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(Yonhap Feature) For adoptees, DNA is game changer for finding roots

All News 09:00 April 13, 2016

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) -- After living more than 50 years in denial of her Korean heritage, Katherine Kim had only one thing on her bucket list: to have a photo of her Korean mother.

Adopted by a white American couple in California in 1961, Kim said she knows she had a better life in the U.S. than she would have had as a biracial child in Korea. But that didn't stop her from wanting to make peace with the first three and a half years of her life, which were spent here with her single mother and then at an orphanage.

"I feel a lot of gratitude, I've done a lot of things, but that was the one thing on my bucket list," said Kim, who is now a founding member of the U.S. non-profit organization 325Kamra, which seeks to reunite families through DNA. "That was the inspiration for searching."

The search began with a DNA test five years ago. For Kim, her first close match came in October with a relative on her then-unknown American father's side.

The match, who turned out to be her cousin's son, helped her trace her lineage to her biological father, whose name was similar to a name she'd seen on her adoption documentations, just spelled differently.

"I figured it was him. Then I contacted the family," Kim said.

The reaction she got was mixed, as some were welcoming while others would have nothing to do with her. Her deceased father, as she later found out, had planned on marrying her mother and bringing them over to the U.S., but apparently gave up in the face of various administrative hurdles. Interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the U.S. in the late 1950s.

"For me, it's significant because it's knowing your line, knowing your ancestors," Kim said. "To me, it's profound to see his photo and see where I get my nose, to know that I'm part German and Welsh, and I would love nothing more than to learn about my Korean side, what my mother looked like, where she came from."

Kim was among thousands of children born to American GIs and Korean women working in camp towns near U.S. military bases after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Because the conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, the U.S. has maintained a troop presence here to this date to deter North Korean aggression.

Knowing that DNA could be a game changer for adoptees, Kim and several other biracial adoptees who had experienced similar successes came together in September to launch 325Kamra -- 325 being the number of the hotel room they stayed at and Kamra an acronym for Korean Adoptee Mixed Race Association.

This month, Kim and 325Kamra President Sarah Savidakis, another mixed-race adoptee, are in Korea to spread the word about their work and collect as many DNA samples as possible with the 300 DNA kits they brought with them.

It's all for free, they stress, and the personal information of those who test will be kept within the organization until a significant match emerges, say, within two generations. Names will appear on public databases simply as "325kamra."

"It's not just in Korea that adoption is shrouded in secrecy," Kim said. "It's also in America. In most states, adoption records are sealed. They're not open to adoptees. Historically, it's always been kept in secret."

Some estimates put the number of biracial adoptees from Korea at more than 4,000 between 1953 and 1965. Data from South Korea's health ministry suggests more than 7,000 mixed-race adoptees were sent abroad by the late 1960s, but that number includes disabled adoptees. To date, about 200,000 Korean children are believed to have been sent for international adoption.

In December, Savidakis made a fact-finding trip to Korea during which she met with a 95-year-old Korean woman whose wish was to meet her daughter.

She agreed to a DNA test and the result has been uploaded onto American DNA databases for "match-making."

The concept is new in South Korea, where DNA testing is only done to prove a relationship between two suspected relatives. In the U.S., however, there are four well-known public databases carrying the DNA of between a quarter of a million and 3 million people. So far, 325Kamra has tested five Koreans.

Savidakis, who also found her now-deceased American father and family through DNA, said that while reuniting families is the ideal end result, her organization aims to do more than just that.

"We're also here to collect medical history, because a lot of us have had health issues that's genetically linked," she said.

For example, the majority of 325Kamra's founding members have had cancer.

"I've had it and I have also had liver issues," Savidakis said. "They (doctors) don't know what's causing it. First thing they ask me is: 'Anybody in your family?' I don't know."

Biological families may not want to meet adoptees for various reasons. In some cases, the GIs were married and had children before they were dispatched to Korea. The Korean mothers, meanwhile, often suffer from guilt.

What Kim and Savidakis both stress, however, is that adoptees are still entitled to their medical histories.

"If I had known there were certain things that were in my medical history, we might have done something that was preventive, and that's what's really important for us, because it's not just for us, but our children," Savidakis said. "We want to keep our children safe. We don't want them to inherit something (and we want to) be more proactive in their health care."

Anyone who sits down for a DNA test will also be asked to provide information about their medical history.

Kim and Savidakis will only be here for a couple of weeks, but there will be others here to continue their work.

Kim, who has yet to cross off her wish from her bucket list, made sure to add: "We would take a photo. So that the adoptee also has a picture of the family member and they would get that as well."


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