The South Korea economy currently ranks 15th in the world. The little Asian country of 50 million people is also a member of the OECD and the G20 group of major economies.
South Korea has not always been so economically strong, though, and its current status has been won through a lot of hard work and sacrifice. The Korean war (1950 to 1953) took a terrible toll on the country, as did the extreme poverty that followed. Those tough times have had a lasting effect on the many children who were put up for adoption by parents who couldn’t afford to keep them. During the 70s and the 80s, South Korea exported more children than any other country. According to the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 150,944 were adopted between 1953 and 2006, 104,319 by American citizens).
I was one of them, later on adopted by French parents.
A number of essays have been dedicated to the issue of adoption and to the challenges faced by South Korean children who were uprooted and forced to accept a new identity –but to my knowledge, no one has yet given a voice to the birth mothers.
Over the course of a year, I met some of those mothers as part of my “Omone” (Korean of “mother”) photography project, visiting my country of birth armed with revived childhood fantasies and a camera.
A clearer picture slowly emerged of how Korea was 30 years ago. The circumstances they faced and the reasons for doing what they did paint a portrait of a harsh, poor and ultra conservative society. South Korean children are still put up for adoption abroad, but 90 per cent of them are now born to single mothers. Those parents from an earlier time who had fewer choices, or none at all, are victims of massive and irrevocable trauma. They have for decades carried their burden –sorrow, regret and shame – with little or no support.
In their hearts, they remain mothers to their vanished offspring. Even if they see their children again, it does not compensate for the lost years, nor assuage feelings of guilt. They remain destitute and deprived, facing the uncertainties of severed bloodlines.
Discovering the country of my origin through these trouble meetings, often in beautiful, peaceful places, confirmed that, in spite of the outward banality of international adoption, the act of abandonment remains an extraordinary event for all involved.