I need a kind soul in South Korea to find school records of a woman born in 1937
September 30, 2009 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I need a kind soul in South Korea to find school records of a woman born in 1937, to help us begin our search for the birth family of our adopted cousin.

Our cousin has asked for our help in finding her Korean birth family. I thought finding her mother's school records would be a good place to start. Her father was an American soldier stationed in Korea. Her mother was a Korean woman. In 1962 my cousin's father brought her back to America, without her mother, and she knows very little about her Korean family. Her father has passed away. We do have names and birth dates of her mother, her mother's siblings and for her grandparents. It's possible her grandfather was Japanese. The family lived in Seoul, although our cousin was born in Pusan for some reason.

If you or someone you know lives in South Korea and you have an interest in history or an interest in helping adoption searches please let me know. And failing that, if you know a private investigator in Seoul who speaks English, that would be helpful.
posted by cda to Society & Culture (16 answers total)
I can't help you with your search, but I can tell you that my mother was born in South Korea in the late 40s and while we were filling out her application for US citizenship found that there was absolutely no record of her birth or existence in Korea. She only attended a couple of years of elementary school (pretty common at the time) and though we never searched, I can't imagine that there were any existing school records either. My mother was from a very rural part of the country so you may have better luck if your cousin's family is from the city. Good luck!
posted by defreckled at 2:26 PM on September 30, 2009

Also bear in mind that between 1937 and now Korea has been the stage for an incredibly brutal occupation, a World War, a civil war that literally went all the way up and down the peninsula, and some pretty serious political fallout in the aftermath of the Korean conflict. No area was spared from the destruction and it is unlikely that records would still exist if they were maintained in the first place.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:50 PM on September 30, 2009

You might have better luck with searching Japanese colonial records of Pusan and Keijo, what the Japanese called Seoul. At the time Japan occupied Korea and kept very detailed records of things like births, school attendance and so forth.

My bet is that a low-level official or Korean collaborator kept those records, in Japanese, definitely not Korean.

The question then is whether the documents survived the wars intact. On the one hand, there was not really a need to destroy information like that. On the other, why keep relatively useless data in wartime? And if the records kept by a collaborator, all bets are off. Many Koreans reviled the collaborators of the Japanese and after 1945 treated collaborators' belongings like inflammable trash.

That said, I'd bet somewhere, someone published those records as part of a comprehensive, mind-numbingly boring "history of Pusan City." The Pusan City Library would be a good place to start. Finding out the grandfather's name and employer would help. Still, these are touchy issues even today. I'd try my below hunch first.

You could get lucky if an Anglo-American Christian organization brokered the adoption. If that's the case, the records should be accessible in English. Start by researching which (usually Protestant but not always) groups facilitated adoptions like your cousins' in that era. Newspaper archives and research libraries that house East Asian missionary magazines are two great places to start. It shouldn't be hard to find out which int'l Christian groups arranged adoptions of "half" children in Pusan in the early 1960s.

"Half" children (GI father, native Korean or Japanese mother) were reviled by many in the country of their birth, so Christian agencies often sought adoptive homes in the US where the stigma was far less than in Korea and Japan.

Long story short: you'll need someone conversant in colonial Korean history, and the written language conventions of pre-war Japanese and pre-war Korean to get anywhere. There's A LOT you can figure out from US libraries alone if you do your detective work on names and agencies well. Good luck!
posted by vincele at 3:19 PM on September 30, 2009

During the Korean War, Pusan received a huge number of refugees: It's a port city, was the capital for that time, and the UN had troops there. So it makes sense that she was born in Pusan, to me.

There's a good chance her mother is still alive -- she's not that old, after all! So, have you tried things like telephone directories, etc. -- current records instead of records from long ago? Another option is to check with the Red Cross. A third option might be to contact any of her dad's Army friends, to see if they know what happened to that family or if they have any additional information that might be helpful.

I knew a woman a Korean-American woman who had come to the States when she was a toddler. She had big dreams of going back to Korea, finding her family, and finding her "roots." She went, and was pretty disillusioned and disappointed as there was still a strong prejudice against people who were not 100% Korean. Your cousin should guard herself against getting too emotionally hurt.
posted by Houstonian at 3:26 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the double-post, but has she also mined the Korean War Educator Amerasian Buddy Search?
posted by Houstonian at 3:37 PM on September 30, 2009

Response by poster: This has been really helpful so far. Thanks!

I did consider that she may not have attended school but I thought it would be a good place to start.

The mother was born in 1937 and then the next child was born in 1942. So I was wondering if the grandfather was in the military and if there would be any military records. We have his name and birth date.

I don't think that there was an adoption service involved since her father is the biological father. The mother signed a "Statement of Consent for Emigration and Release of my Child".

