Korean Adoption & Orphans


A review of Genealogies of Korean Adoption: American Empire, Militarization, and Yellow Desire, by SooJin Pate.

SooJin Pate’s dissertation is groundbreaking not only for the study of Korean orphans and adoptees but also in Asian American as well as American studies. She builds the genealogies of Korean orphans and adoptees and examines the sociopolitical conditions in which Korean orphans become adoptees. She challenges presumptions that Korean adoption has only been humanitarian and, rather, she argues that militarized humanitarianism has been profoundly involved in the form of child welfare politics in Korea. While the majority of scholarly works on Korean adoptees focus on identity formation and adjustment and acclaim Korean adoptees’ assimilation to U.S. society, she sheds light on the conflicts, tensions, and contradictions in Korean adoptee’s subjectivities.

Chapter 1 (“American Humanitarianism Empire: Rethinking the Emergence of Korean Adoption”) examines the ways in which the neocolonial relationship between the States and Korea forged the emergence of Korean adoption. Refuting the conjecture that Korean adoption began after the Korean War, the author traces the emergence of Korean adoption from U.S. military intervention back to even before the Korean War. She illustrates the fact that building, funding, and supporting of orphanages and involvement in child welfare formed political strategies for the U.S. military in an effort to solidify political relations between the U.S. and Korea. In the second section of this chapter, she examines the ways in which orphans’ attire and toys donated by U.S. soldiers are closely connected to gender roles. In the sixty film reels that the author analyzed, boy orphans are commonly featured with shaved hair holding guns, mimicking American soldiers, while girl orphans wear light make-up and hanbok (traditional Korean costume), recasting them as Korean military prostitutes. The notion of “militaristic gaze” is employed to analyze “gender, sexual, and colonial aspects of U.S. militarism and occupation” (p. 44).

In Chapter 2 (“Yellow Desire and the Mass Production of the Korean Orphan”), Pate contends that the visual iconography of rescuing Korean orphans and yellow desire, while erasing racial, ethnic, and cultural differences, facilitated Korean orphans to be adopted into the white American family context in the era of the Cold War. The docile, submissive, tamed, and manageable images of Korean orphans coalesce into the politics of a model minority and assimilation during this period. She claims that applying the taxonomy of the orphan to all displaced and lost children having similar physical appearance has functioned to eradicate all differences from Korean orphans and to facilitate their acceptance as new children of the white American family.

Focusing on the Holt Adoption Program, Chapter 3 (“From Orphan to Adoptee: Normalizing the Adopted Child”) explores the question of how “the unwanted, abandoned orphan becomes a desirable adoptee” (p. 145) through processes of normalization and Americanization. Although U.S. financial aid to Korea increased, social welfare including supporting and maintaining orphanages was not a priority for the Korean government. Thus, transnational adoption of Korean orphans became an alternative solution to take care of the orphans and orphanages where orphans resided before they were adopted to the U.S., becoming a solution for child welfare. The Holt Adoption Program is well known for its humanitarian projects to rescue hungry orphans. The author illustrates that Holt tactically employed media to inform prospective adoptive parents of Korean orphans. Investigating newsletters and film reels, Pate argues that orphanages make unadoptable orphans adoptable through processes by which “the orphan is “improved” in terms of hygiene, physical health and development, and overall physical appearance” (p. 159). She gives particular attention to the racist logic that underscores the Holt Adoption Program. Light-skinned orphans are easier to adopt and the newsletters released by the program often offer praise to adoptive parents who adopt dark-skinned or ugly children. Focusing on the newsletters that displayed “before” and “after” pictures of children, the author claims that the newsletters functioned “as an effective tool to “advertise” their “product” (p. 166). She argues that this shows the visual progress of the child that “not only revealed docile body of the adoptee but also acted as evidence that these children were malleable and therefore, assimilable” (p. 167). Additionally, she notes that at the orphanages, prospective adoptees underwent Americanization through having an American diet and becoming Christian. This chapter also examines the politics of legitimacy that takes for granted that American adoptive parents are superior to Korean birthmothers as suitable for nurturing Korean orphans. Ironically, this also forged an increasing number of children separated from their parents, as those parents believed that the orphanages could take better care of their children than they could.

Chapter 4 (“The Queer Foundations of Korean Adoption”) examines Korean adoption through a lens of queer studies and defines terms like “normal, normative, and normativity (and their relationship to each other); white normativity, heteronormativity, heteropatriarchy; and normative” (p. 216). She argues that “Korean adoption is a queer formation of family” (p. 217) as it exposes racial and national differences. She juxtaposes the contrasting narratives of the newsletters by the Holt Adoption Program and literature by adoptees, such as Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood. The newsletters deliberately bring to the fore successful stories of Korean adoptees’ assimilation to white U.S. families along with updates about their graduations and marriages. The rhetoric facilitated in the newsletters is a tool to reassure potential adoptive parents that they could form normative families with these racially, culturally, and nationally different adoptees. In contrast, Pate claims that accounts by Korean adoptees uncover the limits and impossibilities of forging a heteronormative family bond.

A variety of sources from reels of film to newsletters released by adoption agencies including the Holt Adoption Program and cultural productions by adoptees provide very rich and insightful sources for analyzing the Korean adoption industry and shed light on the previously unhearable voices in the studies of Korean orphans and adoptees. Most of the scholarly works in this field have been done by non-adoptees and, thus, those studies have represented a monotonous narrative that aligns with the narrative of the model minority or assimilation theory. However, by juxtaposing paintings, literature, and film by Korean adoptees we can hear and see what the previous studies have hidden and ignored. This dissertation is a significant addition to the studies of Korean adoption and orphans.

Soojin Kim
Gyeongju University

Primary Sources

Archival films
Newspapers and Magazines
Literature, Film, and Visual art

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2010. 283 pp. Primary Advisors: Roderick A. Ferguson and Jigna Desai.

Image: GIs and the Orphans. Still Image. “Christmas Party for Korean Orphans, IX Corps, Kinsal, Korea.” National Archives at College Park.

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