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The 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea — A tool for adoptees interested in affecting policy in Korea?: My Conversation with Jenny Town, Research Associate, U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS

It’s another short week here at Land of Gazillion Adoptees because I am heading to Washington, DC to hang out with old friends, hit a few bards, and eat some good food.  So, the following conversation with Jenny is the last for the week, but it certainly is not the least.  Jenny has a very interesting idea that is absolutely worth all of our consideration.

Enjoy, and when we pick up our conversation again on Monday, expect to see LGA’s feature of a non-adoptee — Ed Bok Lee, author of the new book “Whorled.”


Land of Gazillion Adoptees: When did you escape MN and what are you doing these days?

Jenny: I left MN (for good) back in 2002. Since then, have moved around a lot—DC, Seoul, DC, NYC, then back to DC. Somehow, I always end up back here in DC (a relatively logical decision, especially during financial crises and recession), even if it’s not really my favorite place to live.

I started getting into Korean affairs and the Korea policy field during my second time around in DC. I had been working in communications (advertising, marketing, public relations) and organizational development for a number of years and although enjoyed the nature of my work, was just not finding the subject matter to be meaningful. Deep down, I knew I wanted to be dealing more directly with Korea-related matters.

So, I decided to change course, and head back to school. While preparing for a master’s course at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, I spent some time doing research and communications for the Human Rights in North Korea Project at Freedom House. We developed an awareness campaign to help educate the international community on the egregious human rights conditions within this enigmatic state. Once our grant ended, I was recruited to the U.S.-Korea Institute at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), where I have been ever since. USKI is a research institute focused on Korean affairs, founded in 2006. Coming on board in 2008, the Institute was really still at the ground floor of its institutional development and I was able to apply various aspects of my prior experience to help it transform from an idea into a world-class research institution.

These days, I handle most of the day-to-day operations, all the communications and publications, and head up most of our North Korea programming, including the DPRK Economic Forum and “38 North” ( I also manage most of our high priority issues, such as Korea’s work on championing the development of global financial safety nets last year in the lead up to the G-20 Summit in Seoul, research into Korea’s transition from ODA recipient to donor country in the lead up to this year’s Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, and a variety of consultations and conferences on nuclear energy security and nonproliferation over the next few months in the lead up to the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.  In addition, I have tried to create academic space and funding for Korean adoption research, such as our working paper series that explores Korean adoptees as an undervalued and under-recognized population within the Korean Diaspora.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Not so busy, are you..? What do you miss the most about MN and how many MN KAD’s do you think you know?

Jenny: I don’t miss much about MN itself, mostly just my friends there. East coast living really just suits me better than MN ever did.

In terms of the KADs there, I know…. several. Too many to count and still meeting more all the time.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: What are your thoughts about some of the Korean adoption legislation pieces that have passed in the last?

Jenny: I think these mechanisms for Korean adoptees to reclaim their Korean citizenship are important for both symbolic and political reasons. Having political identity and political agency in Korea opens new doors to KADs, as voting power speaks loudly when leveraged.

Building on that momentum, I believe a unique moment for KADs to affect policy in Korea has just emerged with the recent announcement of Pyeongchang as the host of the 2018 Olympics. Thinking ahead, it’s likely that the media will use that opportunity to do a retrospect of where Korea was 30 years ago, when it hosted the 1988 Olympics. Of course, one of the popular stories at that time was the vast number of children that Korea was sending out for international adoption.

This was a huge embarrassment to the Korean government, and as such, they vowed to reduce those numbers drastically and end international adoption by 1996. As we all know, 1996 came and went and Korea still sends over 1,000 children a year overseas for adoption (even while spending billions of dollars on image campaigns to tell the world what an advanced nation it has become).

Keep in mind that in 1988, there was no critical mass of adult KADs to add context to those media narratives or to bring to light the broader issues that affect the adoption story—treatment of adoptees returning to Korea, social welfare services and structures for unwed mothers or divorcees, etc. But today, that critical mass exists and the KAD community has made some progress affecting systems and legislation as demonstrated by our ability to now qualify for dual citizenship.

So all this leads me to ask: 1) what does the Korean government want the narrative on adoption and the treatment of Korean adoptees to be by 2018; and 2) what does it have to do to get there? I see this as an incredible and unprecedented opportunity for the KAD community to be forward thinking and proactive in the Korean public policy process; and I hope more KADs will take up this charge.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: I think you’re onto something, Jenny. Where do I sign up?

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