Adopted Territory by Anthropologist Dr. Elena J. Kim ( 2010)

Full Text Sharing

Adopted Territory Reviewed by: Bala Raju Nikku

Reviewed book : Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging For many years Asian countries were the main source of children for inter-country adoption (ICA) in both Europe and the USA, and Korea is no exception to this.

Adoptions from the Philippines started in the 1960s, fromIndiaandVietnamin the 1970s, but adoptions fromKoreadate back to 1953. In the USA, in particular, Korea dominated the scene, accounting for over 50 percent of children adopted from abroad in the years 1972 to 1987 (Altstein and Simon, 1991).

Nearly 111,000 Korean children had been adopted worldwide fromKoreaand by 2007 the total had risen to over 160,000, despite a sharp decline in annual totals after the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Up till 1995, Korean adoptees formed the largest number of foreign-born children who were placed in American families (Huh and Reid, 2010). Today children involved in adoption worldwide is a phenomenon involving over 30,000 children a year moving between more than a hundred countries (Selman 2002) .

Professional divide on adoption The debate and discourse on intercountry adoption has been framed in terms of three perspectives: proponents who advocate intercountry adoption, abolitionists who argue for its elimination and pragmatists who look for ways to improve both the conditions in sending countries and the procedures for intercountry transfer of children (Gibbons and Rotabi, 2012).

Anthropologists are more likely to view international adoptions as related to family formation- highlighting the way that adoptions mean the removal of a child from one family and the incorporation of that child into another. Demographers are more likely to view international adoptions as a very small slice of international migration – highlighting the fact that a person has been relocated from one nation to another. Migration is the dominant frame that demographers use to understand international adoption (Lovelock 2000 ; Weil 1984 ), but international adoptees fit imperfectly into demographic understandings of international migration Demographers have labeled international adoption as - the unknown immigration (Lozano and Kossoudji 2009), or the - quiet migration (Weil 1984; Selman 2002).

Adopted territory The book by Anthropologist Dr. Elena J. Kim in 2010 is a useful addition to the anthropological, ethnographic tradition to study and unravel the complex human connections with the practice of international adoptions taking South Koreaas a case in point. This book on and about Korean-American adoptees came at a time the Korean government moved towards a long-promised ending of international child adoptions after 55 years of first sending children to the USA.

This is an interesting transition in terms of policy change and Korean state identity, making Adopted Territory a timely one seeking to contextualise Korean adoption politics and process comparative by emphasising legal elements such as adoptee identification, transnational cultures, customs and politics of belonging. Dr. Kim’s use of ethnographic tools captured the breadth and depth of global Korean adoptee politics, transforming rapidly in to a political movement.

Adopted Territory makes a useful contribution to the adoption literature and is a helpful reference for students, academics and other Asia scholars who are interested in knowing and understanding more about intercountry, transracial adoptions, politics of adoption policies and children rights in a more globalizing Asia. The book is structured into two parts. Four chapters in part I provide the reader finer details and descriptions about Korean adoptions and the emergence of Korean adult adoptee counter public within the political and economic transformations of the late twentieth century. Part II comprises three chapters for which the location of analysis is contemporarySouth Korea.

Kim, in this section, eloquently examines the South Korean government’s recognition of adoptees as “overseas Koreans’’ (p38). By dividing the book into two parts (part I is focused on adoptee lives in the receiving country - USA - and part II, the sending country - South Korea) Kim uses a multi-sited ethnography that gives the reader an insight into the fascinating and complex worlds of Korean American adoptees and their biological and adoptee families.

In chapter 1, appropriately titled ‘Waifs and Orphans’, Kim explains the very origins of Korean Adoption. She argues that “the construction of adoption as an expression of humanistic altruism is perhaps most easily defended by those who benefit from the discrepancies in economic, social political, and gendered power between western parents and those elsewhere” ( p.44). She further explains how in the 1950s the “American press especially influential in provoking sentimental reactions among Americans, many of whom responded to media images of orphans and ‘mixed race’ children by contacting the Korean government to donate money, clothing, and toys to orphanages or to inquire about how to adopt these children in to their families” ( p.45).

