“The Parents You Have Not Known”


Would my mission to Korea lead me to them?

Genealogy work and missionary work parallel each other. They both bring the gospel and the ordinances of salvation to God’s children—one to the dead, one to the living. My mission provided an opportunity for me to combine both.

I was born in Weonju, South Korea, sometime in 1958 and was later adopted by an American family. When I was fourteen, I joined the Church. A year later, concerned about what to do after high school, I decided to obtain my patriarchal blessing. I first talked to the patriarch, who advised me to fast and pray about the things I wanted to know. I did, and later received my blessing with good feelings about the promises in it. But one section puzzled me:

“You will have the great privilege of performing work for and in behalf of your family, the parents you have not known. If you will search for your family records, help will come from on high; the heavens will respond to your prayers if you fast and pray and if you will be faithful in giving of your time and talents.”

Obviously, I needed to do my genealogy work, but the phrase “the parents you have not known” stumped me. I had no idea who my natural parents were or how to find out. As far as I knew, I was an orphan when I was adopted.

While I was attending college, after deep prayer and soul searching, I felt strongly impressed to serve a mission. I contacted my bishop, completed my missionary application, and sent in my papers; but I worried that the mission call would be to Korea, for I did not particularly want to go there. A few weeks passed, and the call came. I opened the letter and saw “Korea Seoul West Mission” in bold letters.

I struggled with accepting my call, but as the time drew near, I thought of the promise in my patriarchal blessing. How else could I do my genealogy work? I had to go to Korea.

Apparently that was indeed one of the reasons I was called to Korea. Almost the first question the mission president asked me was, “Do you plan to do some of your genealogy work while you’re here?” Surprised and encouraged by his question, I answered, “Yes, I want to.”

Three months passed. I was submerged in learning the Korean language and hadn’t done anything with genealogy. My companion was Korean, and one day I asked her and another Korean missionary to help me with my search. They agreed, so on a preparation day, we sought out the foundation that had handled my adoption. When the officials there learned that my search was for genealogical purposes, they looked through their records until they found mine.

Next to my records were the records of another little girl whose picture looked very much like one of my baby pictures. I thought perhaps that the records had been mixed up, but the officials explained that the words hyungje im written beside our names meant siblings. I had a sister!

The records listed our American names and addresses, so I wrote to my new-found sister in Oklahoma, explaining why I was in Korea and why I was searching for our records. Because my address had since changed, I expected that hers might be different, too. And since she had a new life and family, I was also prepared to learn that she might not be interested in me or my search.

A month and a half passed with no answer. Though I knew I might never hear from her, I never lost hope. My family back home was also eager to hear about her. My father was even ready to look for her if my letter failed. Then, on February 14, I received a letter from Lila Lew Miller—my sister. Her parents still lived at the address in Oklahoma. She had included in the letter a picture of herself with her husband and her baby boy, and she wrote that she was eager to meet me.

Also noted in our records was the name of the orphanage in Weonju from which the foundation had received us. It was called Weonju Yangnyoe Weonjang. My Korean dictionary showed no exact translation for the title, but there were two possibilities: Yangnyoe, which means adopted daughter; and yangno, which means old age asylum.

I asked several missionaries in Weonju if they could find out about orphanages that dealt with the foundation during the late 1950s and 60s. But after a few months of searching, they came up with nothing.

During this time, I was serving on the outskirts of Seoul. President Ch’oi Dong Hun, a member of the Seoul West Stake presidency, became my good friend. Once, while visiting his home, I spoke about the promise in my patriarchal blessing. He offered to help me. A few weeks later on preparation day, he, my companion, and I set out for Weonju to see what we could find.

At one orphanage, we were told that a Canadian Christian missionary, Sister O’Connor, had kept records of the orphans, but she had returned to Canada in the 1960s. We had one more place to visit, the Weonju Yangno Weonjang—the orphanage mentioned in our records. But it was not an orphanage at all; it was an old folks’ home. I had the most peculiar feeling, though—as if I had been there before. Now I was really confused—I couldn’t understand why I had such feelings.

After our seemingly fruitless search, we were disappointed, but we didn’t give up. President Ch’oi and I felt that we should return to the foundation and recheck my records. Sure enough, when we went through the records again, we found the name “O’Connor” written in Korean on a corner of the form. I learned that the old folks’ home had once been an orphanage and was, in fact, the place where my sister and I had stayed until our adoption. We now knew where my sister and I had come from.

