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This Korean Adoption Documentary is a Heartbreaking History Lesson

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Four small Korean children practice knitting at an orphanage, 1950s. ('Geographies of Kinship')

Geographies of Kinship is an engrossing film by Berkeley filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem that had me quietly weeping one moment and angrily yelling at the screen the next.

The documentary details the complex and often shocking history of how Korea became the largest exporter of babies in the world. Kinship’s strength lies in how it humanizes the fallout of the adoption practices that found their footing during the Korean War, and became a booming business by the 1980s. The film’s heart is in its profiles of four adoptees born in Korea and raised in the West—two in America, one in Sweden and one in Switzerland. But it’s also bolstered by efficient explainers that detail how Korean culture and politics clashed in a perfect storm that turned orphans into an industry.

As Kinship so effectively explains, though the Korean children arriving in the West were, for decades, presented as orphans, that often was not the case. It’s true that the first orphans brought to the U.S. were some of the 100,000 Korean children who lost their parents in the war. But after some high-profile adoptions by Americans returning home, demand for Korean babies shot up. Soon, hundreds of children were being sent to America to live with new parents they’d never met before and knew nothing about. Despite the fact that many of them had living family members.

In Kinship, this is the experience of Jane Jeong Trenka, whose Minnesotan parents were told they were adopting an orphan, only to have her arrive with family photos. Trenka’s birth mother sent regular letters to her American home throughout her life—correspondence Trenka did not get until she actively started checking the mailbox herself. Trenka’s birth mother, and thousands of women like her, had given her daughter up because she was caught in an impossible situation.

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Until 2008, Korea’s children had to be in the hojuk—a registry that only acknowledged babies with male guardians—in order to acquire citizenship rights or access to an education. Put simply: no father, no future. And the Korean War left behind a lot of fatherless babies. These children were the result of rape, consensual affairs with American servicemen, or sex work. (Sex work that was sanctioned by the Korean government to keep the American forces happy.)

Exacerbating the hojuk problem was the stigma that came with babies who were visibly mixed race. The automatic assumption was that their mother was a prostitute, impregnated by an American G.I. And the prevailing attitude in Korea was: if the father was American, then the baby belonged in America. Needless to say, not all of those who were adopted and sent overseas were guaranteed a happy ending.

Estelle Cooke-Sampson was born to a Korean mother and a Black American father. After years spent languishing in an orphanage, she was taken home by an American sergeant to live with him, his wife and his four sons. On arrival, despite her young age, Cooke-Sampson was treated like a domestic servant. That treatment persisted until she was able to extricate herself in her teens. Cooke-Sampson’s interviews about her early life in Kinship are devastating, as is the footage of her trying in adulthood to find out where she came from. Watching her struggle to figure out her real birth date is quite stunning.

Yet more babies were abandoned after the mass industrialization of Korea began in 1961, and the poverty rates went up. Parents who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school sometimes gave them to orphanages where children were guaranteed a basic education.

A white woman with blue eyes, wearing a white jacket and blue hat holds an Asian baby close to her, smiling warmly.
LenaKim Arctaedius as a baby, in the arms of her Swedish adoptive mother, as seen in ‘Geographies of Kinship.’ Arctaedius is the only subject in the documentary who had a truly happy childhood. ('Geographies of Kinship')

All the while, hunger to adopt Korean babies increased across the United States and Europe. Orphanages and adoption agencies began actively seeking out children in impoverished areas, tempting birth parents with promises of better lives for their kids. Yet there were no regulations in place to give those children a safety net. Kinship is precise about just how many children got caught in the crossfire. In Korea in 1955, 715 children were abandoned to about 300 orphanages. In 1968, there were 600 orphanages housing around 70,000 children. Overseas adoption rates went from under 3,000 in the 1950s to over 66,000 in the 1980s.

Geographies of Kinship made the film festival rounds back in 2019. It’s being revived now as part of WORLD Channel’s celebration of AAPI Heritage Month. But it’s a documentary that will be important long into the future.

It’s a testament to humanity’s longing for roots and family. It’s an important history lesson related to American intervention overseas. And it also acts as an indictment: this is what happens when single and working-class mothers are not given the support they need to give their kids even basic opportunities. That final point is something well worth discussing, especially as American women face a future where motherhood is no longer a choice.

‘Geographies of Kinship’ is streaming now on the WORLD Channel. Watch here

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