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The International is Personal: Cold War Kids

By: Fahreen Budhwani

We generally tend to conceptualize the world in binaries: war and peace, national and international, public and private, man and woman. These neat and tidy categories have functioned to keep certain issues (namely issues of gender) outside the scope of analysis and critique. For example the study of the international is completely separated from the study of the personal, individual, or even familial, because the assumption remains that one does not influence the other. This is inherently linked to the popular dichotomy which pits the private sphere against the public sphere. The public sphere is that of politics, the economy, and so forth while the private sphere has been conceptualized as the home and also the domain of the woman. This domestic sphere has historically evaded analysis because it was deemed “private” and beyond the reach of politics, rendering women’s experiences and familial experiences as unimportant. Queer and feminist perspectives seek to challenge these assumptions. Spike Peterson notes that the “privacy” of the family is queered (troubled) by practices such as surrogacy and adoption which invite individuals outside the biological family unit into the family making process. Therefore this idea that family life is private and biology constitutes “real” families is questioned by the rise of modern family making. Furthermore, the privacy of the family is challenged when examining the geopolitical roots of transnational adoption which demonstrates the interconnected nature of the international and the personal. .

This intimate relationship between families and international politics is aptly exemplified by the emergence of transnational adoption. Today, mix-raced biological and adopted families are a common sight. One only needs to look to the likes of Angelina Jolie and her children for a potent example of today’s transnational adoption fetish. However, only a few decades ago the practice of adopting outside of one’s race and beyond one’s domestic boarders was highly contentious and almost impossible. Transnational adoption as we know it today emerged as a result of the institutionalization of Korean adoption in the wake of the Korean War. Korean adoptees are the living legacies of Cold War politics and account for 25% of all children ever adopted from abroad. More specifically, they represent the infusion of international politics in everyday lives (*note that unless otherwise stated Korea in this article refers to South Korea)

"Korean adoptees account for 25% of all children ever adopted from abroad"

The Geopolitical Emergence of Korean Adoption:

The traditional narrative ascribed to the emergence of transnational and Korean adoption places the Holt family at the center of analysis. In 1955 Harry and Bertha Holt, an American couple, moved by the plight of Korean orphans lobbied the U.S government and were able to get a Bill passed (the Holt Bill) allowing them to adopted 8 Korean children. The Holt’s revolutionized transnational adoption and went on to setup the first and largest inter-country adoption agency: Holt International, which allowed American couples to adopt Korean children via proxy. Holt International remains one of the largest international adoption agencies today. While the story of the Holts is a compelling and emotionally moving one, it oversimplifies the geopolitical relationship between Korea and the U.S. which fostered the conditions enabling the Holt’s to adopt in the first place.

War and peace are the foundation of international politics; equally they represent the foundation of modern adopted families. Without the devastation of war and the American involvement in Korea, international adoption as we know it would not exist. International adoption was a direct consequence of the stationing of American men overseas. Where ever servicemen went they would engage in sexual activity and start families with local women (the relationship between military men and local women is in itself an entire topic worthy of exploration!). As a result of these sexual relations the first transnational adoptees were mixed-raced G.I babies fathered by the American military men serving in Korea.

These mixed-race children posed a threat to the homogenous social fabric of the Korean state. In Korea the transfer of citizenship is paternal, thus babies fathered by American’s were considered stateless “non-persons”. Peterson notes that the patriarchal inheritance of citizenship (read the traditional family arrangement) is significant for ensuring the continuity of the state. In other words the family is a metaphor for the state. The state, like the family should be composed of one homogenous Korean blood line and any deviation from this challenged Korean statehood. This is particularly relevant for the South Korean state in its attempt to secure legitimacy and stability in the wake of a devastating civil war that left two divided and competing nations. As a result of their destitute status in Korea, G.I babies were constructed in the media as the responsibility of the U.S. and their mixed race blood made them “the children of the US”. They were thus granted orphan status and brought to adoptive homes in America. Later and in large part due to the publicity garnered by the Holts, adoption expanded from only G.I babies to also include Korean orphans.

"Transfer of citizenship is paternal, thus babies fathered by American's were considered stateless"

G.I babies were the first to be adopted transnationally from Korea; however, their very existence was predicated on the geopolitical relationship which made male American bodies present on the peninsula in the first place. Following the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Korea from Japanese imperial rule in 1945, America established the US Army Military Government (USAMG) on the southern portion of the Korean peninsula. Pate asserts that the 5 year rule of USAMG fostered Korean dependence on the American state. The American’s would promise to assist Korea in all political, economic, and social issues in exchange for the nation’s commitment to America and democratic values as a whole. Geopolitically the US was regarded as Korea’s ‘big brother’. Following the ceasefire of 1953, marking the “end” of the Korean War, South Korea emerged as a weak state dependent on US Aid. The relationship between the two countries at this time mirrors the relationship between adoptive parents and vulnerable orphaned children. Furthermore, before the practice of adoption was institutionalized by the Holt’s, the US was heavily involved in caring for Korean orphans. American service men took care of roughly 65% of the material needs of orphanages and were responsible for setting up and staffing the majority of orphanages in the country. In addition the army conducted various militarized “operations” which saw the transfer of children throughout the country and even ensured that kids had gifts and clothing during the holidays. The relationship between Korean war orphans and American military men helped create the fictitious kinship between Koreans and Americans which would later support the notion of Korean adoption.

