The politics of belonging: Transnational Korean adoptees in Denmark

Published 27 October 2015 / By Youngeun Koo

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In recent years, transnational adoption has become a much-contested area. The long-held belief that transnational adoption is an inherently good and humanitarian action, which benefits both abandoned children and childless couples, has undergone reconsideration. This change is greatly indebted to new adoption scholarship that has highlighted the lopsided nature of transnational adoption flows, through which children (in many cases, of single mothers) from poor countries move into wealthy, white families in the West. The recent debate has shown how global social and economic inequality has enabled the sustained movement of children in the last five decades.

Key players within this shift in perspective are transnational adoptees, particularly those from South Korea who constitute the largest cohort of transnational adoptees.[1] They have led the debate not just as individual scholars and artists, but also through collective critiques of transnational adoption and political mobilisation. For instance, such a case of systematic mobilisation by Korean adoptees emerged in Denmark in the mid-2000s.[2]  My dissertation in MSc in Migration Studies looked at this case, and examined how they became critical towards transnational adoption and what their critiques and mobilisation meant to them. I carried out short fieldwork in Copenhagen, and met eight Korean adoptees, who are involved in mobilisation. My research results suggest that the adoptees’ ‘return’ movement to Korea and birth family search was a crucial stage in developing their critical understanding of transnational adoption. Furthermore, I found that transnational adoptees hold a unique position in Danish society, and this had a great impact on their mobilisation. In this post, I focus on the positionality of Korean adoptees in Denmark and discuss its implications for our understanding of belonging for those who are relocated in a culturally and racially different society.

Trans-national and trans-racial adoption

As the majority of adoptions crossing national borders have taken place between the Global South and the West, trans-national adoption has also meant in most cases trans-racial adoption. This transracial aspect has provoked contrasting receptions in adoptive societies: some celebrate the adoptive family as a symbol of multiculturalism, while others condemn it as uprooting children from their birth culture. And yet, the debate has remained within the realm of the familial, and has not considered what it means for the adoptees themselves to live as transnational, transracial adoptees in Western societies. The conversations I had with Korean adoptees in Denmark, however, made it clear that the issue of race had significantly affected their lives. One of my informants, in his late thirties, related this concisely, when describing his experience at Copenhagen Airport:

‘When I go to the airport, I feel it [my race]. How often are you being stopped at the airport? “What are you going to do in this country?” and I’m like “No, I’m a citizen here.”’

Revisiting Andersons

Revisiting the Andersons (2015, video) by Korean adoptee artist Jane Jin Kaisen
(Reproduced with permission of the artist)

This type of questioning, which would not have happened were he an ethnic Dane makes transnational adoptees’ racialised bodies a site of contestation and social stress.[3] While his experience typifies how a narrow, racialised imagination of national belonging excludes certain populations in society, my research further reveals that transnational adoptees occupy a specific position in Danish society, which is somewhat different from that of other ethnic minorities, such as migrants. In order to elaborate this, it is useful to look at how ethnic Danes and migrants are represented in Danish society.

Ethnic Danes, migrants and transnational adoptees

Previous research shows that kinship images, like the concept of ‘the family of Denmark (familien Danmark)’, have been actively used in Denmark to develop a self-conception as a small nation that contains a culturally and ethnically homogeneous population.[4]  Rytter expands on this idea of ‘the family of Denmark’ to illuminate different social locations of ethnic Danes and migrants, drawing on Schneider’s two types of family relations.[5] The order of nature refers to family relations created through shared blood, such as the parent and child relationship. Ethnic Dane’s belonging to Denmark is seen to follow this order, as they were born and have lived in Denmark like their ancestors. On the other hand, migrants and their descendants are deemed to follow the order of law, which denotes family relations created through contracts like marriages, as they have come to the country through granted permission. The use of kinship images, therefore, contributes to the creation of a racialised concept of nationhood, and erects ‘invisible fences’ within society to mark out migrants, who are considered not quite ‘real’ Danes.[6]

In these two orders of kinship, transnational Korean adoptees occupy an ambivalent position. This is because transnational adoption uses the order of law, in such instances as the Adoption Act, to create the order of nature, the parent-child relationship between adoptive parents and adoptees. In other words, Korean adoptees’ relationship with Denmark combines and complicates both orders: they have Danish parents and grandparents like other ‘real’ Danes, but their citizenship is one that is acquired through naturalisation like migrants. Therefore, the notion of liminality characterises how Korean adoptees are situated in Danish society. One moment, they co-habit the same space as ‘real’ Danes within the ‘invisible fences’, but the next moment, they find themselves outside the fences.

