Forget Me Not: an intimate film about unwed mothers in South Korea

The documentary film Forget Me Not premiered at the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival in Malmö, Sweden this weekend. Through a personal journey of identity and belonging, artist and filmmaker Sun Hee Engelstoft brings us up close to the shame, secrecy and structural pressure surrounding unwed young mothers in South Korea. In the making of the film, she follows the process that young women must go through to make the heart wrenching decision to give their babies up for adoption.

Forget Me Not raises the voices and perspectives of young women who have rarely – if ever – been heard. The sound of their silence is deafening as they sit across from their parents in a meeting to discuss the baby’s and the mother’s future. Although the three young women we follow in the film are anonymous and their faces blurred, the intimacy and emotion is palpable throughout. Sun Hee was herself adopted from South Korea as a baby and the making of the film is an attempt to understand and connect with her own mother.

In the Q&A following the film she spoke about the mutual curiousity between the young mothers and herself as an adopted Korean – one of those babies. “It was important to me to be very honest with them – also about the emotional stress that I was going through during the shooting of the film and when learning about their lives. I also exchanged my story and my experience growing up in the Nordics. The curiosity was equal. They wanted answers.

Of course they asked me if I was happy to be adopted – and I can’t really say that I was happy to be “traded” in a way. There is so much money in adoption, and has been for such a long time, which is deeply problematic. I am doing well, I am making a living, but I have spent most of my adulthood trying to track back my identity. I think that counts for something in the scope of things. I know a lot of other people who are adopted or who have been affected by adoption who have struggled with this issue.”

I had the opportunity to continue the conversation with Sun Hee about her experiences in South Korea, the complexities of human experiences, adoption, and her future work.

Julia: What really stood out for me in the film were the power structures within the families, and how little power these young women actually have to make a decision for their futures. How much of these underlying structures of power surprised you and what came to light during your time there? 

Sun Hee: It is very picturesque in South Korea, it is very beautiful and it is very rich – which happened in a very short time. I would never in my wildest fantasy have been able to fiction write these stories – because they are so wild. I just had no idea that it was like that and that was a shock to me. It was a painful thing to experience. It also gave me an understanding that I just did not have before, and I am happy to have that knowledge.

I came there and I am seen as a Korean, and then they discover that I don’t know anything. I am basically a big baby running around with a camera. And then they just start crying – I’ve met that quite a lot. I don’t understand why, because I’m from Denmark, I have a rich culture. It’s a weird thing, because it reveals what I have lost – even the painful parts of a society I don’t know about. I really wanted to find some answers. I have been brought up with some very strong narratives about adoption without anyone really being able to explain how it happens.”

Julia: It is a very personal story and something that must make you feel very vulnerable. Can you tell me a bit about the motivation of actually making a film and how you are bracing yourself now as you are exposing it to the world?

Sun Hee: I think the film was a way to investigate what was actually happening, and a chance to get close to some of these women who I wouldn’t have had a chance to have a conversation with. Looking at the women in this country that I also belonged to – I was brought up in a very white community in the countryside [in Denmark]. I thought I was white for the longest time – but I was not ever treated as white, which was a big reason for confusion.

I don’t think that most European countries have acknowledged that mirroring your origin or similar bodies has an effect on your self image growing up. It’s a feeling of always being different, treated slightly differently. I knew if I stood out too much I would be shunned, but it would be in a silent way.

I think that sort of disturbance growing up made me so curious to be in Korea, looking at these women becoming mothers. How do I relate to them? They were so foreign to me in the beginning, but now I so relate to them and our stories are so connected. This is an experience you can’t explain.

There is never a way to protect myself when doing something so personal. It is definitely not the easiest thing. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. This is the one subject that was important to me.

Because of the identity and adoption turmoil I was in – I fianlly realized when making the film that adoption wasn’t really about me. It is a women’s issue. It is not something that I as an individual can solve, and I don’t have to. And that was such a big relief.

