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Korean War's secret legacy lives on in children adopted in U.S.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- The Korean War tore families apart 50 years ago and left a legacy of divisions that continue today, including the export to other nations of South Korea's most precious commodity: its children.
Deann Borshay, born Kang Ok Jin, is one of thousands of children who have been sent from Korea by international adoption agencies to families in the United States. The story of how she came to be reunited with her birth mother, brothers and sisters is told in a movie, "First Person Plural," to be shown by the Public Broadcasting Service December 18.
"I think a lot of people feel 'I was brought to this country (the United States), it is a wonderful place and I should be grateful because I would have had no life in Korea,"' Borshay, who directed the movie, told Reuters in an interview.
As an adult, however, she was haunted by repressed memories of her life in Korea, which she left at the age of 8, and says she was able really to mourn for what she had lost only after being reunited with her birth mother.
"It was a kind of grieving for what could have been and also a grieving for what I have lost," she said of her trip to Korea, in which she was accompanied by her American mother and father, Alveen and Arnold Borshay, from Fremont, California. Her birth mother gave her up to an orphanage as the family struggled to cope with growing poverty after the death of her Korean father.
"Korea came to be reliant on the adoption program as a means for dealing with orphans and abandoned children. There was historically, and continues to be, a lack of services provided for single-parent families, poor families and widows like my mother with five children," Borshay said.
"When I was growing up there was no free public education beyond the third or fourth grade for a country that values education incredibly highly," she added.
International adoption was a rarity until Harry and Bertha Holt, an Oregon couple haunted by a documentary movie about the plight of children in Korea orphanages in the aftermath of the war, adopted eight Korean children.
The agency they subsequently launched, Holt International, has now found U.S. homes for more than 50,000 children. Other adoption agencies, including the one through which Borshay was adopted, followed, although Holt has remained the largest source of Korean children for American families.
"During the Korean war there were a lot of orphan children, meaning children that have either lost both parents during the war or (were) separated from both parents," Borshay said.
Later, she said, there was a growing number of adopted children who were born out of wedlock. "Even today, in the orphanage I came from, there are a lot of children from single-parent families," she said.
Susan Soon-Keum Cox, Holt's vice president for public policy, said children born out of wedlock continued to have little hope of being fully accepted into Korean society, and there are few couples in that country willing to adopt them.
"Social changes have been much slower than economic prosperity and the idea of a single unwed mother raising a child without the benefit of marriage is still not a solution that would provide a very happy life for a child growing up," Cox said in an interview.
"It has everything to do with the hierarchy of bloodlines and lineage (in Korean society). In my view you cannot overcome centuries of tradition in one or two generations."
Cox is herself a Korean-born adoptee, the daughter of a Korean woman and a British soldier. She has also been reunited with her birth mother.
"My Korean family think I am now in the U.S. living a good life. They are proud of the life I am living and are comfortable being associated with me," she said. "Had I stayed in Korea they would not have felt that way about me. My leaving has made me acceptable to them. Do I blame them? No."
Borshay's trip to Korea appeared to help her birth mother cope with the guilt of giving her up. News that she had married and had a son was perhaps the greatest source of comfort.
"In some ways she gave me up for adoption and that is one thing to deal with, but for her the ultimate test was whether I could get married and have a child," she said. "I think she would have felt tremendously guilty if somehow I was never able to get married or not have children and not fulfill my destiny as a woman, but in her mind I have now."
During the reunion, her Korean mother emphasized that she had only given birth to Borshay and her American mother was her mother now. "Initially I read that as rejection, and I think what I wanted most from her is for her to embrace me as her daughter, but I think her physical language and verbal language are quite different," Borshay said.
"Verbally she is saying, 'Your American mother is your mother now, I only gave birth to you,' but her physical language is she is touching me always and pulling me toward her and it contradicts her verbal language."
Although Korea remains one of the main sources of children for international adoption, in recent years it has been overtaken by both China and Russia.
Borshay says her movie has a message for thousands of U.S. families involved in or thinking about international adoption.
"I think for people involved in adoptions one message would be that ... it is important to be inclusive of a child's past. Historically, adoptions have always been about cutting off the child's past and adopting the adoptee family's history wholeheartedly," she said.
"I think it is important to acknowledge the fact that there were not just two people that influenced the person's identity but four people, the birth parents and the adoptive parents."
Cox, of Holt International, agreed. "Families who adopt from another country must embrace not only the child but their country, their ethnicity, all of it," Cox said.
The reason international adoption continues it that it works, she said. "If it had just been a crazy social experiment it would not have lasted. It is globally accepted as a way for children to have families and is preferred to long-term foster care or even institutionalization."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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