Actress Sandra Oh has taken on a new starring role: North Korean adoption activist.
In a public service announcement for the Korean American Coalition’s Topple Hunger in North Korea (THINK) program, Oh pulls heartstrings for the rescue of North Korean children who have escaped and who “are living alone and without family in foreign lands” like China. “They need us,” she says against a backdrop of fleeting images of emaciated children, “and [The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act (H.R.1464/S.416)] will help us to adopt them.”
Who are these children Oh urges us to fantasize about saving?
In contrast with Oh’s pathos-laden portrayal, human rights organizations operating in northeastern China agree that there are few unaccompanied North Korean children annually crossing the Tumen River and that these individuals are, by and large, in their late teens. More numerous is a second generation of younger children consisting of mixed-ethnic children who are born in China to Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers and who, by law, are Chinese nationals.
Although H.R. 1464 appears to distinguish between these populations by directing the State Department to propose solutions for orphaned mixed-ethnic Chinese-North Korean children who lack access to Chinese or North Korean resources, the bill’s extreme response to the needs of unaccompanied North Korean minors—a tiny population—should inspire caution, not expedited action.
Proponents draw a tearstained, hollow-cheeked orphan figure to stand in for all the children this bill claims to help, but such conflations and exaggerations promote a fictive orphan crisis. What legal protections will prevent an aid worker from misidentifying a mixed-ethnic Chinese national for an imagined “North Korean” orphan and removing this child—in circumvention of Chinese law—from her family and community?
Yet the bill’s potential for harm doesn’t end there.
Several paragraphs into the legislation, the bill establishes a new category of orphan, a “stateless orphan.” It proposes that American adoption agencies and aid organizations will be authorized to identify and move “stateless orphans” to the United States for the purpose of adoption. Adoption agencies and aid organizations will be permitted to work around the adoption or child welfare authority of a child’s country of origin, bypassing the country’s sovereignty. In effect, the United States will supersede the sending country’s authority to locate, assess, and refer a child for international adoption placement. The host country, defined as the “foreign-sending country,” will serve a bureaucratic function to prove the child’s orphan status through “alternative mechanisms.”
As a signatory to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the United States is obligated to follow China’s adoption protocols. Rather than invent an extraordinary adoption framework that lacks accountability and that risks alienating China, the United States should work with China as a host country to refugees and as a sending country of adoptees within both countries’ preexisting Hague commitments.
Zeal without Knowledge
In light of adoption scandals in which aid organizations such as Zoe’s Ark in Chad and New Life Children’s Refuge in Haiti eyeballed “orphans” who actually had families and then illegally attempted to remove them, this bill’s unprecedented non-recognition of a child’s country of origin risks conferring extraterritoriality to adoption agencies and aid organizations and empowering them to baby scoop.
Adoptive father and Cumberland Law School professor David M. Smolin says, “Like too many efforts done under the banner of adoption and orphan care, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act represents zeal without knowledge—particularly knowledge of the safeguards necessary to prevent adoption from becoming trafficking. Like too many adoption-focused laws, the law mis-matches the solution of adoption to unrelated problems; the law baits us with visions of starvation and disease in North Korea that have little or no relationship to the proposed ‘solution’ of new intercountry adoption procedures.”
Historically, South Korea has been a laboratory for intercountry adoption, sending over 200,000 children to 15 mainly western receiving nations. The children of this adoption experiment constitute the world’s largest and oldest mass child removal. As Macalester professor SooJin Pate, author of Genealogies of Korean Adoption and a Korean adoptee, observes, “Contrary to popular belief, Korean adoption was not a humanitarian act of rescue; rather, it was a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War. History seems to be repeating itself, nearly 60 years after the first ‘official’ adoption of Korean children by Harry Holt. Korean adoption—this time involving Chinese-North Korean children—is currently being used to help the United States secure its position as a ‘Pacific power’ during what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the ‘Pacific century.’”
While on the surface the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act proposes a simple solution—American homes for North Korean children in urgent need—it’s actually a well-crafted Trojan horse full of chilling consequences for the children it purports to rescue. On these children’s backs, the bill threatens to break down almost two decades of intercountry adoption reform since the Hague Convention was ratified in 1993. Recalling the legacy of Korean intercountry adoption as war machinery, this bill’s circumvention of the children’s country of origin risks escalating geopolitical tensions along the already volatile China-North Korea border.
Already passed by the House of Representatives and set on a fast track through the Senate before Congress recesses in late September, the bill is quickly moving around the bend. While naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives cheer their horse on, they forget intercountry adoption’s most basic question: What are the best interests of the child?
Let’s not take the (red) bait. Let’s support real children and their families by engaging with their countries of origin to ensure their human rights. For those children who truly have no other options, let’s keep intercountry adoption safe as a last resort.