Dozens of Danish adoptees who were born in South Korea are demanding that the South Korean government come clean about their origins. They say adoption practices in the 1970s and ‘80s often included false claims about the circumstances of their births.
The legal case involves more than 50 Korean adoptees and could have larger implications for international adoption practices.
Peter Knudsen, a spokesperson with the Danish Korean Rights Group, is a cosigner on the application filed to South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission last week. He joined The World’s host Carol Hills from Copenhagen to discuss the group’s concerns.
“Basically, we are asking the commission to find the truth about our adoptions,” Knudsen told The World.
“We have reason to suspect that a lot of the information about us, at least the information we know, is incorrect. And we have documentation in a number of cases that documentation has been changed, or information has been changed. So, basically, we want the commission to look into the circumstances surrounding our adoption,” Knudsen said.
The deadline for adoptees outside of Denmark to add their information to the inquiry application is Sept. 11.
Carol Hills: What is the evidence that a lot of the information that adoptees received was false about their origins?
Peter Knudsen: So, the most common one is about being an orphan. So, almost all of us in our adoption file, it says that we are orphans. But some of the adoptees have visited the adoption companies in [South] Korea, and on that occasion, they've actually gotten access to documents that show the birth parents' names. And you cannot have a situation where, on one side you're adopted as an orphan [with unknown parents], and on the other side, you have information about the birth family. I mean, both things can't be true at once.
What do adoptees who are bringing this case forward believe that the adoption agencies in South Korea did in terms of altering the information about the adoptees?
So, a lot of the adoptees, again, believe that the adoption companies in Korea changed information in order to make the adoption process easier. It's different kinds of information, like I mentioned before, than something like whether you're an orphan or not, your birth date. So, some people find out that they actually may be even up to a year older than what is stated in the adoption file. And we have some serious cases also where an adoptee, or where a child, was released for adoption, and then, for some reason — and we presume or guess that it's because the child passed away — then another child had been sent in that child's place.
And the child that's been sent in that first child's place, the child who died, they're given the name and details of the child who died?
Yes. And one of these cases actually is in Denmark. And we know that there has been some sort of mix-up because there's one adoptee who, for some reason, has two separate sets of adoption release forms, and everything, in her one adoption case.
Peter, tell us your own story. You were adopted from South Korea by Danish parents. What do your adoption papers say about you?
So, my adoption papers also say that I'm an orphan and that I was found in the streets. In the mid-'90s, I was on the motherland tour to Korea, and part of the tour was to visit your adoption company, and if you were interested, you could send your information in advance, and then the adoption company would try to find information about you. And when I went there, they said that there was absolutely no additional information. And then in 2001, I actually moved to Korea and I wanted to stay there for a couple of years. So, in relation to my visa application, I needed a document from the adoption company stating that I was an adoptee, because then I could get a special kind of visa for Korea. And when I went there to get that document, they told me that my birth family was looking for me. First of all, I thought it was a little bit strange, because how did they know it was my birth family since I was an orphan? And then I think it was a slip of the tongue, but the caseworker said that they had had detailed information about my family [the whole] time. So, that is how my birth family could find me.
And did you meet your birth family?
Yes. Then I met with my birth family and we still have, I think, a good relationship. I'm also one of the lucky ones, so to speak, because I met them while I was living in Korea. So, I got this kind of day-to-day relationship with them, spanning a couple of years, which is somewhat different from most of the adoptees who visited their birth families, a couple of weeks with a few years in between. So, I think I'm very lucky to have to have a really close relationship with my birth family.
And did your birth family tell you the circumstances of why they put you up for adoption?
Yes, I was adopted because I was born out of wedlock. And even today, that is a difficult situation to be in for a Korean woman. And then, think back to 50 years ago, that would have been really, really terrible. So, that was the main reason for me to be given up for adoption. But I also know that my family, they lived at that time very close to Korea Social Service, which I'm adopted through. And they delivered me to KSS a couple of weeks before my adoption. This is a story my birth family has told me, whereas my adoption file says that I stayed in an orphanage for a number of months.
How exactly was the South Korean government involved in all this?
So, all the papers in my adoption file, they have an official statement from a ministry. So, somehow this has been approved by the South Korean government.
Why would the adoption agencies in Korea have done this? Why would they have falsified the information about the babies and young children being adopted by Danes?
I can't speculate into the motives of the adoption companies, but I can, of course, come up with a guess, right? And to me, it's a probability that it's all about business, that the funding somehow is better when they release a child for international adoption as opposed to a domestic adoption.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.