SEOUL—Kara Bos, left in a parking lot 60 miles south of Seoul at the age of 2 and adopted by an American couple in Michigan, dreamed of finding her biological parents. Finally, last week, she saw her 85-year-old father after his wife and one of his daughters summarily rejected her when she attempted to call on him in a well-to-do district of Seoul. Sadly, the reunion did not go well.
“He was very hostile,” Bos, now 38 and living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their two children, told The Daily Beast. “The family hired two bodyguards. He had sunglasses on and a hat and a mask. Who would recognize him wearing all that?”
There were no warm embraces, no smiles when she saw her father in the office of a lawyer assisting in the case. Indeed, she did not so much as shake hands with him, much less ask the question that has haunted her for years: Where’s my mother?
“He wouldn’t listen,” she said. “After not even 10 minutes he left. I showed pictures of myself. He wouldn’t look at them.”
Bos’s quest for roots typifies the yearning of thousands of Koreans adopted by American and European families who want to discover their origins, to relate to the parents responsible for bringing them into the world then abandoning them, surrendering them to uncertain lives in foreign lands.
The difference between Bos's case and almost all the others is she was not only able to find her father but to meet him. And in that one fleeting encounter she got an up-close, personal insight into the way Koreans reject children born out of wedlock.
“Korean people do not want to see the baby later,” said Cho Song-a, director of Angel’s Haven, one of several agencies that have expedited adoptions over the years. “Korean people are closed, not open. Korea is very traditional.”
Despite the rigid cultural view, 167,864 Korean babies have been sent to new lives overseas since the Korean War, about 110,000 of them to the U.S. In the early years most were born to American GI’s and Korean women during and after the conflict. Since then nearly all adopted babies have been purely Korean, the offspring of parents who never married or were simply too impoverished to care for them.
“Now Korea is such a rich country, but we’re still sending babies,” said Kim Do-hyun, a Presbyterian pastor who runs a small guest house, KoRoot, that has provided lodging for adoptees in search of their roots for the last 17 years.
Pastor Kim is skeptical about the whole system of adoptions, about the welfare of the babies as they grow up in foreign countries, and about their adoptive parents as well as the Koreans who let them be raised in a very different society.
“We can understand if it’s an emergency,” he said, “but if you’re seriously thinking what is the best for the child, a human being needs a lot more”—that is, according to him, the love of the birth mother that he believes adoptive parents can never quite convey.
Kim's attitude is itself a reflection of the broader societal judgment here. He criticizes the basic attitude of many adoptive families. “Western people are thinking, we are saving the children,” he said, but “if you are 100 percent concerned about the child, the child has to grow up in the original family.” Obviously in many cases that was never going to happen.
But uncertainty among the children, even long into adulthood, is what drives Bos and others to search for their biological parents even if they are reasonably happy in their adoptive families. For Bos, the all-too-brief encounter with her biological father did nothing to make her feel better.
Even when she attempted to get him to read a letter that she had written about her quest, she found communication impossible. “He wouldn’t look at the letter,” she said.
When her lawyer tried to read the letter for her, her father interrupted. When the lawyer said, “This is your daughter, look at her face,” he responded, “I have three daughters” but added, “Your face is pretty”—the only bright spot in the encounter. The meeting ended abruptly when he simply said he was leaving, and the bodyguards said, “Let’s go.”
But why then did the father agree to meet at the lawyer’s office in the first place?
The answer lies in the extraordinary DNA link that Kara discovered—and the ruling by the family court in Seoul on June 12 that the DNA confirmed with 99.99 percent certainty her belief that the man whom she had assumed was her father through her DNA link with his grandson was correct.
The court came to that definitive conclusion after ordering DNA tests to be conducted at Seoul National University for both Bos and her father. “Yes he took a DNA test,” said Kara. “I would assume, just as when they took mine, they explained what they were doing and why to him along with taking a picture of him while taking the test. This test result was then sent to the court.” But it's possible, she said, "he wasn’t told by his family when it was taken on April 6 that he was doing it."
The ruling not only confirmed the relationship but required the father to recognize her legally as his daughter and put his name on the official family register, as is done with all Korean families.
“To my father’s credit he didn’t know about me or the lawsuit until June 12, even though I’d had contact with his extended family since January 2019,” said Bos. “After the verdict his family told him, but the fact he showed up with bodyguards tells enough that he was unwilling to talk. When my lawyer tried to explain the situation, he indeed denied it and wouldn’t even let us ask any questions. Kept interrupting and then left. We didn’t even have any time alone together.”
