South Korea

A Korean Adoptee Won a Landmark Paternity Suit in a Korean Court. Her Case Could Have Implications for Thousands.

Other Korean adoptees engaged in their own searches for their biological parents have cheered the verdict.
June 15, 2020, 11:49am
kara bos south korea adoption paternity court case
Korean adoptee Kara Bos (L), whose Korean name is Kang Mee Sook, speaks
to the media after a ruling on her paternity suit at the Seoul Family
Court in Seoul on June 12, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

After years of hitting roadblocks in her search for her biological mother, Korean-born adoptee Kara Bos, 38, was handed a major victory on Friday when a Korean court ruled in her favor in a first-of-its-kind paternity suit.

The ruling by the Seoul Family Court officially recognized Bos as the daughter of her 85-year-old biological father, acknowledging adoptees’ legal rights to find their roots. The ruling sets a new precedent for a generation of adoptees taken from Korea, renewing for many a sense of hope in their often laborious and fruitless searches for their biological parents.

Tamara Strickley, a US-based Korean adoptee who considers herself part of the first wave of transnational Korean adoptions in the 1960s, told VICE News she understood the desire to find one’s roots despite obstacles.

“While many were adopted into good families with opportunities given to them, adoptees have a deep desire to know where they come from, why were they given up, to know if they have brothers and sisters, to hug their birth mother and father,” Strickley said. “These are missing in their lives, and adoptees should not have to go through all the hoops required to find the answers to their questions.”

Bos's story is not unlike that of the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted by overseas parents since the start of transnational adoptions in the aftermath of the Korean War. Then called Kang Mee Sook, a 2-year-old Bos was found in 1983 abandoned in a market parking lot in Goesan. Within 10 months, in 1984, she was flown to the United States to join her new adoptive parents.

Following her adoption in Michigan, Bos became an American citizen, and now lives in Amsterdam with her family. Forming maternal bonds while raising her own daughter made Bos consider the pain her own mother must have felt in abandoning her, renewing Bos's search for her roots.

She started making trips to South Korea, where she rummaged through archives and distributed leaflets in the neighborhood where she was abandoned. A DNA test matched her to remaining family members, and ultimately one man was determined to be her father.

Three women believed to be Bos's half-sisters barred her from meeting her father, stating that she was not family. Bos told reporters on Friday that she had literally begged on her knees at the door in a bid to speak to her father, but to no avail. As a last resort, she filed her paternity suit on November 18 last year, some 36 years after she was abandoned.

In officially recognizing Bos as the child of her biological father, Friday’s ruling prohibits her half-sisters from barring future visits, and could even entitle Bos to inheritance.

Bos said that her intention has always been to find her mother, for whom her father is her only point of connection.

Even though her father is not obligated to meet her, Bos told the New York Times that the lawsuit was worth it, as it highlighted the pain felt by Korean adoptees in their search for home.

David Smolin, a Samford University law professor and director of the Center for Children, Law and Ethics, told VICE News that the ruling was a significant opinion that will hopefully set a new precedent for respecting the rights of adoptees to know their origins.

Some legal systems, including in some U.S. states, do not officially recognize the parent-child relationship of adoptees regardless of DNA evidence because adoption presumes the “severance of the prior familial relationships,” Smolin said. However, some adoption systems recognize both sets of familial relationships.

“From my perspective, legal recognition of the parent-child relationship in this instance is a very positive step because it goes beyond the legal fiction which pretends that there is no relationship between an adoptee and the adoptee’s original family,” Smolin told VICE.

Adoptees’ search for their roots has never been easy, but increasingly adults have returned to their birth country to embark on the journey.

In the United States, online groups have emerged in recent years for Korean adoptees to share their experiences, and in some cases, aid each other in their search for their birth families. Posting the often scant information they know about their adoption—usually, their given name, case number, birthdays, and a photograph—many ask for any leads or suggestions on where to look.

However, social stigma, privacy laws, and poorly kept or falsified adoption papers from years ago have proven major barriers to the search.

Amy Barrett Carr, a Korean adoptee who resides in Washington state, was either lost or abandoned, and later found in the Yuga-myeon area of Daegu in May 1971. The adoption agency assigned her a birthdate (January 8, 1969), and a name too (Oh Mee Sook) because she was not speaking at the time. With no knowledge of her actual name and birthday, her search for her biological parents has been difficult.

Amy Barrett Carr in a photo taken in Korea within days of her being found in the Yuga-myeon area in Daegu, May 1971 (left), and a poster created by Carr to aid in her search for her biological family (right). Photos courtesy of Amy Barrett Carr.

Carr told VICE News that Bos's lawsuit was “bold and courageous,” adding that there are very few other options for those seeking their parents given strict laws surrounding privacy in Korea.

“I think it’s no holds barred. Whatever each adoptee needs to do to bring their story to completion and to be made whole — I think they should be able to do these things,” said Carr, now 51. “I figure I don’t have much more time to find my birth parents, so I do as much as I can in the short time I’ve got left to do active searching.”

Carr has been making trips to South Korea twice a year since her first visit in 2017. Each time, she does something to make headway in her birth family search.

In her birth city of Daegu, community members helped to post large banners of Carr as a toddler around town to aid in her search. She’s also tried forensic hypnosis and posting information online. She just booked her next flight to Korea for October, and plans to give back to the community while furthering her search by distributing parcels of food for the elderly and including information about her case in each one.

DNA testing, which ultimately led to Bos's breakthrough, is a recent intervention. Organizations such as 325Kamra, founded in 2015 in California, use mass DNA testing as a genealogical search tool to reunite separated Korean families, distributing DNA kits worldwide, and attempting to build family trees with adoptees.

While Carr said that from an adoptee perspective, most people are on board with DNA testing, the relatively new process is still difficult to broach in Korea, and many adoptees approach conversations about DNA cautiously with Korean relatives.

Still, the opportunity to go back to Korea, despite spending over four decades away, has been healing for Carr.

“There were things about Korea that I sensed I remembered—and I was only 2-and-a-half. I don’t have distinct memories, but there were sounds,” she said. “When I was riding the train in the landscape of Daegu, it instantly felt like it was home. There were bustling around markets that I felt very comforted by. Those things are in my memory way back there that I can’t really articulate. And being out in the country where I was found, there was just a peace.”

Carr imagines that Bos may have sensed those things too.

“I’m sure many of us have those thoughts about ‘Am I remembering these things correctly?’ And if you don’t have anyone to say ‘Yes, that was true’ or ‘No, this wasn’t true,’ then you just have these longing questions left,” Carr said.

Meanwhile, Simone Eun Mi, an adoptee rights activist, told VICE News that she hopes the attention on Bos’s case will spark a debate about restorative adoptee justice. She hopes that governments and countries acknowledge that they’ve failed to “protect the rights of the most vulnerable parties involved in the adoption industrial complex: the child sent out of the country.”

But even with Bos’s success lending hope to many, Carr said she believes Korea has a long way to go in helping the generation it gave away.

“It’s sad that they are not able to truly embrace all the children they’ve sent away. And truly embracing us is helping us find our familial ties,” Carr said. “Until they do that, they will find adoptees willing to go to great lengths.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.