Erica from America: Pohang – A Cold Case Reinvestigated

I had said good-bye to Adam and Micah, the two young men I met in Tapgol Park on Sunday, August 24, and in the next three days, I scrambled to get a new game plan in place since Sally, the keystone of my original plan, was no longer able to help me. Because my father’s family has had a long history of Presbyterian mission work in Korea, I was able to tap into a large network of ministers and missionaries who were willing to take up where Sally had left off. (Top photo: Statue of Mother and Child on the grounds of the current Welfare Agency for single mothers).

Me, Andrew & Pastor Kim

Me, Steven, and Pastor Kim

Steven was the 21-year old son of a professor at the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary, which had been founded by Samuel Austin Moffett, my great-grandfather in the early 1900s. Steven, at his father’s request, was gracious enough to agree to accompany me to Pohang and be my guide and translator. There was also Pastor Kim, an assistant pastor at the Pohang Presbyterian Church, the largest church in the city with over 10,000 members. This connection would prove invaluable since he was able to get us meaningful meetings with City Hall, the police station, and the orphanage.

Steven and I met at the Seoul train station on Thursday morning, August 28, to take the high speed train to Kyongju. Pastor Kim met us there and drove us the 40 minutes back to Pohang. Fortunately the heat and humidity had broken by the time we arrived because Pastor Kim said that in the summer, the humidity combined with the mill’s exhaust was more than oppressively awful. Having just escaped the Seoul humidity, which didn’t even include a steel mill’s output, I believed him. Pohang, I thought, would be like merging Corpus Christi with Pittsburgh: little coastal city meet the big steel mill and good luck to all those living there.

* * *

I wish I had some great story to tell about my trip to Pohang. I want to be able to say how amazing it was when reality collided with fantasy when I accidentally bumped into my birth mother walking on the beach as she was getting ready to swim in the ocean, and immediately we both knew it because it was like looking into a mirror. But I have no great story to tell.

Downtown Pohang, looking at POSCO steel mill. The sea is to the left.

Downtown Pohang, looking at POSCO steel mill. The sea is to the left.

It turns out that for all the anticipation that had built up over 44 years, the actual trip to my birth city was fairly ordinary. I went, I saw. I asked questions. I talked to people at the orphanage. I talked to people at city hall. I talked to people at the police station. I went to the train station and thought about whether someone would have left me there. There were no grand outbursts of tears. There were no sharp realizations or insights. Instead, I had become like a detective, investigating the circumstances of a Korean baby girl named Sohn Soon, who was born somewhere in or around Pohang on or about November 18, 1969 and then appeared at Pohang City Hall Social Section on December 9, 21 days later.

In fact I was not like a detective. I was a detective, able to conduct my investigation with cold, clinical detachment. This I was not prepared for. Because earlier in the year, back in New York, when I had first started searching, it had been difficult to talk to people about the search without being overwhelmed with emotion. But somehow, by the time I got to Pohang, I had detached. I was no longer searching for my origins. Instead, I was searching for the origins of some random baby named Sohn Soon who had been abandoned in Pohang. Though I wasn’t prepared for this separation of selves, I was happy to slip into the role of skeptical detective.

And what did the detective work uncover? Unfortunately, not a lot. We started at the orphanage, which had shut down as an orphanage in 1970 and re-opened as a welfare organization for single mothers. It had been founded in 1948 by Park Kyung Ho who served as Director until he died. His daughter-in-law, Mrs. Shin, now ran the organization, and we met with both her and the assistant head of the organization. From previous conversations between Mrs. Shin and Sally, I already knew that the records had been lost in a fire. So the only hope we had was to identify someone who had worked there at the time who might be able to remember something. But I intuited, as I listened to the tone of the conversations flying over my head in Korean, that there was no one else alive who would be worth talking to. I was right. It was a dead end.

Photographs of Pohang Orphanage in 1969; the photo on the lower left is the building I would have stayed in when I arrived.

Photographs of Pohang Orphanage in 1969; the photo on the lower left is the building I would have stayed in when I arrived.

I did learn that my name was attached to me before I came to the orphanage. Mrs. Shin said that if I had come to the orphanage unnamed, her father-in-law would have given me the family name of Park, his own family name, which was standard practice. So we all concluded that I must have come in as Sohn Soon. But this wasn’t enough of a clue to get us any farther.

