World Agenda

Last updated: 16 july, 2010 - 15:59 GMT

Korea's Lost Children

Adoptee activist Jane Jeong Trenka

Adoptee activist Jane Jeong Trenka

Growing up with several adopted Korean friends in her native Denmark, BBC World Service producer Ellen Otzen decided to investigate the moving personal stories behind an overseas adoption programme that many of those involved are now campaigning to change.

As a child in Denmark, Ellen Otzen was curious about the number of Korean friends she had that had been adopted by Danish families. The reason, it turned out, was an overseas adoption programme which began in the 1950s, as the impoverished Asian government’s solution to giving homes to the masses of mixed-race children from the Korean War.

Struck by the stories of trans-racial adoption, as an adult Ellen would question why the now wealthy South Korea would continue to give up around 1,000 children for adoption in Western countries? And why a large number of adoptees would choose to return to live in their country of birth.

Active campaign

“South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world,” says producer Ellen, whose personal curiosity culminated in a BBC World Service documentary, entitled Korea’s Lost Children.

“In the 1950s, there was a legitimate reason for overseas adoption. Traditionally it was poor families who gave their children up for adoption, but now 90% of Korean children being sent away are born to unwed mothers, who say they are pressured to give up their babies.”

Since the Korean War, around 200,000 children have been sent overseas for adoption. Hundreds of adoptees have returned to South Korea to settle as part of the repatriated adopted community in Seoul. Some have become political activists campaigning to change laws and attitudes that they claim have wrecked lives by encouraging mass foreign adoption, almost mail-order style.

The documentary explores the views of those who have been personally affected.

BBC World Service producer Ellen Otzen

In Korea’s Lost Children, Ellen explores the reasons for their return. Among the adoptees are two Korean women who are pressing the government to change the very programme that sent them away. They are 38-year-old author Jane Jeong Trenka and artist Suki Leith, aged 45.

Some politicians in South Korea are demanding restrictions or even a total ban on adoptions from their country. “The Korean government keeps saying they will stop international adoption, but this has yet to happen,” Ellen explains. “The documentary explores the views of those who have been personally affected.”

“Some adoptees are curious to find their birth parents,” Ellen adds. “Others say they suffered racism or prejudice in their adopted countries and some feel they lost out.”

Korea's Lost Children will be broadcast on BBC World Service on 6 August

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