Liminality and language-less-ness

This liminal position permeates the everyday experience of adult Korean adoptees, as seen in the airport example earlier. While it is important to note that migrants, who are perpetually marked as being outside ‘the invisible fences’, might be subject to even harsher forms of exclusion, what characterises these adoptees’ experience is the co-existence of inclusion and exclusion, which creates a sense of confusion and uncertainty as to where they belong.

In elaborating their experience of exclusion, many of my informants repeatedly used the expression that ‘they did not have a language’ to accurately articulate how they felt. This, what I have called ‘language-less-ness’, emanates from their liminal position in Danish society. That is, despite their foreign origins, the Korean adoptees grew up in white Danish families and their adoptive parents raised them as if they were ethnic Danes. This represents not just their adoptive parents’ effort to incorporate them into their families, but also the wider social perception, which considers turning transnational adoptees into ‘real’ Danes as an act of goodness. Within this context, the adoptees’ cultural and racial backgrounds were largely erased in their upbringing experience. However, despite their adoptive parents’ claim that they are ‘like any other Danes’, the difference in Korean adoptees’ appearance, street-level racism and whiteness in Danish national identity made my informants feel that ‘something was not quite right’.

The politics of belonging

Adoptionspolitisk Forum

Adoptionspolitisk Forum, adoptee-led organisation in Denmark (Photographed by Mette Kramer Kristensen)

It was first in the mid-2000s that a group of Korean adoptees began to raise critical voices concerning the practice and understanding of transnational adoption in Denmark. This was the time when the Danish government was implementing some of the most restrictive migration policies in Europe and negative attitudes towards migrants were gaining momentum. With regard to transnational adoptees’ liminal position, my research found that the proliferating public debates on migrants created ‘a problematic space’ which the Korean adoptees could move into and utilise, to understand how their previously individualised feelings of exclusion were caused by the structural positioning of certain bodies in Danish society. In this space, the adoptees, who had developed a critical sense of adoption from their journey to Korea, linked their adoption to the experience of inclusion and exclusion in Denmark, against the backdrop of national and global inequality.

The case I have presented here is a telling example of today’s ever-widening disjuncture between national belonging, legal citizenship, and one’s identification with majority society. It shows how those who fall between these gaps can experience the new society into which they have moved, and how multiple that experience can be. Furthermore, the Korean adoptees’ upbringing experience informs us that the oppressiveness in the idea of an equal, colour-blind society lies not just in neglecting their differences, but also in turning a blind eye on the uneven global power structure that continuously affects their lives. Korean adoptees’ mobilisation is therefore a political and social act to engage these issues with the wider public and make their voice heard in Danish society.

[1] It is estimated that globally approximately one million children have been transnationally adopted since 1955, and nearly 200,000 of them have been from South Korea. These figures are obtained from my conversation with adoption expert Tobias Hübinette on 11th June 2015 via email.

[2] It is important to note that only a small proportion of Korean adoptees in Denmark are currently involved in this political mobilisation, and the story I present here does not represent all the voices of Korean adoptees living in Denmark.

[3] Ahmed, S. (2007) 'A phenomenology of whiteness', Feminist theory 8(2): 149-168.

[4] For examples, see Olwig, K. F. (2011) ''Integration': Migrants and refugees between Scandinavian welfare societies and family relations', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37(2): 179-196. Hedetoft, U. (2006) 'Denmark: Integration immigrants into a homogeneous welfare state'. Retrieved from Migration Policy Institute website:

[5] Rytter, M. (2011) ''The family of Denmark' and 'the aliens': Kinship images in Danish integration politics'. In K. F. Olwig & K. Paerregaard (Eds.), The Question of Integration: Immigration, Exclusion, and the Danish Welfare State (pp. 54 - 76). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[6] Gullestad, M. (2002) 'Invisible fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(1): 45-63.

This guest post is part of series featuring writing by current and former students of the MSc in Migration Studies programme

About the Author: Youngeun Koo recently completed an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation looked at political mobilisation by transnational Korean adoptees in Denmark. Prior to her studies at Oxford, she worked as a researcher in NGOs in London that support young migrants and refugees. She will continue her research on Korean adoptees in her doctoral thesis and convene a course on ‘migration and Korea’ at Tübingen University.