My cousin was born in the Il Sin Women's Hospital which was a part of the Australian Presbyterian Mission in Korea. If we could contact the Presbyterian church in Korea I don't know if they would have any more information because we already have my cousin's birth certificate.
posted by cda at 3:52 PM on September 30, 2009

Response by poster: Are you guys saying that if someone in Seoul wanted to look up a child's school records from 40 years ago that they would need special knowledge or some kind of history degree? Are their hobby genealogists in Korea?
posted by cda at 4:49 PM on September 30, 2009

Our DD was adopted from another Asian country, and through the grapevine I've learned of people in that country who offer services for a fee to locate birth parents. (We didn't go that route since with DD's situation it would be almost impossible to find her birth family.)

I see that there is a yahoo group called koreanadopteesearch for those interested in finding lost relatives. I don't know if that group is still active, but if not, there are many message boards relating to Korea adoption (even if your cousin didn't go through an adoption company, I'm sure the process would be similar as far as the locater is concerned.)

And as a previous poster mentioned, Amerasians are often have a hard time there.
posted by texas_blissful at 6:42 PM on September 30, 2009

Hi, I am the one who is looking for my biological mother. My cousin is assisting me with the search. All of the answers have been helpful, and many thanks. While I do realize there will be obstacles along the way, and I am very much aware of the prejudices that still exist, to the point of "half children" are considered as "persona non grata" I did contact the provider who delivered me, but did not receive a response.. in due part, because she is in her 90s now. and is confined to a nursing home in Australia.

There was no adoption service involved, just the US Embassy. I have a contact with the Korean Consulate General also.
posted by Nancy Auvil-Simmons at 7:01 PM on September 30, 2009

Just to repeat: they already have the mother's name, names of her siblings and parents, etc. So it's a matter of finding the mother or living relatives, given that information.

(I think people are getting hung up on the idea that this was an anonymous adoption from an unknown mother, and that you're seeking the mother's name.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:59 PM on September 30, 2009

Nancy, I'm excited for you that you were able to contact the provider (midwife? delivering doctor?). Is there a way the nursing home in Australia could help you contact the provider's family or caretakers? At the least the nursing home could take your contact information and pass it on to relatives or close friends.

The mother was born in 1937 and then the next child was born in 1942. So I was wondering if the grandfather was in the military and if there would be any military records. We have his name and birth date.

Do you have an address for the grandparents' home? That would reveal occupation. Census information will be written in Japanese because as a Japanese colony records for Korea were maintained largely by the Japanese in Japanese.

If you knew the branch of the military he served in, you could contact Japanese veterans groups for help. You could try this anyway. It will be hard to determine whether he was in the military, volunteer labor, forced labor, a low-level bureaucrat, or factory manager or regular factory worker.

The dates of the births give you a significant clue!
Whatever your grandfather was doing, he was doing it close to home in order to father two children during the Second Sino-Japanese War and then the Pacific War. During those years fighting was very intense on the Asian mainland. It would have been remarkable for a Korean private or NCO to get leave to visit his family if he were stationed anywhere far from them. Since the family seems to have had ties to Seoul and Pusan, he could have been in commerce, or in a Japanese military division stationed in the Chosen Peninsula (N or S Korea) in 1937 and 1942, likely exclusively on the peninsula. If you were to contact veterans associations I would start with ones for veterans of the war in Korea. I don't know if such associations exist in Korea, but they certainly do in Japan. Koreans are generally reticent about having collaborated with the Japanese during the 30s and 40s so your best bet is probably Japanese veterans associations.

Complicating matters, regardless of the grandfather's ethnicity, he likely had a legal Japanese name. The Japanese made Koreans adopt Japanese names in the 1930s. This policy wasn't evenly enforced, but if it were enforced for anyone, it would be enforced for military personnel and those who worked closely with the Japanese in Korea.

If you know for sure that the grandmother is ethnic Korean, the grandfather likely is too. It's an interesting anomaly of colonial Korea that many ethnic Japanese women
married Korean men. The Korean men then took Japanese surnames. Usually European and US colonizer's male population married the local women, but in Korea it was rare for ethnic Korean women to marry ethnic Japanese men. The grandfather's name, then, tells you he was most probably ethnic Korean forced to take a Japanese name, and possibly that he worked in close contact with Japanese and had no way to avoid taking a Japanese name.

Are you guys saying that if someone in Seoul wanted to look up a child's school records from 40 years ago that they would need special knowledge or some kind of history degree? Are their hobby genealogists in Korea?

No. There may very well be thriving hobby genealogist movement in Korea. What I'm saying is that you're looking for records during colonial and eventually wartime Korea. The world had recognized Korea as a part of Japan since 1910, so formal records of births, school attendance, and addresses and whatnot would probably be kept in Japanese, not Korean. The written Japanese language changed after 1950 or so. So does Korean. Knowing the spoken language today might not be enough to get you the documentation you need. Making matters worse, child school records and the like would have had to survive decades of Occupation by Japanese, US, and Civil and external wars.