Furthermore, the Korean-American relationship is inherently coloured by Cold War politics and similarly, the orphan-parent relationship is equally influenced. The US aligned with South Korea to counter the growing communist threat in the east. American servicemen were motivated to assist the war orphans in an effort to save children from the throes of communism, and adoptee parents similarly took part in international Cold War politics by “liberating” children through adoption. The Holt’s went so far as to argue that adopting children from Korea was a moral duty in the fight against communism. It is evident that the narrative of Korean adoption emerging as a result of the humanitarianism of one family is misleading, in truth however, “Korean adoption… reveals connections between bio political projects and the production of domestic intimacies” -Kim, 2009. The effects of geopolitics cannot be understated when examining the emergence of Korean adoption. The adoptive family is a mirror of wider political dynamics and demonstrates the falsely that is the division of the public and private spheres.

Racial Hierarchies :

Korean adoption paradoxically both challenged and reinforced American racial hierarchies. Adoption from Korea pre-dates the elimination of anti-miscegenation laws (laws enforcing racial segregation in romantic relationships) in 1967 and the liberalization of American immigration laws in 1965 which saw the erosion of country based quotas. How then did Korean adoption flourish as widely as it did? The traditional story would point to the leadership of Harry. However, the humanitarianism which propelled adoption was by no means a new phenomenon during the Korean War and inter-country adoption itself, while not institutionalized, pre-dates the Korean case. Following the devastation of World War II, children from Europe were brought to America under refugee and orphan laws for adoption. However, unlike Korean adoptees these children were adopted primarily within their ethnic and race groups: Orthodox Greek children were adopted by orthodox Greek communities in the US. Adoption practices of the time maintained that the most suited adoptions were those that were “invisible” where a child is not physically or culturally regarded as different from their parents. This maintained traditional thinking about families and kinship which ascribed to the idea that family was based on biological ties and legitimate families were mono-racial. While adoption in general challenges the traditional “biological” unit of the family, adoption beyond ones racial group, such as Korean adoption, entirely dismantles the orthodox view of the family because there is a visible cross-cultural, cross-national kinship which is fostered between adoptees and their adoptive families.

The widespread embrace of the Korean adoptee demonstrates a shift in America’s evaluation of race relations. Roughly 7,052 orphans were adopted from Korea in the 1950’s alone, an era when the national immigration quota for Koreans was only 100. Despite this limiting quota, Korean adoptees were granted access to the U.S. through their legal status as children of US citizens and immigrated under family migration laws. Normally citizenship is accessed through birthright, and a nation is viewed as one large family. Adoption queers the orthodox access to citizenship, but also challenges who is considered a member of the nation. The advent of Korean adoption alters the image of America and the family from racially homogenous to a diverse “melting pot”.

"Roughly 7,052 orphans were adopted from Korea in the 1950's"

In many ways, Korean adoption marks a “liberal” turning point in America’s racial history. Asians went from being characterized as the “Japanese Enemy” or “Korean Gook”, to becoming the loving daughter or submissive wife (another trope worthy of its own article). Arissa Oh attributes this change in perspective to the feminization of Asian countries following WWII. This is evidenced by the pacifism of Japan and the weakness of the Korean state. Korean adoptees were similarly feminized through their vulnerability and thus not regarded as threatening to the American racial hierarchy. Moreover, these children were constructed as the objects of the white man’s savior. The re-characterization of “Asian-ness” in the American conscious demonstrated the effect Korean adoption had on the existing race relations. While Korean adoption presented a potent challenge to the American racial hierarchy it can also be read as reinforcing the existing racial dynamics. More specifically, the growing acceptance of Asians highlighted the continued marginalization of American black populations.

Korean adoptees played a significant role in reinforcing the black/white binary. If we return to the origins of Korean adoption, G.I babies, the racial divide is evident. While white G.I babies were constructed as the babies of the US and launched everyday American citizens into action, black G.I. babies were left to languish in Korean orphanages. In the same way that blood made mixed-race babies American, blood, even a drop of it, made black G.I. babies black and, therefore, undesirable. Koreans and all Asians were racially triangulated between white and black populations. Relative to the black community, Asians were regarded as superior, however, relative to the white community they were regarded as inferior. Racial triangulation thus favoured Koreans simply because they were not black. This notion of triangulation is present in domestic adoption practices as well. While the transnational mixed race white parent-Asian adoptee family was permitted, domestic white-black adoption was virtually unheard of. Black children in America were only adopted by black families. This segregation was related to hierarchies of race and the perception that black children would be unable to assimilate within a white family. The overwhelming majority of families engaged in Korean adoption were white and middle class, and so while black adoptees were cast as undesirable, Korean adoptees were framed racially flexible and thus had the ability to assimilate into their white communities. These racial stereotypes continue to follow children into adulthood. Racial hierarchies of adoption reflect wider systemic hierarchies which are perpetuated through every level from the international down to the family, demonstrating the effect that international politics has on the family and the effect that the family has on challenging these hierarchies.

