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Power, Resistance, and Subjectivity: An Exploration of Overseas Korean Adoptees in Korea


This dissertation explores the lives and experiences of individuals who were born in Korea, adopted overseas as infants or young children, and have returned to their country of birth as adults. More specifically, I present the diverse, creative, and sometimes subtle ways in which adoptee returnees have engaged in resistance in order to reclaim their right to reside in Korea, access their personal histories, and challenge the system that produced their subjectivities as overseas Korean adoptees. Ranging from everyday practices, such as cross-cultural or linguistic code-switching, to grassroots activism and coalition building, this broad spectrum of resistance practices elucidates the ways power manifests itself in several forms in Korean society, the state, and the adoption industry. Throughout this study, I draw on the theoretical contributions of Michel Foucault, which have greatly shaped our understandings of power in its ubiquity and multi-dimensionality, and Michel de Certeau’s concepts of strategies, tactics, and resistance against power in daily life practices. I approach the interactions of power and resistance as inherently dynamic, open-ended, unpredictable, and constantly shifting rather than assume direct causation or the necessary presence of intention or consciousness. I argue that all these practices, including the act of return to a place from where these adoptee returnees were adopted away in previous decades, signify resistance against existing systems of power.

In an attempt to disrupt conventional narratives of adoption, this study aims to focus the discussion on those who have been directly affected by Korea’s inadequate social welfare system and the institution of overseas adoption: adoptees, families of origin, single mother families, and other vulnerable members of Korean society. Broken down into an introduction, three main chapters, and a conclusion, this study is an ethnography that conceptualizes power and resistance through narratives. I present a historical overview of adoption practices in Korea starting from the mid- and late Chosǒn dynasty and continuing up to current overseas and domestic adoption practices. Additionally, I situate the return of Korean adoptees to Korea and their everyday practices and modes of consumption within the history of overseas Korean adoption. Next, I focus on original family search and reunion among adoptees, which includes a debate surrounding access to adoption records and personal histories. The discussion then shifts to a coalition that has formed among adult adoptee returnees, unwed and single mothers, original Korean family members who have been separated from a child or children through Korean adoption practices, a Korean pastor and his wife who run an adoptee guesthouse in Seoul, and other allies, highlighting their mobilization strategies and political activism. Finally, I consider how utilizing a social justice and human rights framework facilitates a more holistic understanding of the history of Korean adoption and the lives that have been directly affected by adoption practices.

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