This time in Korean history is a very touchy subject even today. Koreans with a past entwined with the Japanese will not necessarily be forthcoming with information like this to a stranger or distant family members. Those who collaborated with the Japanese-- whatever the reason-- especially won't want to seek or share their family pasts.

You'll have an easier time the more you know about the policy about personal and family names, marriage patterns between Koreans and Japanese, so you can make educated guesses about what the bits and pieces you do have mean.

My cousin was born in the Il Sin Women's Hospital which was a part of the Australian Presbyterian Mission in Korea. If we could contact the Presbyterian church in Korea I don't know if they would have any more information because we already have my cousin's birth certificate.

The church or hospital is still in my opinion your best bet. They wanted to help children like your cousin when a lot of Koreans did not. The church likely published a journal. Go through that journal's table of contents until you find articles about this hospital and/or the adoption program via the church.

The articles will contain names. It'll be a lot easier to track down elderly Anglo-Australian-USian people willing to talk about their work. Someone will probably be able to point you to a seminary's library that contains the journal in question and you will find English names. From the records of the church's adoption program it should be possible to search adoption records and get addresses and other identifying information about the birth family.

If that seems like a lot of trouble, hire a PI, but make sure the PI has references attesting to his abilities in both Japanese and Korean archives as well as contacts and deep information about this period. I'm sure you're not alone in your search.

Sorry for the length. I hope I covered your points. Your search fascinates me and I do hope you find what you are looking for.
posted by vincele at 12:47 AM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: On a form titled "Certificate of Legitimation and Family Registry" it lists all of her family names and birthdates - it looks like an American genealogy tree. It is signed YI, SUNG POK, Chief, Songtong-Ku (District Ward Office) Special City of Seoul, Korea. What is a "District Ward Office"?

Do Koreans currently have anything like American Social Security where everyone is assigned a unique number?

Thanks everyone, this has been very helpful. We will continue to check this thread so please keep posting if you have more ideas. Thanks again.
posted by cda at 5:45 PM on October 1, 2009

Thank you everyone.. you have all been very kind and helpful..
posted by Nancy Auvil-Simmons at 6:26 PM on October 1, 2009

Songtong-Ku means "District Ward." A district ward office is like a branch city hall for a large city in Japan and Korea. Please forgive me for speaking of the two together; my interest in Korea grew out of interest in Japan.
It's possible that Song-tong ku's office was just one of a handful of district branches that handled the paper work, or you might get lucky and Songtong-ku might be the home of your birth family.

If you could somehow narrow down the home town/"home district" to Songtong-ku, you'll make finding the family easier. That's why I think there's value in 1) contacting the Presbyterian Mission in Korea and 2) the US military archives from the years involved.

A good resource is the University of Texas PCL map collection. Look for historical Seoul, Korea and any US-made maps. I assume the document you have are written in English and don't provide a specific address, but these might have clues.

If you want to pursue it further on your own, I'd start with large US research libraries, the Presbyterian mission HQ, the Army (?) archives and writing the hospital directly, in English by both e-mail and letter. The Presbyterian mission might have documentation on the US side as well. Please try that route.

You also might consider posting this to the jobs section of metafilter. Someone reading might be able to assist you for cash. The job market is very bad for academics right now. It is also a very interesting challenge/puzzle that would be rewarding since it would make a real-life person happy in real life!

You have quite a few clues. Try the Korean adoptees website and others like it. It is definitely possible, it seems, from the information you have, to track these people down. I don't know how much expertise it requires; maybe more than you'd think. It's hard to say. But if all you have is time and no money to spend on hiring a helper, I'd start with the adoptee forum and the Presbyterian mission HQ here and maybe there.
posted by vincele at 7:16 AM on October 2, 2009

That's funny. (Note: I don't know any Korean words.) Out of curiosity, I looked up "Songtong-Ku" and found this page that says that's a synonym for "Seongdong-gu", which is a particular administrative division (or ward, or borough) on the north bank of the Han river. If that were the case, it's an area of 20 neighborhoods, which is very specific.

I guess this shows that there may be significant value in finding someone who is familiar specifically with S. Korea and the Korean language, if you choose to have a professional help you with it. Otherwise, they might make mistakes like mine.

I wonder, though, if you've tried the simpler things already. You have the full names of many family members, addresses, etc. If the mother was born in 1937, she's in her early 70s (and the next child in their 60s) and so might very well be alive. Rather than looking for old school records, which may or may not even exist anymore, have you tried things like telephone or residential directories?
posted by Houstonian at 7:52 AM on October 2, 2009

Response by poster: Update: thanks everyone. Now that we have some current spellings of the old addresses, Nancy is going to write to her mother's last known address. I will be keeping notes and updates at my Evernote account.
posted by cda at 8:10 AM on October 20, 2009

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