This dissertation traces genealogies of Korean adoption that disrupt the dominant
narrative of Korean adoption as a) a humanitarian rescue project and b) a reproduction of
white heteronormative kinship in order to track the subject formation of the Korean
orphan and adoptee. It does so by situating the emergence of Korean adoption neither in
the Korean War (1950-1953) nor in the postwar recovery efforts of the U.S. but within
the context of U.S. military occupation of the southern portion of Korea that began in
1945—five years prior to the Korean War and ten years before the “official” beginning of
Korean adoption. In so doing, I argue that the figures of the Korean orphan and adoptee
have defined neocolonial relations between the U.S. and Korea, as well as fostered white
heteronormative constructions of the American family and nation.
In Chapter One, I link the development of U.S. neocolonialism in South Korea to
the neocolonial practice of Korean adoption by demonstrating how U.S. militarism and
its policies of militarized humanitarianism became the precursors to this form of child
welfare. I suggest that the Korean orphan ushered the arrival of what I call “American
humanitarianism empire,” which enabled the U.S. to promote the myth of American
exceptionalism while, at the same time, participate in imperial activities in the newly
decolonized Korea. In Chapter Two, I argue that the discursive practice of, what I call,
“yellow desire” facilitated the inclusion of Korean orphans into the U.S. domestic and
national family. Informed by the 1950s Cold War Orientalist policies of racial
integration, yellow desire runs on the logic that differences can be absorbed through
assimilation. I contend that yellow desire is what compelled average white Americans to
adopt Korean children during the era of Asian exclusion. In Chapter Three, I examine
the process in which orphans became adoptees. As an institution of discipline and
normalization, the orphanage as a “processing station” prepared the child to be
incorporated into the white American home. It became the site where Korea’s social
outcasts were shaped into useful subjects for the state: economically profitable for Korea
and politically beneficial for the U.S. In this way, Korean adoption can be regarded as a
civilizing project of modernity that ensures its success as a racially integrative project.
Finally, in Chapter Four, I argue that the figure of the Korean adoptee—upon entrance
into her new American family—documents the excesses, limits, and contradictions of
Korean adoption as a project of empire and as a project of white normativity. Even
though the adoptee is disciplined in the orphanage to seamlessly assimilate into her new
adoptive family, the very presence of the adoptee’s body within the adoptive family
disrupts the semblance of the all-American (read white) nuclear family. As a result, the
adoptee’s presence exposes the nonnormative, queer dimensions of Korean adoption.
Understanding the figures of the orphan and adoptee as geopolitical and
socioeconomic constructions is significant because it not only denaturalizes Korean
adoption but also illuminates the pivotal roles they played in building and preserving
neocolonial relations between the U.S. and Korea. The dominant narrative of Korean
adoption that depicts it as a “humanitarian project” or “rescue mission,” however, makes
illegible the material conditions that produced it. By reorienting Korean adoption as a
project of empire, I make legible the material conditions of U.S. military intervention and
occupation, war, neocolonialism, and militarized humanitarianism—the very conditions that enabled the emergence and persistence of Korean adoption, as well as the subject
formations of the orphan and adoptee.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2010. Major: American Studies. Advisors: Roderick A. Ferguson and Jigna Desai. 1 computer file (PDF); xi, 283 pages.
Genealogies of Korean adoption: American Empire, militarization, and Yellow Desire.
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