53) and the 1950s

Korean boys circa the Korean War

1950s: Adoption takes root

  • Korean War – June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953:
    • Korean War was highly destructive and occurred just as Korea was recovering from Japanese occupation. 
    • An estimated 3 million Koreans were killed during the war and the entire peninsula (what we now know as North and South) was basically flattened. 
    • To give you some idea of the impact of the war, after armistice, S. Korea’s GNP was one of the lowest in the world
    • An estimated 100,000 children were orphaned  
    • It’s estimated that in 1953, there were 239,000 widowed women caring for 516,000 children under the age of 13. 
    • And for comparison: the # of children in institutions at the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 = 3,000. By 1957, four years after the end of the war, there were almost 50,000 children in institutions.

1950s – the start of international adoption from South Korea

  • Initiating factors that gave rise to adoption
    • Humanitarian – response to crisis brought on by the Korean War
    • Economic – Korea did not want to put money into social welfare; used influx of money from western entities to set  up orphanages, fund adoption agencies
    • Geopolitical – Korean leaders saw adoption as a way of building goodwill with other countries, the US saw continued involvement with South Korea as contributing to the goal of containing communism
  • Since there was no existing social welfare infrastructure in Korea to deal with the need, addressing the issue of orphaned and abandoned children was taken up by humanitarian organizations based in the West (primarily the US).  The Western welfare model was to work through institutions so in regards to the situation in Korea, this meant developing and maintaining orphanages.
  • There was no incentive to develop the welfare system to deal with orphaned and abandoned children any further since it could be handled through international adoption.  This became a circular pattern. International adoption meant that developing other kinds of services were not required and not having other ways of serving the needs of these children kept international adoption as the most expedient option.  
  • Christian organizations were the primary institutions that were the backers of the orphanages.  They also increasingly used sponsoring children as a way to raise funds. This also served to increase demand as sponsors/donors became prospective adoptive parents. 

The first children to be adopted, their mothers, and their circumstances

  • First adopted – mascots, houseboys of GIs
  • Adoptions were often informal, no legal framework for adoption existed and, as we have  stated, no social welfare system (infrastructure to provide assistance to individuals/families) existed. 
  • The first adoptions were private and US adoptive parents had to obtain Congressional petitions to allow them to adopt. 
  • Though the first Koreans to be adopted were mascots, it was the appearance of mixed race children that got the South Korean government involved in formulating a strategy of removing them via international adoption.
  • Many of the mixed race children were the offspring of Korean women and military personnel serving in Korea.  Camptowns (Kijich’on) comprised of bars, clubs, and other types of services catering to military personnel had sprung up around the military bases. 
  • Korean women, known as Kijich’on women worked in these camptowns.
  • Once their military service was completed, the men usually were shipped back to their home countries. 
  • The children were left with their mothers with no fathers and no hojeok (family registration through the father) and were stateless, legally without citizenship, and therefore a “non-person”.  This made it difficult for them to attend school, find a job, or the ability to get married when they grew up. They were low status and socially stigmatized. https://www.international-divorce.com/family-registration-law-korea.htm
  • As mentioned earlier, after the war there was an emphasis on Korean nationalism and building a mono-racial society.  There were also the cultural factors of Confucianism and the importance of maintaining a patrilineal line. The Korean government recognized that international adoption was a solution for dealing with the issue of mixed race children.  

Holts and the increase of visibility of orphaned and abandoned children

Harry and Bertha Holt with two of their adopted children
  • In 1954, a Christian organization, World Vision, produced a documentary on Korean war orphans which an Oregon lumberman, Harry Holt and his wife Bertha saw.  This led them to adopt 8 mixed race children in 1955.  They went on to found the Holt adoption agency. For many, this is the beginning of adoption from South Korea as we now know it.
  • The results of the Holts efforts to raise visibility and facilitate the adoption of more children include increasing the amount of money into South Korea and to solidify the transference of social welfare responsibilities to western countries.
  • The Holts also utilized proxy adoptions which allowed US citizens to adopt in foreign courts by designating a person (proxy agent) to act in their place.  This enabled US couples to adopt children without going through any kind of screening process, without knowing anything about the children’s culture, language, food, etc.  They need never have met the children. It did considerably speed up the adoption process and move many children from orphanages to homes in, primarily, the US.
  • American social workers were concerned that there were no minimum standards, for example, couples who were rejected by other agencies were allowed to adopt. The primary criteria for being able to adopt was the parents be Christian.  There was no consideration of how the children would fare, how they would be able to adjust to other cultures and that there was no information on the long-term outcomes of uprooting children and placing them outside their home country.  There was also the concern of exploitation of poor countries by rich ones since international adoption almost always involves transporting children from poor countries to rich ones.

A few other points regarding these early years of adoption

  • The West during the 1950s was also in the midst of a Post World War 2 Baby Boom.  Normative ideas of what a nuclear family should look like had formed. There was a cultural imperative to have children.
  • The money paid for adoption was an important source of funds for Korea in the 1950s and social services for children who were orphaned or abandoned or who were staying in orphanages (some Koreans used orphanages as “day care centers” though the parents had no intent in having their children be adopted) were minimal outside the orphanages and adoption agencies.  This allowed the Korean government to avoid having to allocate money to develop services and allowed the government to continue allocating the bulk of resources to national defense.
  • In addition to these economic drivers, Syngman Rhee, the first President of South Korea (1948-1960) saw adoption as a way to strengthen ties with the west.  He also picked up on the formerly underscored racial purity (catalyzed during Japanese occupation) as a strategy to unify the nation in the face of recent division.
  • By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the number available mixed race children was decreasing and the adoption of Korean children with 2 Korean parents increased.