Ethnicity, Race and Belonging:

The traditional family unit ignores questions of plurality and identity formation since homogenous national and ethnic affiliations are presumed. Traditionally biology has equated kinship. However, adoptive familial relations challenge the assumption of familial homogeneity and demonstrate the complexity of identity formation and ethnic and national allegiances. While Korean adoptees were legally American, questions about if they were culturally Korean were debatable. Since the end of the Korean War more than 200,000 Korean children have been adopted, more than half of those children are now adults in their 20’s and late 30’s. The existence of such a vast adult adoptee population allows for an exploration of how adoptees navigated identity through adolescence.

"Since the end of the Korean War more than 200,000 Korean children have been adopted transnationally"

Korean adoptees where overwhelmingly adopted by middles class white families and grew up in entirely white communities. The adoptees studied by Laybourn noted that one effect of “growing up white” was a desire to separate themselves from other Asian immigrant communities. Cultural stereotypes deemed Korean adoptees representatives of their racial groups in the eyes of everyday Americans. This expectation that Korean adoptees reflected Asian identities was far from true, most grew up with no knowledge of their birth country, mother tongue or history. Korean adoptees noted a disconnect between how they viewed themselves and how they were viewed. Adoptees found themselves unsure of where they fit, not quite white and not quite Korean/Asian. Even among first generation Korean –Immigrants, adoptees faced identity barriers. Since adolescence adoptees have engaged more heavily in identity exploration and have carved out a category specifically for the Korean- Adoptee community. The emergence of the internet and online chat rooms has aided in challenging the notion of biological kinship by fostering a unique kinship based on shared historical and cultural experience with fellow Korean adoptees. Born out of curiosity on online chatrooms adoptee’s have gone on to hold conferences and even attend annual “motherland” tours in Korea to attempt to navigate their histories belonging more clearly.

In the eyes of the Korean state adoptees are symbolic of a sore neocolonial history while also representing a diplomatic bridge between two partner nations. As Kim notes the adoptee is both family and foreigner in Korea. Most Korean adoptees are naturalized American citizens, a small fraction however were not naturalized (often by accident), and were considered illegal immigrants in the US and deported during adulthood. The majority of these deported adoptees had no ties to Korea, no knowledge of the language, and were raised American. Similarly American naturalized adoptees wishing to return to Korea have no legitimate legal claim to citizenship and would be considered an immigrant, despite ethnic histories. The search for identity has left adoptees straddling the national, cultural and ethnic lines between American and Korean, immigrant and citizen.

The complexities of nationality, ethnicity and identity born out of Korean adoption demonstrate how international politics are embedded in the everyday politics of the family. It further illustrates the fallacy of the public/ private divide and serves to demonstrate how personal politics truly is. The categories and binaries through which we have been taught to analyses the world erases or makes invisible the many ways in which the “private” is truly political. Feminist and queer analyses help bring light to these often hidden complexities. The next time you think that international politics is something that happens "out there" with no affect on your own life, reconsider what this type of thinking is really concealing.


Enloe, Cynthia. (2017). What does it mean to say that the personal is international and the international is personal? Faculty of Arts. Youtube. (March 17) accessed at:

Holt International. (2019). Accessed at:

Kim, Eleana. (2007). Our Adoptee our Alien: Transnational Adoptees as specters of foreignness and family in South Korea. Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 80 (2). pp.497-531

Kim, Eleana. (2009). The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy. US-Korea Institute at SAIS.

Kim, Eleana. (2010). Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Duke University Press. (November 30th).

Laybourn, Marie Wendy. (2018). Being a Transnational Korean Adoptee, Becoming Asian American. Contexts. Vol. 17(4). Pp.30-35

Oh, Arrisa. (2012). From War Waif to Ideal Immigrant: The Cold War Transformation of the Korean Orphan. Journal of American Ethnic History. Vol. 31 (4). Pp. 34-55

Oh, Arrisa. (2015). To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Stanford University Press. (June 17th). Stanford, California. E-Book

Pate, Soojin. (2014). From Orphan to Adoptee: US Empire and the Genealogies of Korean Adoption. University of Minnesota Press. (March 1st). Minneapolis. E-Book

Peterson, V Spike. (2014) Family Matters: How Queering the Intimate Queers the International. International Studies Review. Vol. 16 (4). pp. 604-608

Romero, C Victor. (2003). The Child Citizenship Act and the Family Reunification Act: Valuing the Citizen Child as well as the Citizen Parent. Florida Law Review. Pp.490-507

Tuan, Mia & Shiao, Lee Jiannbin. (2011). Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America. Russel Sage Foundation. New York. E-Book

Weber, Cynthia. (2016). ‘Queer Intellectual Curiosity as International Relations Method’ in Queer International Relations. Oxford university press. Pp. 1-29

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