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Adopted Koreans return for international conference

Over 550 international adoptees and family members attended the International Korean Adoptee Association’s 15th anniversary gathering last week at Lotte Hotel Seoul.

The first official IKAA Gathering in Seoul was held in 2004 following IKAA’s establishment that same year. However, the gathering itself has earlier foundations, with the International Gathering of the First Generation of Korean Adoptees held in Washington in 1999.

This year, three generations of adult Korean adoptees from 15 countries returned to their birth country for this year’s event, dubbed G19.

For many adoptees, return trips to the country they left as infants stir up many feelings. 

IKAA G19 participants pose for photos at the opening ceremony held at Lotte Seoul Hotel on Tuesday. (Image courtesy of Jordan Nicholson)
IKAA G19 participants pose for photos at the opening ceremony held at Lotte Seoul Hotel on Tuesday. (Image courtesy of Jordan Nicholson)

“I’ve never been so happy to venture off into something so unknown and still know that this is right for me,” said Zachary Smith, 25, a Korean American adoptee returning for the first time. “It feels like I’m nurturing a piece of my ‘Seoul’ that has been yearning for attention its entire life. … I’m so happy.”

On the event’s opening day, Tuesday, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hu delivered a message on behalf of President Moon Jae-in, in which Moon expressed the government’s intention to ratify the Hague Adoption Convention with the hope of creating a welfare system “where all children can be protected according to his or her best interests.”

Under the theme of “Spanning Generations: Communities, Families, & Leadership,” the G19 held workshops catered to the diverse needs of an increasingly multigenerational Korean adoptee community.

Age group-based breakout sessions allowed adoptees to meet with their international peers and process the emotions that conference and Seoul setting brought up.

Other workshops centered on exploration of multifaceted identities as Koreans, adoptees, citizens of their home countries and more.

One workshop explored being LGBTQ+ and adopted, while another addressed how searching for birth family can impact adoptees’ marriages and family relationships at home. Others explored topics such as artistic expression, citizenship and the history of intercountry adoption.

The IKAA Conference is also home to the International Symposium on Korean Adoption Studies, which hosted its fifth iteration this week and presented interdisciplinary work in adoption studies focusing on Korea as well as other “sending countries,” such as China, Ethiopia, Colombia and Ukraine.

Events continued through Sunday, including screenings of documentaries by adoptee filmmakers -- Glenn Morey’s “Side by Side” and Sun Hee Engelstoft’s “Forget Me Not.”

By Liza Hafner (