April 24, 2024

South Korea’s presidential office said Monday it approved a request by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to extend its term by a year through late-May 2025. Investigators had been calling for more time to examine a broad range of human rights violations linked to Seoul’s past military governments, including a widespread falsifying of child origins that fueled a government-backed foreign adoption boom in the 1970s and ’80s.

In granting the commission’s request for an extension, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged the need to “restore the honor of those who were unjustly victimized during our past history and those who sacrificed for the sake of the country,” said Hwang Sang Moo, Yoon’s senior secretary for civil and social affairs.

The commission’s chairperson, Kim Kwang-dong, is expected to officially announce the extension after a meeting between its commissioners on Tuesday, which is seen as a formality. While Kim, under law, had the nominal authority to extend the commission’s mandate by up to a year, the decision was realistically dependent on the consent of the government, which would have to approve a budget for the extended activities.

During a news conference last month, Kim said a one-year extension of the commission’s tenure, which was originally to expire this year on May 26, would be crucial because investigators are struggling to handle the large number of cases accepted for investigation.

In describing the commission’s more challenging tasks, Kim highlighted its investigation on the cases of 367 Korean adoptees from Europe, the United States and Australia, who suspect their biological origins were manipulated to facilitate their adoptions to the West. Some have also asked the commission to look into the abuse they say they experienced at South Korean orphanages or under the care of their foreign adopters.

The commission has so far completed investigations on just about half of the 20,000 cases it accepted, which also includes cases involving Japan’s violent suppression of Korean independence activists during its 1910-45 rule of the Korean Peninsula and civilian massacres before and after the 1950-53 Korean War.

About 200,000 South Koreans, mostly girls, were adopted to the West in the past six decades, creating what’s believed to be the world’s largest diaspora of adoptees.

Most were placed with white parents in the U.S. and Europe during the 1970s and ’80s. South Korea’s then-military governments were focused on economic growth and saw adoptions as a tool to reduce the number of mouths to feed, erase the “social problem” of unwed mothers and deepen ties with the democratic West.

Amid the child export frenzy, most adoptees were registered by agencies as abandoned orphans found on the streets, although they frequently had relatives who could be easily identified or found. That practice often makes their roots difficult or impossible to trace.

The commission in past months has been interviewing adoptees who have applied for investigation and also examining an extensive range of government records and paperwork produced by South Korean adoption agencies.

While the commission has yet to announce any results of its investigation on adoptions, the investigators have previously said it was clear that the records of many adoptees had been manipulated, including falsely describing them as orphans to ensure their adoptability in receiving nations or even faking their identities entirely.

Modeled after a South African group established in the 1990s to expose apartheid-era injustices, South Korea first launched its Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006 to investigate past human rights atrocities, including civilian massacres during the 1950-53 Korean War, in an operation that continued until 2010.

Following the passing of a new law that allowed for more investigations into the past, the commission was re-launched in December 2020 under South Korea’s former liberal government, with a focus on cases that occurred during the country’s brutal military dictatorships from the 1960s to 1980s.

In a landmark report in August 2022, the commission found Seoul’s past military governments responsible for atrocities committed at Brothers Home, a state-funded “vagrants’ facility” where thousands were enslaved and abused from the 1960s to 1980s.

The hundreds of deaths, rapes and beatings at Brothers were documented by an Associated Press report in 2016 that was based on hundreds of exclusive documents and dozens of interviews with officials and former detainees. It showed that the abuse at the facility was much more vicious and widespread than previously known. In an exclusive follow-up report in 2019, the AP found that foreign adoptions were also part of Brothers’ massive profit-seeking enterprise.

The adoptees investigated by the commission include at least one former inmate of Brothers.

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