This is a women’s issue, which makes it a human rights issue and a children’s rights issue. That just opened it up in a completely new way for me – to see things on the structural level. It opened up so many more questions. Is it OK to buy a child from someone who is coerced to being seperated from that child? Should we reconsider how things are done? To become adopted internationally, you have to become an orphan on paper. Even if your parents are known, they have to write this paper. Adoption becomes a cover up story for something else.

Julia: This has been a project you’ve worked on for 8 years, is there a pause in your work now or are you continuing with the story in some way? 

I am definitely continuing. I am doing several things. One thing is studying the dads, because the fathers are really not recognised and they are not protected by law. We have these young fathers who are losing a child in the family. Time goes by and they maybe start their family and may have a different idea of what having a family actually means, and there is no tracking back.

It is an issue that nobody is talking about and could be really important to take a closer look. It is really difficult to find the dads that would be willing to participate in a documentary though. So, it will probably become more of a fictional story.

If You Aren’t Married, You’re Incapable of Raising Your Own Child

Of the 200,000 Korean children who have been adopted overseas since 1953, 89% were born to unwed mothers. Single mothers in South Korea have little autonomy when it comes to decisions regarding their children, are highly stigmatized, and lack support from their communities and from the government. They have a difficult time finding employment and childcare in South Korea. A survey found that unwed mothers in South Korea felt the most prejudice after homosexuals in the country. Another survey found that 60% of South Koreans believe unwed mothers “lack judgment and a sense of responsibility.”

Until May of 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Health & Welfare included the following definition of unwed mothers on its website: “…usually low levels of education, with an unstable job. Lives by herself or in a boarding house, has open and impulsive sexual values. A person whose socioeconomic situation is low, and who lives apart from her parents.”

Keeping in mind this negative perspective of single mothers in South Korea, it is not surprising that South Korean laws regarding single mothers are anything but supportive. According to a talk given at the 3rd Annual Single Mother’s Day conference held at the Gwangju International Center in Gwangju, South Korea, a woman can only receive government assistance for a child if her entire family’s financial situation is taken into account. In this case, if her parents earn enough money she may not be eligible for benefits herself and must rely on her parents for financial support. Often, parents of single mothers are the ones who determine whether a child should be given up for adoption, and make other significant decisions for the unwed parents.

Although South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, the Korean government still promotes adoption for unwed mothers rather than creating better support systems for women with children.

In addition to the stigma against unwed mothers in Korea, the rate of adoption of children born to unwed mothers is exacerbated because of Korea’s voluntary birth reporting system. This system “allows for the circumvention of legal documentation.” A birth is not officially recognized until it is recorded at a local office which allows for “predatory agencies to profit from adoptions and enables adopters to sign on as the child’s biological parents.”

This practice violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 1 that states: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Many Korean children who try to locate their biological parents later in life, are unable to do so.

Mother and sonThe high rate of adoptions for children of unwed mothers is due to a combination of the stigma associated with being a single mother and the lack of decision making power that South Korean women face, often being pressured towards adoption by family and community members.

There are various organizations in South Korea taking action to assist unwed mothers to care for their children in spite of the obstacles. In addition to advocacy and various other services, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association (KUMFA) provides housing and food for 24 mothers and their children, for up to 2 months at a time. You can visit the KUMFA Facebook Page to learn more and show your support!

Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), an organization developed by Korean individuals who were adopted internationally and have returned to Korea to seek out their birth families, creates awareness around the issue and lobbies for transparency in adoption practices in Korea. Visit the TRACK website for more information.

Additionally, the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN) provides resources for South Korean unwed mothers. KUMSN facilitates “Single Mother’s Day” each May in Korea to provide awareness about the struggle of unwed mothers in the country. The organization also promotes domestic adoptions as an alternative to international adoptions. You can visit the KUMSN website here.

Although these organizations are providing an invaluable service to unwed mothers, more awareness of the issue is needed to reduce the stigma around being a single mother, and the Korean government should put forth more efforts to keep its families intact.

It is a tragedy that women who are capable of caring for their children are stripped of this innately human experience. These women are presented with additional obstacles by their own communities due to prejudice and irrational ideals of what a family is “supposed” to look like. Please show your support for the organizations that are working to end the stigma toward unwed mothers in South Korea.