The Fiction of the North Korean Refugee Orphan

Recently fast-tracked to the House floor, HR 1464 (“The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011”) has passed the House.[i] Exploiting the rhetoric of humanitarian rescue, the bill identifies North Korean hunger as the problem and proposes U.S. adoption of North Korean children as the solution, making the figure of the hungry North Korean orphan a matter of U.S. legislative concern. Yet this bill recklessly turns on the fiction of the “North Korean refugee orphan,” construing the latter as a child without nationality, in order to authorize the acceleration of U.S. adoption procedures through “alternative mechanisms.” Although the bill purports to help “thousands of North Korean children [who] do not have families and are threatened with starvation and disease if they remain in North Korea or as stateless refugees in surrounding countries,”[ii]  its truth can be found in its preamble, which supposes that “thousands of United States citizens would welcome the opportunity to adopt North Korean orphans living outside North Korea.” Suturing its loose definitional categories together, this legislation seeks to establish, as a precedent, the category of “statelessness” as a flexible definitional vehicle by way of which inter-country adoption can be expedited and international laws meant to safeguard the rights of children and families circumvented. Aimed not at resolving North Korean hunger, much less the well-being of the children whom it willfully misrepresents, this bill lays the task of “identify[ing] other nations in which large numbers of stateless, orphaned children are living who might be helped by international adoption” at the doorstep of the State Department.

Cannily leveraged by its advocates, the affective appeal of the figure of the “North Korean refugee orphan” has enabled this bill to gain political traction. In a YouTube PSA for Topple Hunger in North Korea (THiNK), a public outreach initiative of the Korean American Coalition (KAC) aimed at mobilizing constituent endorsement of the bill, Sandra Oh, of Grey’s Anatomy fame, delivers a message stark in its apparent moral rectitude. According to Oh, the children whom this bill means to serve are “orphans [who] have escaped and are living in foreign lands, alone and without families.” Directing viewers to sign a petition to their Congressional representatives on the THiNK website, Oh adds: “They [‘North Korean refugee orphans’] need us. This bill would allow us to adopt them.” Although Oh, the most famous of the bill’s celebrity supporters, has never studied the legislation or its misleading claims, her video ap peal has boosted support for the bill.[iii] When her PSA first launched last November, only a few thousand people had signed the petition. DC insiders predicted that it, like its predecessors, would not survive the doldrums of subcommittee referral. Yet by July, the petition had garnered over 60,000 signatures. Now, the bill has passed the House, and its sponsors aim to push it through the Senate before the pre-election session is over.

Modeled on a failed series of North Korean human rights bills that stretch back to 2003, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 proceeds from an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises. Empirically speaking, the bill misrepresents the reality of the children whom it purports to help. As a placeholder for children who are, by and large, not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans, the “North Korean refugee orphan” is a dangerous fiction whose elastic license with the truth imperils the welfare of the children this legislation stands to impact. The bill’s alarmist image of “thousands of North Korean children [who] are threatened with starvation or disease” does not, in point of fact, correspond to the reality of the children who—albeit often poor and sometimes in the care of a grandparent—actually have families, have household registration papers, attend schools, are relatively well-nourished, and are Chinese citizens. Strategically loose on the supply-side details, this bill risks instrumentally construing these children as adoptable when, in fact, they are not. Far from ensuring the best interests of the child, as specified by international protocols, including the Hague Adoption Convention to which the United States is signatory, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act, if passed, will give legitimacy to practices that shift U.S. adoption policy toward child-laundering.

I. The Pitch

Backed by an assortment of strange bedfellows—including actor Sandra Oh, Korean War adoptee Sam Han, Korean War veteran Charles Rangel, North Korean human rights groups, anti-communist Korean immigrant churches, a head of a Cold War defense organization that bring defectors to Washington, DC, to name a few—the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 has enabled varying agendas to converge in a shared fiction of humanitarian rescue. The story that its supporters collectively tell is gripping. In its general contours, it goes like this: Children, North Korean orphans, who have escaped a dark place of hunger, death, and repression are at risk of being trafficked in third countries into slavery or the sex trade. Their parents are dead, and there is no one to look after them. Expedited adoption into American families who are ready and waiting is their only hope.

Painting a hellish picture electrified by luridly imagined details in his YouTube PSA for THiNK, Francis Chan, evangelical minister and bestselling author, describes the children whom this bill will rescue as utterly destitute—entirely “on [their] own.” Having, according to Chan, witnessed their parents die of starvation or tuberculosis in North Korea, “these kids are climbing over mountains in their bare feet. They’re crawling through jungles. Some of them are swimming through a freezing cold river while soldiers are shooting at them.” The clincher: “once they finally make it to safety to Mongolia, or Vietnam, or Cambodia, people there don’t want you [sic].” What awaits these children in these interim countries is yet more horror—trafficking, Chan claims, into slavery or the sex trade. The bill’s purpose is simply to enable these children to “live a halfway normal childhood.”[iv]

Although the image of the destitute North Korean child wandering alone in strange lands may serve as potent propaganda for the bill, this dire portrait is complicated by the fact that the children whom this legislation primarily targets are Chinese citizens who have families. This factual underside to the story of the “North Korean refugee orphan” is nowhere accounted for in the dramatic, heartwrenching narrative spun by Sandra Oh, Francis Chan, and others. As with many issues that fall under the rubric of “North Korean human rights,” North Korea might serve as the bogeyman for this bill, but the story itself unfurls in China, involves Chinese subjects, and risks infringing on Chinese sovereignty.