Kim also mentions the rigidity and stringent requirements of American adoption policies of that time and the shortage of available white babies for infertile American couples who found a humanitarian opportunity to adopt mixed race postwar babies who were born due to American soldiers’ and Korean women’s consensual sexual activities, “unaccepted by Koreans and unwanted by their American fathers” ( p.60). From her archival research Kim captures in this chapter the Americans’ articulation of their desires for Korean children and the ways in which the first Korean state administration accommodative role helped to facilitate adoptions in the early years. Kim shows in this chapter how the ideologies of family and nation intersected with dominant adoption practices. She also refers that “social work profession in America was finding itself under attack, not only for being the gatekeepers to a couple’s potential happiness and fulfillment as parents but also for screening procedures that many couples felt were discriminatory and unsuccessful prying” (p57).

Kim documents in this chapter how some American families were disappointed when the Korean fathers claimed their paternal rights and the child could not be released for adoption. The labeling of an illegitimate or abandoned child as an ‘orphan’ raised a lot of hopes across national borders and cultures “despite its inaccuracy, however, framed these children as desperate for material aid and rescue” (p.75).

This book evidently captures the four aspects of Korean adoptee social practices: 1. Self-consciousness about not fitting in to dominant categories of race, family and nation; 2. the ability to access and capitalize on the internet’s networking potentials; 3. the significance of conferences as face-to-face meeting grounds and sites of self-objectification where adoptees construct quasi public representations of themselves and for themselves and broader audiences; and 4. the recognition of adoptees as part of the diaspora by native and overseas Koreans( p.85).

Chapters 2 ‘Adoptee Kinship’ and 3 ‘Adoptee Cultural Citizenship’ are about the emergence of a ‘Korean adoptee community’ and its key characteristics. Chapters 4 and 5 provide the reader a detailed description on the formation of collective adoptee identity and recognition of adoptees. In addition these two chapters offer the shift from American Korean Adoptee identity to Global Korean. Kim captured the dynamics between the South Korean state and Korean adoptees so eloquently that by doing so she further explores the dialectical relationship by raising questions about cultural citizenship and national belonging for a diaspora that is being newly (re)valued by the South Korean state, in this book and elsewhere ( Kim, 2003) .

Conclusion : While reading Adopted Territory, I am aware of my own convictions that adoption policies do fail and hence they make children end up in orphanages and stay homes away from prospective parents domestically and internationally. At the same time I am also mindful that we have a lot of evidence about how international adoptions fail in ensuring the child’s best interest. International organisations like UNICEF are working to reduce adoption abuses, and argue for regulatory ‘reform’ to ensure against baby buying and fraud. It encourages policies that are culturally appropriate in-country placements and foster care models. This book by Kim is a valuable book for anyone who is interested in family building, fertility politics, adoption market, kinship, biology and belonging; it offers an ethnographically rich, theoretically refined, politically neutral account of adoptees and their worlds.

For a critical reader, this book raises many interesting questions:South Koreais eager to reclaim its “overseas Koreans”- What does this mean for future transnational, trans-racial adoptions? What lessons can be learned from the Korean case? Do children seem to go through distinct stages in the development of ethnic identity? Why isSouth Koreastill encouraging international adoptions even when its own fertility rates are the lowest? South Korean data provided by Ministry of Health and Welfare shows a reduction of adoptees between 2003 (2287) and 2007 (1265).

Is this decline in international child adoptions due to availability of other options like? We do not have clear answers yet but this issue needs to be explored, as it raises critical human rights questions based on the way ‘informed consent’ is practiced or misused. All together the chapters in this book show evidence of changing practices and attitudes in the transnational adoption sector in the 21st century. Kim’s book shows how the kinship relations created through adoptee conferences and open policies have resulted in a distinctly postmodern turn as adoptive families nurture rather than disunite their new children’s cultural connections to birth countries.

This realization will have a crucial impact on the transnational adoption policies in which both sending and receiving countries and families will have shared responsibilities and territories to nurturing global citizens rather than seeing these children as orphans, adoptees or children for sale.

Bala Raju Nikku, Sr. Visiting Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Founding Director, Nepal School of Social Work. (,


Please send me an email if you would like to have the references used in this text. thank you. you are most welcome to post your comments. 

Position: Sr.lecturer, University Sains Malaysia & founding Director of Nepal school of Social Work

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.