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SEOUL, South Korea — A court in Seoul ruled Friday that a woman adopted by an American couple almost four decades ago must be recognized as a daughter of an 85-year-old South Korean man, providing hope for the thousands of Korean-born adoptees who want to know the identities of their birth parents.
On Nov. 18, exactly 36 years after she was found abandoned in a parking lot in a city in central South Korea, Kara Bos, now an American citizen, filed her paternity lawsuit, the first in South Korea by an overseas adoptee. After winning the lawsuit, Ms. Bos now hopes to confront her father to ask him who her mother was.
Ms. Bos was flown to the United States 10 months after she was found abandoned, becoming one of thousands of South Korean babies and toddlers shipped annually out of their birth country for overseas adoption in the 1970s and ’80s.
In recent years, Ms. Bos has been making trips to South Korea in search of her birth mother. She wanted to meet her biological father not only to press him on her mother’s identity, but to find out why she was abandoned. But three women she believed to be her half sisters have blocked her from meeting the elderly man, claiming that she was not family. As a last resort, she filed the paternity lawsuit.
“Because of the lawsuit, I actually now have a right to register as his daughter,” Ms. Bos told reporters outside the Seoul Family Court following its ruling on Friday. The ruling followed DNA test results that showed a 99.9981 percent probability that the man and Ms. Bos were father and daughter.
Ms. Bos flew from Amsterdam to attend the court ruling on Friday. She has lived in Amsterdam since 2009 with her Dutch husband, a son and a daughter, running a drowning-prevention program for children.
If she is included in his father’s family registry, Ms. Bos by South Korean law will become entitled to split his inheritance with her other siblings. And her half sisters cannot stop her from meeting her father.
“My whole intention was just to be able to talk to him to find my mother,” Ms. Bos said.
Her case has been closely watched because it could set an important precedent worldwide for adoptees who are taken from their home countries, especially for the thousands of Korean adoptees abroad who have recently started returning to their birth country in search of their biological parents.
Such searches by Korean adoptees have never been easy. They can be stymied by poorly kept or falsified adoption papers and the fear of scandal and shame that keeps biological parents from acknowledging that they once had out-of-wedlock babies that they abandoned or gave away for adoption.
And local privacy laws require that birth parents must give consent to let adoptees gain information they need to reach their biological parents, like their addresses and telephone numbers.
Although Ms. Bos’s primary goal was to find her mother, she said she hoped that her lawsuit would help the South Korean government “recognize that the practices and privacy laws in place are fundamentally wrong and should be changed.”
South Korea once held the dubious distinction as the world’s top “baby exporter.” Hundreds of South Korean babies are still sent abroad each year. In total, more than 167,000 South Korean babies have been sent overseas for adoption since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Ms. Bos was adopted by Russell and Mariann Bedell in Sheridan, Mich., in 1984. It was not until she had her own daughter five years ago that she began thinking about the excruciating pain her Korean mother must have gone through in abandoning her, and realized how badly she wanted to reconnect with her mother.
“When my daughter turned 2 years old, it hit me deeply what it really meant to abandon a child at this age,” she said last week from Amsterdam. “I wondered about the circumstances she could have been in to have to choose this painful path.”
“It made me want to find her to let her know she didn’t have to worry about me any longer and if possible, make contact with her so we could form a relationship and even build a new bond,” she said. “I also never wanted to regret when I was older not searching for her, and to be too late in finding her.”
Ms. Bos’s struggle is not over.
Even though she won the lawsuit, she cannot force her father to meet her — or force him to reveal the identity of her mother even if her father agrees to meet her.
When she knocked on his apartment in Seoul in March — Ms. Bos learned his address as part of the legal procedure prompted by her lawsuit — she said her father just looked at her and “waved me away.” One of her half sisters later told her that she was trespassing and that she was not family.
But they told her through her lawyer that if she won the lawsuit on Friday, they would meet her next week. But she still was not sure whether her father would show up.
“I hope he comes,” she said.