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  • Korean Adoptees on a Mission at PyeongChang Games


    02/11/18

    (ATR) Meehyun Lee has a lot of information about her past and a chance to showcase herself to the world. The PyeongChang Olympics could be the event that reunites her with her biological parents. That is, if they want to meet her. 

    Meehyun Lee (ATR)
    Lee is one of a few members of the South Korean Olympic team who was adopted as a young child to overseas parents. She grew up in Pennsylvania to American parents where she developed a love for skiing. She began training with the Korean ski team over the last four years, obtaining South Korean citizenship in 2015.

    South Korean ski officials began courting Lee when she was just a young teenager. It wasn’t until they approached her on vacation in 2014 with the information that she wouldn’t have to give up her U.S. citizenship that Lee seriously considered making the switch.

    That switch may give her the platform to find her birth parents.

    Lee tells Around the Rings she hopes that appearing on South Korean television for the 2018 Olympics helps her find her birth parents, even if she is not choosing to actively search for them now. Unlike most Korean adoption cases Lee knows her case number, her mother and father’s name, and the agency from where she was adopted.

    The first time she ever came to Korea, with the help of the Korean Ski Association, Lee travelled to that agency. There, she ran into a number of roadblocks that stymied the search. From what she could understand, the administrator in charge of adoptions when Lee was adopted died a few years before her arrival, and the hospital where she was born had burned down.

    After the Games, Lee’s plans are to “settle it in and see where it goes”. Whether she will pursue trying to find her parents on her own will be decided by a number of unresolved factors, including if she will even be living in Korea next year.

    Lee believes there is a “very slim chance” that her birth parents have missed all of the media coverage in the run up to the Olympics. Her story caught enough attention that Lee said she would get recognized by strangers on the Seoul metro.

    “I guess if [a meet up] doesn’t [happen], it doesn’t, but I’m hoping the Olympics would help with that,” Lee said to ATR. “I mean everyone I know in Korea knows the Olympics are coming up. So if they are willing to reach out eventually, then it is up to them if they want to meet up. It is not all my choice.”

    Olympics Raises Profile of Adoptees 

    Ak Salling, secretary general of the Global Oversees Adoption Link, says it is impossible to provide concrete statistics of the number of adoptees that return to Korea each year to repatriate. She told ATR that GOAL, an organization that links adoptees with services in South Korea to help apply for visas, recover citizenship and set up life in a foreign country, interacts with around 300 adoptees a year.

    Phoenix Park, where Lee is competing (ATR)
    The organization is funded by the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, and is run by part-time staff of Korean adoptees who moved back to the country of their birth. Salling herself was adopted in 1974 before returning to Korea in 2013.

    Modern international Korean adoptions started after the end of the Korean War when American Harry Holt adopted eight South Korean children in 1955. Since then over 100,000 Korean children have been adopted internationally, with as many as 8,600 kids being adopted a year in the mid-1980s, according to government statistics. Since then South Korea has worked to promote domestic adoption. Salling estimated the government adopted just over 300 children internationally in 2017.

    “For the individual adoptees attending the Olympics, I hope it will help their birth family search, but overall in general the focus on attention on international adoptees has kind of gone down,” Salling said. “So having adoptees in the Olympics is definitely a good thing and can give some positive attention to overseas adoptees.”

    Salling says that there would be no focus on adoptees at major sporting events without one man, Tony Dawson.
    Dawson was born in Busan, South Korea, and separated from his parents at the age of three. He eventually ended up in an orphanage and was adopted by a family of ski instructors in Colorado.

    He grew up to become a world-class skier and won bronze at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino for the USA. After his feat, Dawson's story spread to South Korea, where a man saw his face on television. That man had a missing child from around the time Dawson was adopted. DNA tests confirmed it was Dawson’s father and he was reunited with his family in South Korea.

    Since then Dawson has worked to promote South Korean winter sports, even moving to Seoul and getting married. His influence on the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics cannot be underestimated.

    Dawson was one of the presenters at the 2011 IOC Session in Durban, South Africa where PyeongChang 2018 won the right to host the Games.

    Then he became a coach for the South Korean ski association, helping to develop moguls skiers to be competitive for the Games. Naturalized Korean athletes have also cited Dawson’s success and mentorship as a reason why they moved to South Korea to compete.

    “Those kinds of stories give me chills,” Dawson told ATR. “When this whole thing started and everything happened you don’t go out thinking of those kind of things, but this being the byproduct…its unbelievable my reach has gone that far.”

    Gaining National Attention

    Toby Dawson (ATR)
    Dawson says his focus on the Olympics has taken away from his work to help Korean adoptees, but is inspired by the enthusiasm groups have shown for attending the Games. He said he's met Lee a number of times through the Korean Ski Association, and believes that her Olympics exposure will almost certainly “increase her chance of meeting her biological parents by a lot”.

    “She’s the only freestyle girl that’s doing slopestyle and she’s definitely going to get some national attention so there will be some great stories,” Dawson said. “I do know that there is a big group of adoptees that have come out here in support of the Korean and Korean-American athletes during the Games, and that’s very exciting.”

    Lee said she never reached out to Dawson about his situation with finding his parents, but the pair has crossed paths due to the close nature of the Korean team. Lee said someone in Dawson’s orbit was actually the one that helped her get set up living in Korea and offered support when needed.

    Lee says she’s taking an open mind about the entire situation, but most of her focus these days is on training. The PyeongChang 2018 Games will be a landmark moment for skiing in South Korea, Lee says. The progress over the last three years has been tangible, and if the country can capitalize on the Games the future could be bright.

    “I’ve been trying to do this for my entire life,” Lee said. “It is my whole team’s first Olympics, we are all going through this together. It’s crazy!”

    Written by Aaron Bauer

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