To Save the Children of Korea
The Cold War Origins of International Adoption
Arissa H. Oh



GIs and Missionaries in the Land of Orphans

The American soldiers’ love for Korean children was very impressive. They did everything to take care of us. You were like a father to us.

—Yang Yun-hak, evacuated from Seoul to Chejudo in 1950 by American forces1

The Korean War (1950–1953) devastated and divided a country that was in the initial stages of recovering from thirty-five years of brutal Japanese colonial occupation and the destruction of World War II. The children of that war—orphans who lost their parents and the newly created mixed-race “GI babies”—could find little assistance from any quarter. The government of the new Republic of Korea (ROK) had neither the money nor the resources to assist any of its citizens, young or old. In the absence of government welfare, American servicemen and missionaries, along with a host of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provided what little social welfare was available. Together, these groups built and supported orphanages and stimulated massive donations of food, clothing, and money from Americans at home by raising awareness of the plight of Korean children. Additionally, servicemen cared for Korean boys under a semiformal “mascot” system.

Child sponsorship programs such as Foster Parents’ Plan, Christian Children’s Fund, and World Vision provided a way for Americans to virtually “adopt” Korean children. Those virtual adoptions quickly became real: as servicemen began returning to the United States with their adopted Korean children, such adoptions entered the realm of possibility for ordinary Americans. This chapter surveys the Korean orphan problem and some of the ways that American servicemen and missionaries cared for Korea’s children. It also examines how these servicemen and missionaries created the institutional and imaginative preconditions for the establishment of Korean adoption in the second half of the 1950s.

War Orphans and GI Babies

At eighty-five thousand square miles, the Korean Peninsula is roughly the same size as Utah. Unified as one kingdom since the seventh century, Korea’s isolationism and hostility to outsiders had earned it the nickname “Hermit Kingdom.” It remained fiercely independent until Japanese annexation in 1910, which ended with Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II. Following Japan’s withdrawal, returned Korean exiles, landlords, collaborators, and freedom fighters struggled to gain control of their newly liberated country. Instead, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union took stewardship of North Korea while the United States established a military government in the south. This division prompted an influx of refugees from the north, foreshadowing the enormous population movements that would occur during the Korean War. South Korea experienced economic, political, and social disorder: increased crime, political and labor violence, leftist uprisings, and retaliatory rightist purges. This chaos resulted in part in “heavy dependence” on the United States, which would have important consequences for Korea’s future development. As a result of developing Cold War politics and a US-Soviet deadlock, separate governments were established on the peninsula in 1948. In the south, the Republic of Korea was declared, with US-educated Syngman Rhee as its president; in the north, Kim Il Sung proclaimed authority over the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The United States withdrew its forces by mid-1949, leaving behind about 2,500 personnel, including five hundred soldiers to train the ROK Army.2

On 25 June 1950, the Korean War started when North Korean forces launched a surprise invasion of the south. They quickly pushed southward, overwhelming unprepared ROK troops, and by early August had gained control of at least 90 percent of the peninsula. The next month, American and ROK troops, led by General Douglas MacArthur, made their celebrated amphibious landing at Inch’ŏn, dramatically reversing the course of the war. By late November UN, Korean, and American forces had advanced almost to the Yalu River that formed most of the North Korean border, and they talked of being home for Christmas. Those hopes were thwarted by China’s entry into the war; its troops joined with the North Koreans and, in another dramatic reversal, drove UN forces back south of Seoul. By March 1951, the two sides found themselves facing off at the 38th parallel—essentially the same point at which they had begun—marking the start of a two-year period of stalemate during which truce negotiations dragged on against a backdrop of limited ground and air wars. In July 1953, North and South Korea signed an armistice that remains in effect today.3

Fleeing the fighting, approximately 5.8 million Koreans (one out of every five) became a refugee. The port city of Pusan, on the southeast tip of the Korean Peninsula, was never taken by North Korean forces. Consequently, it and the area around it—the thinly held defensive line known as the Pusan perimeter—became the de facto seat of the South Korean government. Pusan also housed hundreds of thousands of refugees, who built shelters from the discarded materials of warfare—corrugated metal sheets, flattened tin cans, and US Army C-ration boxes—and did what they could to stay alive. Huddled there, they endured hunger, disease, pestilence, power outages, fires, and water shortages for the duration of the war and long after it ended.4