II. The Chinese Complication

The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 may describe North Korean hunger as an urgent problem, which ethically requires an immediate response, yet this static language is copied almost verbatim from the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003. Explicit measures to facilitate the adoption of North Korean children into American families were introduced by Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu, both staunch adoption advocates, into the 2003 bill, which offered a grim prognosis of North Korean children orphaned by famine: “thousands of North Korean orphans languish in orphanages with little hope of being adopted and are threatened with starvation and disease if they remain in North Korea.” In adapting this language, however, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 fails to account for major changes that have occurred not only in North Korea but also in China, the main destination for North Korean border-crossers, over the past decade.

Neither, for that matter, does the current legislation acknowledge that the “North Korean orphan”—anachronistic language retained from the 2003 bill—designates the China-born, mixed-ethnic offspring of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. If the details of the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 are fuzzy on the supply side, they are clear on the demand side. Consistent in all variations of U.S. North Korean adoption legislation, the 2003 North Korean Freedom Act, HR 4896, and HR 1464, is the certitude that “thousands of United States citizens would welcome the opportunity to adopt North Korean orphans.”

Aimed at “legaliz[ing] adoption for North Korean stateless children,” to borrow the slogan of a Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) advocacy campaign on this issue, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act is not—its humanitarian framing notwithstanding—a human rights bill. Its purpose, as the THiNK website acknowledges, is to “reduce the waiting time for families seeking to adopt.” Yet, as a top official of a major international adoption agency pithily stated to me about this bill, demand-side desire “is not what adoption is for. It flies in the face of the Hague [Adoption Convention],” which aims to “prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children” through the mechanism of inter-country adoption. Indeed, the striking absence of support from the mainstream adoption industry and the international humanitarian community implies substantive problems with this legislation.

Central to the safeguarding of the rights of the child is the prioritization of what the Hague refers to as “appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.” The question of origins is key to unraveling the fiction of the “North Korean refugee orphan.” For one, no serious backer of this bill assumes that the primary target of this bill are the unaccompanied kkotjebi, North Korean children who crossed the North Korea-China border at the height of the famine of the 1990s and are now young adults, much less that the U.S. State Department will have to elaborate inter-country adoption protocols with North Korea. In its 2011 annual report, LiNK, a North Korean human rights advocacy group that runs “safe houses” along the North Korea-China border, concedes the Chinese birth and mixed ethnic heritage of the children whom the legislation has in mind:

Along the China-North Korea border, there are estimated to be up to 10,000 stateless children. These are children who are born to North Korean women and Chinese men—estimates suggest that over 80% of these women are trafficked or sold as brides. China does not recognize these children due to the illegal status of their mothers. Given this status, these children are considered “stateless” and are unable to attend school or even have basic rights.[v]

Yet, this is where things get slippery. To be born to undocumented North Korean migrant mothers, or so the bill’s backers claim, is to be effectively stateless. More than equate statelessness with “malnutrition, abuse, exploitation, [and] lack of education,” as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a major House supporter of the bill, has done in remarks to Radio Free Asia, the backers of this legislation make the dangerous mistake of conflating it with adoptability.

If, until a few years ago, a North Korean migrant mother’s undocumented status served as a barrier to her child’s household registration, or hukou—rendering her child effectively stateless—there is no such barrier today. This removal of obstacles to education and other social services fundamentally transforms the conditions of social possibility for the now school-aged, mixed-ethnic children in Yanbian, the province in China where the majority of them live. Three months ago, an underground South Korean missionary operating in Tumen confirmed to me that there was no “goa munje” (“orphan problem”) comparable to that which existed a decade ago. A Yanji municipal social welfare officer with the People’s Policy Bureau stated that the government now furnishes monthly stipends to the families of “parentless” children, including those with just one parent. An underground aid worker who oversees social services aimed at but not exclusive to mixed-ethnic children, including after-school programs where they learn life skills, corroborated this officer’s account. Of the roughly 3,500 children in the programs that this aid worker manages, all have what he called “hojeok” (hukou in Chinese). In fact, in recent years, provincial and local authorities have permitted Chinese fathers to register their mixed-ethnic children without reporting on the mothers’ status, thus granting these children the prerogatives of Chinese citizenship.

