After three years of searching for her birth family in South Korea — making trip after trip, passing out flyers, broadcasting her story on local media and, finally, chasing down a DNA lead — Kara Bos found her biological father in March. But when she showed up at his doorstep in Seoul, hoping to learn the identity of her Korean mother, Bos was met with silence and a send-off.
Her story is not uncommon in South Korea, which, since 1953, has sent nearly 168,000 of its children to families overseas. That figure includes Bos, sent during the peak of international adoption in the 1980s, and the 317 sent just last year. As adults, many adoptees return to South Korea, asking questions about who they are and where they come from. But getting the answers is a battle.
Hitting dead end after dead end, navigating a system riddled with obstacles — including missing and withheld records, altered names and birthdates, and the strong social stigma attached to children born out-of-wedlock that causes some birth parents to keep them a secret, to name just a few — Bos went down one last path: a paternity lawsuit.
“Everything was continuously blocked. … The fact that he is 85 was the main reason why I kept going,” she told NBC Asian America of her biological father. “He is my only link to my mother, and if he dies, everything goes with him, without even having a single chance to be able to talk to him and to ask him who my mother is.”
The paternity suit is the first to be brought by an overseas adoptee in South Korea. If successful, Bos, who lives in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their two children, will gain legal recognition as her Korean father’s daughter, officially being entered into his family registry.
But more important to her, Bos might be able to get to who this is all about: her birth mother. She hopes that with her newfound legal status will come her father’s willingness to give her the information she seeks. The ruling will be announced June 12 in Seoul Family Court, and Bos wants to be in South Korea to hear it in person.
“It really is a basic and humble request to know our origins, and yet this right has not been adequately protected by law for adoptees,” said Han Boon-young, managing director of Adoptees for Justice Korea. “Consequently, we end up in situations like Kara’s, with huge prolonged emotional and financial costs.”
On Nov. 18, 1983, Kara Bos was not yet Kara Bos; she was Kang Mee-sook. Found alone, dressed in a red silk coat, in a market parking lot in Goesan, she told the authorities her name and that she was 2 years old.
In 1984, Bos was adopted by Russell and Mariann Bedell, of Sheridan, Michigan. Growing up with her adoptive siblings Jenn and Tim, she was largely disinterested in her adoption story, her heritage or her homeland. Even when Bos traveled to South Korea for the first time in 2006, she didn’t have any intention of pursuing a birth-family search, or shouldering any of the emotional and financial burdens that come along with it.
That changed, however, in 2016, as Bos’s own daughter was approaching the age she was when she had been abandoned. “It wasn’t until I saw her and how much we were involved with each other and how much she knew me and how deep our relationship was that I really grasped what it would be like to release her as a mother — but also to be released as a child,” she said.
Bos started researching adoptee forums on Facebook, adoptee rights organizations and online genealogy platforms. She took a DNA test through Family Tree DNA, then uploaded the results to MyHeritage. A couple years and several trips to South Korea later, she logged into her account to find she’d matched with someone. He would turn out to be her nephew, or the grandson of her biological father.
After the nephew’s mother and aunts — Bos’s assumed half-sisters — barred her from reaching their father, Bos went to one of their homes, kneeling and begging for contact. After the woman called security, Bos sought out an attorney.
Then, on Nov. 18, 2019, on the 36-year-anniversary of her abandonment, Bos filed her lawsuit. The court ordered a DNA test, and Bos flew to South Korea to undergo it in March. That day was the day she visited her assumed father’s apartment in Seoul, trying to speak to him and his wife in broken Korean. It was unclear to Bos whether the man knew anything about her or the lawsuit, which is being handled by his daughters.
About a month later, Bos’s assumed father underwent his DNA test. When the results came back, she was validated. “I felt finally justified. At a certain point, you truly start to doubt yourself, especially when everyone keeps telling you it’s impossible,” she said. “I felt finally like the truth had come out.” The test showed there was a 99.9981 percent probability he is her father.
With this information, the Seoul Family Court will make its judgment next week. While a win for Bos would formally register her in the family records, it does not legally compel her biological father to meet with her or give her any details on her birth mother, said Im Han-kyul, the associate attorney on her case, but they “are hopeful it will happen.” What other affect the lawsuit could have — on Bos’s citizenship status or otherwise — is still being worked out.
For adoptees, what’s most telling in this case is that it came to a lawsuit.
“This is one of the results of the adoption system. It shows how far some of us have to go to see our families and obtain information,” said Kristin Pak, policy director of SPEAK, Solidarity & Political Engagement of Adoptees in Korea. “It might have far-reaching effects. It might make some parents more reluctant to come forward.”
But adoptees hope that as Korean society becomes more aware of adoption, the prejudice that plagues it can be eradicated.
“Truth has to break the stigmatization,” Bos said. “That stigmatization is what’s evidently wrong in this.”