It is difficult to overstate the deprivation, poverty, and destruction wrought by the Korean War. Regarded by the rest of the world as a geographically limited civil war—a UN “police action”—it was a total war for Koreans. At its close in 1953, the peninsula “was a smoldering ruin.” North and South Korea each reported roughly US$2 billion in property damage, the equivalent of South Korea’s gross national product in 1949. South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, which had changed hands four times in less than a year, saw the majority of its office space, homes, and industrial capacity destroyed. North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, was similarly shattered. By the July 1953 armistice, “most of South Korea was a wasteland of burned villages, bombed out towns and cities, roadsides littered with the rusted hulks of trucks and tanks, bridges down, rail lines severed, factories and schools flattened.” In this land of farmers and fishermen, half of the livestock and all of the fishing fleet had been wiped out. Measured in terms of “human lives lost,” the Korean War was the third “most costly war of the twentieth century.” Yet the civilian death toll has never been accurately assessed, partly because the North Korean government has never released official casualty statistics. Most sources agree that the war left between three and four million Koreans dead, missing and wounded—North and South, civilian and military—amounting to roughly 10 percent of the prewar population. Another ten million Koreans saw their families permanently divided. Troop deaths were just as appalling: 33,600 US troops were killed, 103,200 wounded, and more than 7,000 taken prisoner by North Korean and Chinese forces. Of the ROK troops, 70,000 were killed, 150,000 wounded, and 80,000 captured, of which the majority died from malnutrition or mistreatment. In addition, 3,063 non-US, non-Korean UN forces were also killed.5

Korean orphans captured the American imagination from the moment the Korean War erupted. Photographs and articles in mass-market magazines like Life, Collier’s, and Look roused sympathy and loosed a flood of donations from Americans. In particular, Life—the most widely read general magazine of the 1945–1960 period—was deeply influential in structuring Americans’ understanding of the world around them, including the war in Korea.6 In magazines and newspapers, on newsreels and radio programs, Americans saw, heard, and read descriptions of a ruined Korea. The media painted a vivid portrait of a land of suffering and poverty. Smoke rose from deserted villages, ancient city gates towered over smashed buildings, and lines of laden refugees wove their way through driving snow. Feature stories offered a montage of heartbreaking sketches: widows, lepers, a family sleeping on a single straw mat, bodies sprawled on the side of a road, an open-air school tucked away in the hills, a farmer whose entire family and only ox had died digging his fields by hand.7 Juxtaposed to the devastation were the faces of orphaned Korean children. Crying babies sat next to the bodies of their dead mothers. Gangs of children roamed the streets, foraging for food and sleeping in the rubble. Little girls with their baby brothers or sisters tied to their backs walked from Seoul to Pusan and back again. In almost every human-interest story about the Korean War, these “waifs,” “urchins,” and “moppets” figured prominently. Korea was, one mission group intoned, “a land of orphans.”8

Nobody knows for sure how many children were orphaned during the war, but one hundred thousand was the figure most frequently cited. This orphan population comprised two groups: children of full-Korean parentage and mixed-race GI babies. “Full-Korean” children were children of Korean parentage who had become lost, abandoned, or orphaned during the war and its aftermath. Many found their way to institutions, whereas others became street urchins, running in gangs and finding food through pickpocketing, begging, shining shoes, or pimping. Still others lived on American military bases as houseboys and mascots, a phenomenon addressed later in this chapter. Far more troubling to the war-strained social fabric of the country were the mixed-race GI babies, an unwelcome novelty in a country that prided itself on its racial purity. Although Americans did not father all of these children, Koreans and Americans alike persisted in calling them GI babies, which reflected both the dominance of Americans in the Korean imagination and the fact that Americans were the majority of the foreign troop presence in Korea. These GI babies constituted a tiny portion of the postwar orphan population—of an estimated 100,000 orphans, approximately 1,500 were of mixed race—but they suffered a disproportionate amount of hostility and abuse on the basis of their illegitimacy, racial mixture, and assumptions that their mothers were prostitutes.9


1. Russell Lloyd Blaisdell, with John Patrick Kennedy, Kids of the Korean War: Father of a Thousand: Memoirs (Seoul: Sejong Publishers, 2008), 327.