III. The South Korean Snag

Unfortunately, North Korean women trafficked into marriages with Chinese men have not had a corresponding positive transformation of their status. If they remain in China, they, given their undocumented status, do not face easy prospects. In his survey-based research on “North Korean” children in China, Courtland Robinson found that the only stakeholding demographic that substantially wished to resettle, specifically to South Korea, were North Korean mothers of mixed-ethnic children. Granted, a sizable number of women expressed aversion at the prospect of relocation: “I do not want to go to South Korea even if we had the option to go there, because I have heard terrible things. The cost of living…is extremely high so I do not know that life in South Korea would be better for my son.” Others, though, wished to resettle. As one mother stated, “I am not living my life freely because I am North Korean, so I think it would be best for us [mother and child] to go to South Korea.” Yet, in the severing of families across national borders is the making of a Solomonic dilemma.

A Korean-language article published last week in Voice of America, the global media organ of the U.S. government, describes the South Korean government as willing to establish a pilot program, in cooperation with the U.S. government, which would enable Americans to adopt North Korean children who are currently refugees in South Korea. The danger is that the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act instrumentalizes South Korean nationality laws, which recognize a North Korean mother upon her arrival in the South as a South Korean citizen who possesses the right to relinquish her child—while insufficiently accounting for the likely Chinese nationality of the mixed-ethnic child in question. The Hague Convention specifies that determination by “the competent authorities of the State of origin” of the child’s status is a prerequisite for inter-country adoption. It is far from clear that South Korea is “the relevant territorial unit,” as opposed to China, the state of origin, when it comes to U.S. inter-country adoption of mixed-ethnic children who have relocated to South Korea. Thus, to launder, through South Korean channels, a “North Korean refugee orphan” who is, in point of fact, a Chinese subject by virtue of birth and parentage is to invite an Elian Gonzalez-like tug-of-war between China and the United States.

IV. The North Korean Footnote

Hunger, specifically North Korean hunger, is critical to the story of the “North Korean refugee orphan” but only insofar as adoption displaces a more obvious, more immediate—and one could argue, more assuredly humanitarian—solution, namely, food aid. Premised on hunger in North Korea as trigger for North Korean migration to China, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act is tellingly backed by politicians and interest groups that have not only opposed food aid or medical assistance to North Korea but also argued for fortified sanctions against North Korea—policies that exacerbate North Korea’s food insecurity.

The THiNK website is instructive. Although it indicates that “60% of North Korean children experience malnutrition which can lead to illness, stunting [sic] growth, or death,” it pushes narrowly for adoption as the solution to North Korean hunger. KAC clarifies on its THiNK site: “KAC will NOT be sending money/food/clothing or any other aid to North Korea. KAC wants to be very clear: KAC’s mission is not to provide any support or assistance to North Korea.” It is hard to escape the conclusion that North Korean hunger matters to advocates of U.S. North Korean adoption laws only so far as it directly or indirectly produces orphans.

Ironically, the ethical charge behind the story of the “North Korean refugee orphan” stems from the assumption that North Korea, as Francis Chan alleges in his THiNK PSA, did nothing “to keep you [sic] alive.” Two years ago, however, Kim Jong Il’s government reached out to the United States through back-channel negotiations requesting food aid for what surely would be, and indeed was, a rough year ahead. The United States laid down two essential conditions: issue a formal bilateral request for aid and give unprecedented access to teams conducting food assessment surveys. North Korea complied on both fronts, and in early 2011, teams from the U.S. government, the UN, the US NGOs, and the EU all conducted studies throughout the country. Photos from their visits to babies’ homes and children’s homes showed clear signs of child hunger—yellowing hair, listlessness, and wasting. Yet Ed Royce, the Republican congressman from Fullerton, California, who introduced the North Korean Refugee Act, also moved to introduce a House amendment to an agricultural appropriations bill that would ban food aid to North Korea. These two legislative measures, one aimed at blocking food aid and the other authorizing U.S. adoption of “North Korean refugee orphans,” are the face and obverse of a single policy.

In theory, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act offers an alternative humanitarian response to the problem of North Korean hunger: namely, adoption. Cynically marshaling, however, the rhetoric of child rescue while sanctioning practices that not only intensify North Korea’s food insecurity but also insufficiently safeguard the welfare and interests of the China-born, mixed-ethnic child in question, this legislation seeks to save the individual child while neglecting the people. This makes for a pyrrhic policy of the worst kind.

[i] The He-Shan World Fund of the Tides Foundation supported research conducted by Jennifer Kwon-Dobbs and the author of post-famine child welfare on both sides of the North Korea-China border. Any error in this article is the author’s alone.

[ii] HR 1464, The North Korea Refugee Adoption Act of 2011.

[iii] Author conversation with Sandra Oh. February 20, 2012.

[iv] “Francis Chan on the N. Korea Refugee Orphan Adoption Bill.”

[v] Liberty in North Korea, 2011 Annual Report,, 23.

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