Hyun Sook Han, Korean Social Worker and Adoption Pioneer, Dies at 83
Over three decades, she placed thousands of Korean orphans with families in the Midwest and made sure the children never forgot their heritage.,
Hyun Sook Han’s childhood abruptly ended when the Korean War began. She was just 12 when she fled her home by foot with her family one winter day, carrying her little sister on her back. As she marched through the cold she kept looking behind her in despair. Children had been abandoned on snowy banks, left to fend for themselves.
The ache she felt for them never left her.
“All those children crying,” Mrs. Han wrote in a 2004 memoir, “Many Lives Intertwined.” “I could not look into their eyes and acknowledge such sorrow. Instead, I whispered to them: ‘I will come back and help you.'”
After the war ended in 1953, and Mrs. Han grew into a young woman, she decided to study social work at a university in Seoul. She joined the country’s nascent child welfare field and began assisting Korean families who wanted to adopt children who were orphaned by the war. She then started aiding American families seeking to adopt Korean children, but wondered about the culturally disorientating transition they might face overseas.
Mrs. Han died on Nov. 5 at her home in St. Paul. She was 83. Her daughter, Shinhee Han, said the cause was kidney cancer.
Working from her small office at the agency, Mrs. Han helped place thousands of Korean orphans with families across the state and beyond. She became a vital liaison to Korean child welfare agencies by providing a cultural bridge during the labyrinthine adoption process.
“When the child meets the family at the airport, the parents are so excited,” her daughter said. “But for the child, coming into this new world, they don’t understand who these people are. They’ve lost everything familiar to them. My mother’s vision was that the Korean part of their identity shouldn’t die at the airport.”
As her charges grew up in the Midwestern landscape of frosty winters and college football games, Mrs. Han provided a tether to Korean traditions.
She met with the children in groups, serving Korean fare like beef bulgogi and homemade kimchi while they discussed their experiences adjusting to their new lives. She ran camps and workshops that taught Korean language, history and folk songs, and she created support networks so the adoptees could establish a sense of community.
When they grew older, if they wished it, Mrs. Han connected them with their birth families in Korea.
“Over the years, I have helped many adoptees find their birth families and unraveled many sad stories,” Mrs. Han wrote in her memoir. “Most times I cried with them. Still, I believed in adoption.”
“I knew that adoption wasn’t perfect or the best solution, but I believe adoption is good for the child, for the birth parents, and for the adoptive parents,” she added. “I believe the United States is the best country for international adoption, as it is a melting pot.”
Hyun Sook Shim was born on June 15, 1938, in Seoul. Her father, Sun Ki Shim, worked for an electric company. Her mother, Yong Ok Lee, was a homemaker. Hyun Sook was the eldest of ten children, but as poverty and starvation ravaged the country during the war, three of her siblings died.
After graduating from Ewha Womans University in Seoul in 1962, she married Young U Han, a businessman. She had been in the child welfare field in Korea for a decade when she participated in an exchange program with the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota, which was at the time only beginning to start its international adoption initiative. The experience proved revelatory.
When she returned home, she told her husband that she wanted to continue her adoption work, but in America, and that she would have to move there to do it. As it happened, he was an adoptee himself, who had been separated from his family during the war. He had heard that if he became an American citizen, he might be able to travel to North Korea one day, where he could reunite with his family, so he eagerly agreed to the move. (He successfully reunited with them in the 1980s.)
In Minnesota, Mrs. Han embraced Midwestern culture. She became a Vikings fan who sat through games in the cold and she learned to make green bean casserole. Several times a week, even in the blustery snow, she drove to a Korean church to pray.
In 1987, she accepted an award from South Korea’s president recognizing her work, and in 2007, she was honored at the congressional Angels in Adoption gala in Washington. She retired in 2004. In her late 60s, she began traveling to India to volunteer at orphanages and engage in missionary work.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Han is survived by a son, Mike; four grandchildren; and five siblings, Hyun Jung Shim, Hyun Ja Shim, Hyun Ran Shim, Hyun Tae Shim and Hyun Yoon Shim. Her husband died in 1995.
Among the mourners at Mrs. Han’s funeral last month were crowds of adoptees and parents who had benefited from her efforts. They walked up to her children to pay their respects.
“So many people came up to me at the funeral to express the same thing,” her daughter said. “They wanted to tell me, ‘Your mother shaped and created my family.’ I heard people say that over and over again.”