Mrs. Shin took us to the original location of the building where I would have lived once I had been brought over from City Hall. The building had been torn down long ago, but they had built a new one, which now served as a playroom for the children. The orphanage had already been scheduled to shut down before I had arrived which was, most likely, the reason that I was sent to Holt after only two days and not kept in the orphanage. “It is too bad you were only here for two days,” she said, “because even if we were to find someone who worked here back then, they probably wouldn’t remember a baby who had only been here for two days.”

We walked back to the main building and re-examined my very thin adoption file. It was only 21 pages, half in Korean and half in English, and we went through every page, over and over, looking for some clue to point us somewhere else to find out more information. We went over that file so many times it eventually resembled a worn out, old pamphlet that had been read one too many times. But in the end there was nothing else to be found. It was like trying to pull water from stone.

Entrance to Pohang City Hall, Social Section, 4th Floor

Entrance to Pohang City Hall, Social Section, 4th Floor

After the orphanage, we went to City Hall, to the Social Section, the department responsible for processing abandoned children. City Hall had no records either. They had also been destroyed in a fire. (Fires, I was learning, were exceptionally common at any place that housed adoption records. It didn’t seem to matter whether the records were located in Ireland, Queens, Vietnam, China, or Korea; somehow the fires always seemed to seek out the records of those abandoned children.)

At City Hall, we did the same thing that we did at the orphanage. We pulled out the file and put on our detective hats. We asked questions, we pored over the file, we tried to find people who would have worked there when I was there. The only person they could think of was the man who headed up the department during that time. But he was retired now and living in America. And very old. Someone knew his daughter so they called her and got his number and were going to try him later that evening. But it was too long ago for him to remember anything.

After City Hall, we visited the Police Station. They also had no records, though there was no fire this time. They simply would have destroyed the records after five or ten years. And it is likely, they said, that even if they had kept the records, they would not have recorded an abandoned baby.

Pohang Train Station

Pohang Train Station

Finally we went to the Pohang train station because that was a popular place to leave babies who were either not wanted or could not be cared for. We didn’t know if this was the place where I had been abandoned, but we went there anyway, just so I could imagine it.

On Friday, we went back back to the orphanage and discovered that one of Mrs. Shin’s childhood friends, Mrs. Paek, had actually worked at City Hall Social Section during the time that I was brought there. They had gone to high school together and she had gotten a job with the social section after graduating. Finally! Here was a living person who might be able to tell us something. She was going to come over and talk to us.

The director of Pohang Welfare Agency and her assistant.

Mrs. Shin, left, the director of Pohang Welfare Agency, and her assistant.

When she got there, we eagerly asked her what she remembered about taking in abandoned babies at City and how they decided where to take them. She looked blank for a second. “It was so long ago,” she replied.

I tried again, “Do you remember who would have taken me over from City Hall to the orphanage?” She shook her head. She was very nice, and she wanted to be helpful, but it was clear she could not remember anything about the work that she did back then.

I wasn’t defeated. But I was deflated. And Steven and I were going to have to leave shortly to catch our train back to Seoul.

* * *

One of the current buildings at the welfare agency - now a playroom for the children.

One of the current buildings at the welfare agency – now a playroom for the children.

Before going to Pohang, I had written up questions that I wanted to find answers to: Who ran the orphanage? Who were the caretakers? How many babies and children would have been there? Where were babies typically left? How many babies were abandoned on average during a given month at that time? Would I have been one of one? One of five? Or ten or twenty? What would have happened to those other babies? How did the orphanage work with City Hall? How did they work with Holt Adoption Agency? How far away from City Hall was the orphanage and how would I have gotten from City Hall to the orphanage? How would I have gotten to Seoul? Who would have taken me?

After two days of talking to everyone we could think of, I had very few answers to any of these questions, let alone anything that would lead me to the identity of my birth family.

It turns out that without any records, without any knowledge of where I was left, without any confirmation of my name or birthdate, without any eyewitnesses, there was very little detective work to be done.

It was just another case of an abandoned baby, gone cold.

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction, “Why Are You Here?”,  “Why Did You Wait So Long?”, and In Pohang, a Baby Girl Is Born.