Back to top

Korean Transracial Adoption in Minnesota

Creator: 
  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Color image of Gabe (Michael Sung-Ho) and Billy (Eric Sharp) in the Mu Performing Arts production of Middle Brother, written by Eric Sharp and directed by Robert Rosen, 2014. Michal Daniel, photographer.

Gabe (Michael Sung-Ho) and Billy (Eric Sharp) in the Mu Performing Arts production of Middle Brother, written by Eric Sharp and directed by Robert Rosen, 2014. Photograph by Michal Daniel.

Korean adoption to the United States began at the end of the Korean War and continues in the 2010s. Over 200,000 Korean children have been adopted worldwide, with over 120,000 joining American homes. Minnesota has the highest concentration of Korean adoptees of any state, and its large and visible Korean adoptee population has made crucial contributions to local culture.

Korean transnational adoption began soon after the Korean Armistice Agreement halted fighting on the Korean Peninsula in 1953. In the aftermath of the Korean War, transracial adoption was promoted in the United States and Europe as a way to provide homes for unwanted or orphaned children.

As South Korea gradually stabilized, the number of mixed-race children and war orphans available for adoption dropped. Demand for adoptable children, however, continued to rise. As a result, Korean children born to poor families or to unmarried women became the most likely to be sent for adoption.

In addition to Western demand, South Korean government policies and cultural norms were major factors in the availability of Korean children for overseas adoption. South Korea’s initial encouragement of transracial adoption was rooted in a belief that Korean society would never accept mixed-race children. Subsequent support for the overseas adoption of orphaned or displaced children reflected a broad Korean cultural bias against adoption.

During the country’s rapid economic expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, the South Korean government prioritized economic growth over social welfare programs. As overseas Korean adoption continued to expand throughout the 1970s and 1980s, critics saw it as outsourcing of child-welfare functions that were not provided for in South Korea. During the peak years of Korean transracial adoption in the mid-1980s, the United States placed more than 6,000 Korean children annually. By 2017, the number of Korean overseas adoptions had dropped to a couple of hundred a year.

Minnesota’s involvement in Korean adoption began in 1955 through a program run by Children’s Home Society of Minnesota (CHS). It increased when CHS and Lutheran Social Services (LSS) began Korean adoption programs in 1967 and 1969, respectively.

The high rate of international adoption in Minnesota was noted as early as 1974 in a Minneapolis newspaper article. The article reported that 10 percent of all applications for foreign adoption in the U.S. that year had come from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Put together, these states contained less than 2.5 percent of the country’s population. The high concentration of Korean adoptees in Minnesota is the result of several overlapping cultural, structural, and procedural factors.

Progressive politics tended to favor social welfare programs such as state facilitation and regulation of adoption. Minnesotans have expressed progressive ideas through groups like the leftist Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party and the Citizens League. These have shaped the state’s child welfare policies since before the beginning of Korean American adoption.

The state’s predominantly white population is made up largely of the descendants of immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany. In the past, both of those nations’ cultures have been more permissive of non-biological kinship than the nations of southern and eastern Europe. Sweden, for instance, has the highest concentration of Korean adoptees of any nation in the world. Minnesota was also the site of the first African American to white transracial adoption, in 1948.

The state’s ethnic homogeneity may also have contributed to Minnesotans’ willingness to adopt transracially. Assimilative rather than separatist views of race relations have generally predominated. Public interracial conflicts were less prominent in mid-twentieth-century Minnesota than in other parts of the United States with more people of color.

Several private organizations involved in adoption from Korea have roots in Minnesota. Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota traces its history to 1865, when the Vasa Lutheran Church took in four orphan children in Red Wing. In 1889, Children’s Home Society of Minnesota was founded to facilitate the adoption of children transported from the East Coast to the Midwest on “orphan trains.” South Korean Kun Chil Park did his graduate work at the University of Minnesota and interned at LSS before founding Korean Social Services (KSS), one of four overseas adoption agencies in South Korea, in 1964.

By the 1970s, Minnesota’s high rate of Korean adoption created a snowball effect. As more Korean adoptees joined Minnesota families, parents interested in adopting noticed their arrival. This, in turn, led more Minnesotans to seek out Korean children. The large and growing population of Korean adoptees spurred the creation of community resources for Korean and other transnational adoptees and their families. Culture camps, for example, exposed children and teens to Korean culture and language. They included Korean Culture Camp (KCC) of Minnesota; Kamp Kimchee; Camp Choson; and Camp Moon Hwa.

Arts groups for Korean adoptees, such as the Jang-Mi Korean Dance and Drum school and performance group, began to form in the 1980s. Minnesotan adoptive father Brian Boyd founded Yeong & Yeong/Koryo Books to cover topics related to adoption. And adoptee networking groups, including Minnesota Adopted Koreans (established in 1991, active through the late 1990s) and AK Connection (established in 2000) brought together adult Korean adoptees.

The Asian American population in Minnesota is small but growing rapidly. Asian Americans made up less than one-quarter of one percent of the state’s population in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2017, they constitute 4 percent. Korean adoptees, who began to arrive in Minnesota in large numbers during this time, are one of the most established Asian American groups in the state. Together, they make up almost half of Minnesota’s Korean American population. The many Korean American adoptees in the state have been visible and important participants in cultural production and academic research, especially in the Twin Cities.

