The Politics of Care: Intercountry Adoption and South Korean Modernity, 1961–1979

The Politics of Care: Intercountry Adoption and South Korean Modernity, 1961–1979
This dissertation examines the ground-level, institutional history of South Korean intercountry adoption. South Korea has the world’s longest-running and largest international adoption program, one which has placed an estimated 200,000 children in North America, Europe, and Australia since the end of the Korean War. Initially developed as an emergency measure to solve the so-called issue of mixed-race children fathered by US soldiers in the aftermath of the war, international adoption endured far beyond this period, and its primary focus shifted to full-Korean children who were found abandoned, and later to those born to unwed mothers. Focusing on key institutional and state actors – particularly international and South Korean social workers – this dissertation provides a transnational account of how intercountry adoption became institutionalized as a central, indispensable mode of care in South Korean child welfare during the Park Chung Hee era (1961–1979).

Based on extensive archival research in six countries (South Korea, United States, Sweden, Denmark, England, and Switzerland), oral history interviews with social work professionals, and examination of personal adoption files, this study identifies and analyzes four defining moments in the institutionalization of adoption: the rise of liberal childcare ideologies; the bureaucratization of child abandonment; the politicization of international adoption; and the exigencies of a self-reliant welfare system. It reveals that US social work and its liberal ideologies greatly shaped notions of how children should be cared for and how child welfare should develop in South Korea. However, this was not solely an American project. A new generation of college-educated South Korean social workers, driven by postcolonial aspirations and modernizing desires, sought to bring rationality to the welfare system through international adoption. Transnational struggles over priorities and the meaning of care, as well as the emergence of a system of loopholes and disruptive outcomes for children, challenge dominant narratives that adoption institutionalization was a simple, top-down process orchestrated by the authoritarian regime to fuel rapid industrialization. Rather, amid shifting Cold War relations within the peninsula and globally, international adoption critically challenged and informed the regime’s international politics and developmental strategies, redefining the relationships between family, society, and state. Taken as a whole, this dissertation argues that international adoption, a seemingly private and apolitical phenomenon, was an active, formative site of South Korean postcolonial modernity within which enduring tensions between liberalism and authoritarianism were negotiated through transnational exchanges, as well as competing national, disciplinary, and imperial visions. In doing so, this dissertation inserts new actors, new state–society dynamics, and new moments of innovation and desperation into modern Korean history, the history of social work and governance, and the history of humanitarian internationalism.


Youngeun Koo

Defended in

1 Jan 2022 – 30 Nov 2022

PhD defended at

University of Tuebingen, Faculty of Humanities, Korean Studies




Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
South Korea


International Relations and Politics
Diasporas and Migration