2. Anne O. Krueger, The Developmental Role of the Foreign Sector and Aid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Council on East Asian Studies, 1979), 8–9; David C. Cole and Princeton N. Lyman, Korean Development: The Interplay of Politics and Economics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 18–19; Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), 64; Steven Hugh Lee, The Korean War, Seminar Studies in History (London: Pearson Education, 2001), 33.

3. The historiography on the Korean War is huge. Major histories consulted include Bruce Cumings, Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945–47 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981) (hereafter Origins I); Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 2: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) (hereafter Origins II); Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: Norton, 1997), and The Korean War: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2011). Other works include Allan R. Millett, “Introduction to the Korean War,” Journal of Military History 65, no. 4 (Oct. 2001): 921–935; Carter Malkasian, The Korean War, 1950–1953, Essential Histories (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001); William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

4. Sahr Conway-Lanz, “Beyond No Gun Ri: Refugees and the United States Military in the Korean War,” Diplomatic History 29, no. 1 (Jan. 2005), 79; Andrei Lankov, “Korean Civilians North and South, 1950–1953,” in Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Asia: From the Taiping Rebellion to the Vietnam War, ed. Stewart Lone (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 202. Lankov, “Korean Civilians,” 204, states that there were five hundred thousand refugees in Pusan by February 1951. Hanley, Choe and Mendoza state that the Pusan perimeter contained 750,000 refugees. Hanley, Choe, and Mendoza, Bridge at No Gun Ri, 146. Time magazine reported that Pusan (population 400,000) became home to 225,000 refugees in January 1951. “The Greatest Tragedy,” Time, 15 Jan. 1951.

5. Cumings, Origins I, xix; Stueck, Korean War, 361; Conway-Lanz, “Beyond No Gun Ri,” 51, 80; Lankov, “Korean Civilians,” 174, 192; Hanley, Choe, and Mendoza, Bridge at No Gun Ri, 208–209, 223, 242; Millett, “Introduction to the Korean War,” 924; Malkasian, Korean War, 88; Harry Summers Jr., “Through American Eyes: Combat Experiences and Memories of Korea and Vietnam,” in America’s Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory, ed. Steven I. Levine, Jackie Hiltz, and Philip West (Armonk, NY: East Gate, 1998), 173; Stueck, Korean War, 361.

6. Life had a readership of about twenty million, which made it “the main source of visual news for Americans during the 1940s and 1950s.” Wendy Kozol, “‘Good Americans’: Nationalism and Domesticity in LIFE Magazine, 1945–1960,” in Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism, ed. John Bodnar (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 231–232.

7. See, for example, Harold Fey’s 1952 five-part series on the Korean War, published in Christian Century, and Robert H. Mosier, “The GI and the Kids of Korea,” National Geographic, May 1953, 635–664.

8. “Orphans in Korea,” North Pacific Union Gleaner, 23 Feb. 1953, 5; John Ford, This Is Korea! (1951; South Bend, IN: Non Fiction Video, 1992), DVD.

9. Mosier, “GI and the Kids of Korea,” 656; Jeanne Rondot, The Role of Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations in Supervising the Placement in Europe of Children from the Third World (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1980), 9; American Korean Foundation, Report of the Rusk Mission to Korea, March 11–18, 1953 (New York: American Korean Foundation, 1953); William Asbury, “Military Help to Korean Orphanages: A Survey Made for the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Forces, Far East, and for the Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army,” 1954, George Drake personal collection (hereafter Drake Collection); Hanley, Choe, and Mendoza, Bridge at No Gun Ri, 243. The estimated number of GI babies comes from the US embassy in Korea and is cited in “Amendment of Refugee Relief Act of 1953,” Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 2nd sess., vol. 102, pt. 6 (30 Apr. 1956): 7247–7249.