Bos had discovered the link after comparing the result of a DNA test on a genealogy website with a Korean student who turned out to be the son of one of her father’s daughters, presumably her half-sister. When Bos called on her last year, the woman phoned the police, and she phoned security for her apartment building when Bos called again in March.
It was the media attention after the family court ruling that got the father to show up in the office of Bos’s lawyer, but his refusal to enter into a conversation showed he intended only to avoid responsibility.
“He acts as if he doesn’t know the story,” said the lawyer, Yang Jeong-eun, who did most of the talking for Bos, whose knowledge of Korean is highly limited. “He is deaf, he cannot hear well. I said you had a DNA test. He denied having had a test. I said she is family, too.”
All the while Bos was waiting anxiously, hoping to learn her mother’s name. “We want to ask her father about her mother’s name,” said Yang, but “we could not ask. He said I don’t want to hear, I want to leave. He did not want to talk to us.”
Kara Bos wept after her father had left. She has not totally given up, but accepts the reality she will probably never find the woman who bore her and nurtured her for the first two years of her life. The only link she has is through her father.
“I’m honestly not doing too great today,” she said in a telephone conversation before returning to her family in the Netherlands, but more than many adoptees she is relatively happy. She looks back on “a really good childhood” with loving adoptive parents and their two older biological children in Plainwell, Michigan. Having majored in business at Western Michigan University in nearby Kalamazoo, she met her husband while both were working for a Dutch company in Virginia. All her family are supportive of her visits here in search of the man and woman who created her.
Bos wants her father, who made a successful career as a banker, to know she’s not after the money that he will be leaving to his wife and three daughters, her half-sisters, although she would be entitled under Korean law.
“I’m entitled to an equal share with his other children," she said, but “if he doesn’t include me in his will, for instance, then I would have to file a lawsuit yet again to fight for my share, and if I win the lawsuit I would receive only 50 percent of my initial right to inheritance.” Bos, having had “no intention of filing a lawsuit” in the first place, “had no idea it would become such a big deal.” For that matter, she had never imagined her story “would make such an impact on other adoptees around the world.”
On an abstract level, though, she understands why she was rejected. “There’s a lot of sensitivity about the adoption issue,” she said. “For a Korean to be born out of wedlock is considered shameful.”
In fact, the cultural response is such that the Korean government in recent years has adopted severe constraints on adoptions, including mandatory registration of every birth. Babies put up for adoption are handled by private agencies that care for them while finding suitable adoptive families, but for the past 10 years it’s been up to the family court to review and approve every adoption.
The search for birth parents remains an emotionally draining, time-consuming ordeal. “International adoption is still being carried out in South Korea by these private institutions, but there isn’t a single law allowing adoptees to have the right to know their origins,” Bos said. “We are only allowed to reach out through a third party to our parents if their names and ID’s are on our files through our agencies. You cannot access them directly, and the agency deals with reaching out to them. If they don’t want to contact them, we have to just wait until that changes. There is nothing we can do to reach out to other family members due to the special adoption law and privacy laws in Korea.”
While Korea worries about its aging population, the number of adoptions to the U.S. has gone down from annual highs of 8,837 in 1985 and 8,680 in 1986 to 303 in 2018 and 317 last year. Even those may be too many in the view of Pastor Kim. He says he has seen “many adoptees who are successful,” but, “The internal struggle is so hard."
For Bos, becoming a mother triggered her search for her own mother.
“I didn’t start thinking about my adoption or think about starting a birth family search until my own daughter turned 2 years old, the same age as I was when I was abandoned,” said Bos. “This made me see both myself and the trauma surrounding my adoption as a child at 2 as a mini-person fully capable to know who her family is and has a personality.”
Kara Bos’s thoughts also turn inevitably to the inner feelings of her birth mother, “who was probably forced to make this painful decision.” It’s as much for her mother’s sake as her own that she longs to meet her. “She must feel guilt and shame every day of her life,” she said. “I want to relieve that and build a new relationship with her if possible.”
Bos clings to the dream despite the icy response of her father. “He didn’t want to know about me,” she said. But “he is my only link to my mother,” she repeated, and without his help she knows that despite her hopes her chance of reconnecting may be lost forever.