Adopted Koreans, Stymied in Search of Birth Parents, Find Hope in a Cotton Swab

Every year adoptees return, looking for information about their past. But South Korean laws block them from obtaining their full birth records without their birth parents’ consent. And government adoption files are often falsified, incomplete or missing, making birth parents impossible to track down.

From 2012 to 2015, fewer than 15 percent of adoptees who asked to reunite with their birth parents were able to do so, according to Korean government figures.

For many, DNA testing offers a way around the bureaucratic hurdles and flawed records.

Ms. Stapel was one of a few dozen adoptees who took free DNA tests made available in Seoul this month during the International Korean Adoptee Associations Gathering, which meets every three years.

Monica Toudahl Knudsen, 33, who grew up in the Jutland peninsula, in Denmark, also took the test. She has been searching for her birth family since 2012.

According to her adoption file, her parents were teenage sweethearts who could not afford to raise her. On a previous trip to Seoul, she had visited the site of the midwife clinic where she was born. It now houses a cafe and fried chicken restaurant.

She feels grateful for her life in Denmark, where she is a chef. If she is ever able to meet her birth parents, she said, “I just want to thank them for letting me go.”


Monica Toudahl Knudsen, 33, whose Korean name is Lee Soon-sook, has been searching for her birth family since 2012. If she is ever able to meet her birth parents, she said, “I just want to thank them for letting me go.”

Jean Chung for The New York Times

The DNA testing movement has been largely financed by Thomas Park Clement, a Korean adoptee who now lives in Manhattan and in Bloomington, Ind. A scientist who founded Mectra Labs, a medical manufacturing company, he has pledged to spend $1 million on DNA kits to give away.

“I have throughout the years experienced so many of my fellow Korean adoptees’ frustrations with birth relative searches,” he said in a recent interview. “DNA is shortcutting the search process and bringing all parties in direct communication with each other.”

He has donated 2,550 kits to Korean adoptees and Korean War veterans in the United States. Some of the veterans are the fathers of the first wave of South Korea’s international adoptees. He has also given 450 to 325Kamra, a volunteer organization started last year, to distribute in South Korea.

When testing works, it is remarkably efficient.

This month, 325Kamra announced its first match between a Korean birth mother and an American adoptee. Within 48 hours, the adoptee, Kyung Eun Davidson, 33, of Everett, Wash., was speaking to her mother for the first time in 30 years.

“It’s been an amazing, crazy and wonderful experience,” Ms. Davidson told The Korea Herald.

The biggest obstacles to finding more matches are the databases themselves: There is no single consolidated database widely available both to Korean birth parents and to overseas Korean adoptees. Databases used by Americans and Koreans are incompatible and cannot share information.

The South Korean police collect DNA samples for their national database of missing people. Adoptees and birth parents are eligible to submit DNA for this database, and many do, but not nearly enough.

The testing done by 325Kamra goes into the databases of Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based DNA testing company, and GEDMatch, a service that scans for genetic matches from three popular testing companies: Family Tree, 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Ms. Davidson used 23andMe, her birth mother took the test with 325Kamra in South Korea, and they were connected by GEDMatch.

Another limitation is the parents. While an estimated 1,000 adoptees have submitted their DNA for matching on GEDMatch, only 100 birth parents have taken tests with 325Kamra. Many are afraid to come forward because of the shame associated with adoption in South Korea, where they risk being shunned by their families and communities.

Stigma has always been a factor in South Korea’s international adoptions, which began in the mid-1950s, when the children of Korean women and American servicemen were ostracized for their mixed racial heritage. Later, the shame of single parenthood fueled abandonments, and the poor local economy favored international adoption.

But by 1988, the country’s reputation as the leading baby exporter had become a national embarrassment, and the government introduced a quota system for international adoptions and began promoting domestic ones.

Adoptees are not the only ones placing their hopes in DNA tests.

Last month, Song Chang-sook, 89, traveled 200 miles from Pusan with his caregiver to take a DNA test in Seoul. Having heard about the testing on a morning television program, he was searching for the three sons he relinquished for adoption more than 40 years ago.

When his wife died of typhoid fever in 1970, his mother-in-law decided that the children should be given up for adoption rather than raised by a single father. He gave up his three sons: Won Ho, born in 1965; Won Young, born in 1967; and Won Hee, born in 1968.

Five years later, he returned to the adoption agency, Holt International, asking for their whereabouts. He inquired many more times after that. At one point, someone told him that his sons were living together in France. But Holt was prohibited from disclosing personal information about the three boys. The 2012 adoption law that gives adoptees the right to petition for their birth records offers no such benefit to the parents.

Mr. Song thinks about the last time he saw his children, on Nov. 3, 1971. The year before, his oldest son, Won Ho, had been hospitalized for a month with a broken shoulder from a car accident.

He wants to tell his children: I love you. You have no idea how much I struggle to find you.

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