- To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption by Arissa H. Oh
"Before South Korea became known for its low-priced cars and television sets, it was known for its orphans," a Washington Post journalist wrote after the 1988 Summer Olympics, which introduced its fast-growing host nation, the Republic of Korea (ROK), to the world. Arissa Oh's unusually sensitive study examines the little-known story of how Korean adoption, which arose in the tumultuous Korean War, laid the foundations for the contemporary global adoption industry. What makes this work particularly [End Page 402] valuable, even for scholarly audiences beyond its subfield, is how deftly the author uses its narrow topic to explore Korean adoption's wider social, cultural, legal, and political climate in South Korea and the United States. While its treatment is not always consistent or convincing, To Save the Children of Korea compellingly locates and illuminates Korean adoption as a product and producer of US-Korean social relations, public and private familial decision-making, and Cold War geopolitical and neocolonial tensions.
While adoption is an age-old practice, Oh argues, international adoption is a recent phenomenon stemming from the postwar refugee crisis of World War II. With the United States' rise as a leading postwar power, Americans came to adopt tens of thousands of children from Europe, Asia, and across the globe. Surprisingly, until the mid-1990s, South Korea was the leading overseas provider of US adoptees. Few Americans are aware of this fact; but, as Oh notes, this historical erasure precisely fueled Korean adoption's paradoxical success as a transnational state-and familybuilding project in the ROK and United States. From the 1950s to the 1980s, ROK and US policymakers, soldiers, parents, social workers, and missionaries idealistically crafted successive waves of diverse, vulnerable Korean children — primarily mixed-race "GI babies" and full-blooded Korean children born to poverty or outside Korea's strict social norms — as "orphans" in need of humanitarian rescue by nurturing US nuclear families. "The U.S. government used the idea of [colourblind] love," Oh states, "to counteract what looked like imperialistic activity in Asia throughout the Cold War" (111). A seemingly innocent stream of migration, Korea's 100,000 orphans proved the powerful moral exception to early Cold War America's restrictive immigration policies. Yet, Oh shows, this moral ex-ceptionalism came at a cost. Admitted as multicultural US citizens, Korean adoptees endured a complex institutional and social adoption process that "erased birth mothers" (175) and ignored the transpacific history of militarism, social repression, and exploitation that birthed them. Genuinely intended as a humanitarian gesture against Cold War-era forces of war, racism, and imperialism, Korean adoption, Oh concludes, tentatively challenged but ultimately reaffirmed the larger nationalist and racial logics it was meant to transcend.
Why did South Korea, and not Japan, Greece, French Indochina, or other occupied and postcolonial nations, produce global adoption? Though similar tensions existed elsewhere, Oh acknowledges, the US-ROK context was the decisive factor behind the novel practice's emergence in South Korea. In contrast with other weakened nation-states experiencing similar social issues yet providing comparably forceful policy responses, the ROK state, in its drive for Cold War militarism and modernization, explicitly offloaded the social problem of its mixed and socially unwanted babies onto foreign agencies and families. In turn, a US context marked by domestic [End Page 403] white adoptee shortages, patriotic internationalism, and middle-class hu-manitarianism — especially among conservative Christian families targeted by Korean and US agencies — propelled a decades-long demand for Korean babies. Even professional social workers, Korean adoption's greatest skeptics, offered weak, inconsistent dissent as they increasingly embraced global adoption as imperfect social policy.
Providing careful global comparative context for this particular story, as well as engaging a diverse historiography on postwar domesticity, Cold War civil rights, and the social life of empire, Oh excels at weaving together the state and private familial sphere. The...