Adult Korean adoptees have been especially prominent in the arts. The works of poet Sun Yung Shin and memoirist Jane Jeong Trenka have gained national and international acclaim. Korean adoptee experiences have figured prominently in works produced by the Twin Cities-based Asian American performance arts organization Mu Performing Arts (established 1992).

Mu’s first season included Mask Dance (1993), a play authored by Mu cofounder and artistic director Rick Shiomi. It was based on conversations with local Korean adoptees. Subsequent Mu productions continued to address adoption. The Walleye Kid, coauthored by Shiomi and Minnesota Korean adoptee Sundraya Kase, premiered in 1998. Four Destinies, by (then) Minnesota-based Korean adoptee Katie Hae Leo, followed in 2011. Minnesotan Korean adoptee Eric’s Sharp’s Middle Brother debuted in 2014.

The Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota (U of M) has produced a significant body of research focusing on issues related to Korean adoption. It includes at least fourteen doctoral dissertations and three master’s theses in the departments of Psychology, American Studies, Social Work, Theater Arts, English, and History.

The U of M’s hospital system is home to the first adoption medical clinic in the U.S. Established in 1986, it specializes in health issues related to international adoption. The Social Welfare History Archives of the U of M Libraries has the largest holdings of adoption-related social service administrative records in the nation.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

“Area Adopts Many Foreign Tots.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 23, 1974.

Bureau of the Census. Historical Census, Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990. “Table 8, Race and Hispanic Origin of the Population by Nativity: 1850 to 1990.”
https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/tab08.html

Children’s Home Society Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Mission and History.
https://chlss.org/about-us/mission-history/

Korea Social Service. What We Do.
http://www.kssinc.org

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Mission & History.
http://www.lssmn.org/About-Us/History/

Mason, Sarah R. “The Koreans.” In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, edited by June Drenning Holmquist, 572–579. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Ode, Kim. “Flood of Adopted Korean Babies Ebbs: Thousands of Youngsters were the Unwanted Aftermath of War.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 24, 1989.

Oh, Arissa H. To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Park Nelson, Kim. Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences and Racial Exceptionalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Pilotti, Francisco. “Intercountry Adoption: Trends, Issues, and Policy Implications for the 1990’s.” Childhood 1, no. 3 (1993): 165–177.

U.S. Department of State. Immigrant visas issued to orphans coming to the U.S. http://travel.state.gov/family/adoption/stats/stats_451.html

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. Intercountry Adoptions. https://travel.state.gov/content/adoptionsabroad/en/about-us/statistics.html

Weil, Richard H. “International Adoptions: The Quiet Migration.” International Migration Review 18, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 276–293.

Related Images

Color image of Gabe (Michael Sung-Ho) and Billy (Eric Sharp) in the Mu Performing Arts production of Middle Brother, written by Eric Sharp and directed by Robert Rosen, 2014. Michal Daniel, photographer.
Color image of Gabe (Michael Sung-Ho) and Billy (Eric Sharp) in the Mu Performing Arts production of Middle Brother, written by Eric Sharp and directed by Robert Rosen, 2014. Michal Daniel, photographer.
Color image of Shaman (Jennifer Weir) and Chwibari Dancer (Kaori Kenmatsu) in the Mu Performing Arts production of <em>Walleye Kid</em>, written by R. A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase, directed by Rick Shiomi, 1998. Photographed by Charissa Uemara.
Color image of Shaman (Jennifer Weir) and Chwibari Dancer (Kaori Kenmatsu) in the Mu Performing Arts production of <em>Walleye Kid</em>, written by R. A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase, directed by Rick Shiomi, 1998. Photographed by Charissa Uemara.
Color image of adopted Korean children in costume at Dual Heritage Conference, 1981.
Color image of adopted Korean children in costume at Dual Heritage Conference, 1981.

Turning Point

In the late 1990s, Korean adoptees in Minnesota begin to develop as a culturally, academically, and socially active population that foregrounds their experiences as people of color. This shift marks the evolution of the state's adoptee community from a demographic anomaly to an active and visible part of Minnesota’s culture.

Chronology

1948

The first U.S. transracial adoption of a black child into a white family takes place in Minnesota.

1953

The first Korean adoption in the United States takes place.

1955

The Children’s Home Society organizes the first Korean adoptions to the state of Minnesota through its Baby From Abroad program.

1967

The Children’s Home Society begins its Korean adoption program.

1969

Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota begins its Korean adoption program.

1977

Korean Culture Camp of Minnesota holds its first camp for Korean adoptees.

1978

The total number of Korean children adopted into American families reaches 29,608.

1980

About four thousand adopted Koreans—10 percent of the total number of Koreans living in the United States—live in Minnesota.

1986

Korean adoption to the United States peaks.

1993

Theater Mu produces Mask Dance, a play about Korean adoptees.

2000

AK Connection, the Minnesota networking organization for adult Korean adoptees, is established.

2003

Minnesota Historical Society Press publishes The Language of Blood, a memoir about growing up as a Korean adoptee in Minnesota by Korean adoptee Jane Jeong Trenka.

2011

Four Destinies, a satire about adoption by Korean adoptee playwright Katie Hae Leo, premieres at Mu Performing Arts.

2014

Mu Performing Arts produces Middle Brother, a play by Korean adoptee Eric Sharp.