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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Orphan, Adoptee, Nation: Tracing the Korean Orphan and Adoptee through South Korean and American National Narratives

  • Author(s): Donnell, Kira Ann
  • Advisor(s): Kim, Elaine H
  • et al.

The transnational adoption industrial complex established between South Korea and the United States following the Korean War initiated what is sometimes called the “Quiet Migration.” Since then, over 200,000 Korean children have been sent abroad, and the transnational, transracial adoption industry has operations set up in dozens of developing countries worldwide which takes thousands of children annually from their natal homes and places them in adoptive families in Western countries. For the past seventy years, the figures of the Korean orphan and adoptee have held significant meaning in the imaginations of by South Korean and American citizens. The sentimental figure of the Korean orphan became the conduit through which both South Koreans and Americans defined their experiences in the Korean War. The transnational Korean adoptee has become an icon of the United States’ commitment to humanitarianism and diversity and South Korea’s modern branding as a sophisticated and internationally-networked nation.

This dissertation explores how United States and South Korean culture and society have used the figures of the Korean orphan and Korean adoptee to construct national identities that reflect its citizens as virtuous, cosmopolitan, and unified. I am interested in the ways in which U.S. and Korean media have appropriated the figure of the orphan to construct narratives of collective national pride. Through the analysis of popular film and media, I trace the evolving portrayals of Korean orphans in U.S. and South Korean culture and society to demonstrate how these two nations have appropriated the figure of the Korean orphan to engender feelings of patriotism and belonging in its citizens, and what such narratives consequently obscure.

This research is comparative, in that I explore representations of orphans and adoptees from number of different perspectives. First, I am looking at portrayals of orphans and adoptees in both American and South Korean cultural productions. I am interested in examining how each culture co-opts these figures, and for what use. Additionally, I am interested in looking at these representations over the longue durée in order to understand how these narratives have changed over time. I question what different uses the orphan or adoptee have served in these various narratives at various points in history, and how and why these representations have transformed over time. I also make inquiries into how representations of orphans differ from representations of adoptees. I examine how these identities differ in their portrayals in American and Korean film and television and discuss how and why the transformation from portraying Korean children as orphans to adoptees transpires.

I begin by exploring representations of Korean orphans in Hollywood during the Cold War era. I argue that the presence of Korean orphans in film and television programs about the Korean War works to justify the United States’ military involvement in the conflict. From there, I trace the transformation of the Korean orphan into the transnational Korean adoptee in American film and television. In analyzing these representations of transnational Korean adoptees, I explore how adoptees have continued to be used construct an exceptional and progressive U.S. national identity. In examining Korean War films from South Korea’s Golden Age, I find that representations of Korean orphan reflect a postwar South Korean national identity informed by the conflation of nation and family and gendered subjecthood. In turn, I argue that representations of transnational Korean adoptees in the contemporary era of the Korean Wave are used to showcase South Korea as sophisticated and cosmopolitan while overlooking the complicity of the South Korean government in transnational Korean adoption’s painful and traumatic history. Finally, I explore the ways in adult transnational Korean adoptees have used their cultural productions and creative expressions to challenge master narratives of Korean orphanhood and transnational adoption. I read these productions as statements of self-determination and a move toward adoptee decolonization.

In today’s world where migrant children in the United States are separated from their families and detained and rural Korean bachelors import wives from Southeast Asia to create multicultural families, I argue that understanding the ways in which representations of Korean orphans and adoptees inform and are informed by U.S. and South Korean national identity help deepen and redefine our notions of community, citizenship, and national belonging.

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