President Ch’oi next suggested that we put an article about my search in one of the Seoul newspapers. He told me that, since the Korean War, many people trying to find lost family members had turned to the media. We met with a reporter, who wrote a terse description of my sister and me and our history as far as we knew it. On 2 June 1984, the article appeared in the paper. We immediately received many telephone calls from would-be family members.

One was unusual. I couldn’t understand all the man said, but with my companion’s help, I learned that his name was Ko In Soo. He was calling from Shillim, a small village outside Weonju. He told of a set of twin girls his family had given up for adoption in the late 1950s. I doubted that my sister and I were the twins. Although our baby pictures were similar, my sister’s and my birthdates were different.

Still, Ko In Soo invited us to meet him. He asked us, if it were possible, to first meet with his son Ko Hun Kyu, who lived in Seoul. Ko Hun Kyu and his mother were the two who had given the twin girls to the orphanage. So we called him and arranged for a meeting.

What if the man’s story was true? Ko Hun Kyu would then be one of my relatives! I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see him yet. When I met Mr. Ko and his wife, he stared at me and said that I looked exactly like his aunt. With tears in his eyes, he began his story. He expressed deep regret for having given the twins up for adoption. I was skeptical and wanted to see proof—pictures and records. And what about our different birthdates?

Mr. Ko invited us to his home to show me the family photo album. Unfortunately, he did not have any pictures of the woman he called my mother. I was still doubtful, so we called the family in Shillim and made plans to visit them.

Shillim is a small village—so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. But the bus driver made a special stop for us. The air was clean, fresh, and warm as we walked on a dirt path with rice fields on both sides. Ko Hun Kyu led the way. We came to the village—a small store and a cluster of houses. We crossed a street and saw an old man waiting at a gate for us. He was short and browned from the Korean sun. Half his teeth were worn away, and his clothes were evidence of his poverty.

He seemed excited, and he kept staring at me. His home was made of weathered wood, clay, and paper. We walked to the house, took off our shoes, and stepped up to the wood porch and into the room. On one side were all the family’s belongings stacked against the wall—a few boxes, a folding table, some cushions, and some clothes.

The whole family gathered around me. They stared at me and rambled on about my eyes and facial shape being exactly the same as the person they thought was my mother. They were convinced that I was one of the twin girls they had given up.

When I asked to see their records, they brought out their dust-covered photo albums. They turned to one picture in particular. An elderly couple were on one side of the yellowed family portrait. Their daughter—the woman they called my mother—was in the middle, and their son—Ko In Soo—and his wife were on the other side. Ko Hun Kyu was in the front row with some other children. I saw no resemblance between me and my supposed mother, although I saw a resemblance between me and the elderly couple. Was this woman really my mother? She was tiny and frail and looked much younger than her twenty-six years.

Ko In Soo told us the rest of the story. His sister, Ko In Soon, had married Kim Chin Ku, who was from another village. The couple had moved to Ch’ungpoong, where some time later she had given birth to a son. A year after the son’s birth, she had given birth to twin girls, but she died shortly afterward. When Ko In Soo had heard of his sister’s death, he had gone to Ch’ungpoong and had brought the three children to Shillim. With several children of his own and without the means to support them all, he had decided to place the twins in an orphanage. The administrators there had recorded different birthdates for the twins because they felt that they would have little chance of being adopted together.

In the meantime, Kim Chin Ku had married again. He had come to get the children, only to learn that the twins had been adopted. He had taken his son back with him to Ch’ungpoong. Mr. Ko told me that he had heard that the Kim family was still living there, though the father was very sick.

When he finished the story, I asked Mr. Ko if they had any other family records. Ko In Soo went to the drawers on one side of the room and pulled out a ricepaper book, yellowed with age. I opened the book to see Chinese and Korean characters recording the family genealogy. What a beautiful, priceless treasure! I left Shillim feeling that I had found what I came for.

The next step was to go to Ch’ungpoong to try to locate my father and brother. Ch’ungpoong is southwest of Jechon, in a secluded part of Korea. Days later we took a country bus over dirt roads and rice fields to get there. When we arrived, we asked at the records office, but the officials had never heard of Kim Chin Ku. We also went to the middle school to check its records. The middle school had no record of the son, but we met a person there who knew of the family. He told us that they went by other names (not uncommon for Koreans). We checked again and found a reference to a high school in Taegu, another city in southern Korea.

Back in Seoul, President Ch’oi consulted with some Church leaders in Taegu, and they were able to locate two addresses among the school records: one in Young Duk, where Kim Chin Ku had lived before his marriage to my mother, and one in Taegu. We decided to check them both. President Ch’oi’s son, who went with us, felt that we ought to go to Young Duk first. When we arrived at the village, we went to the police station. The men on duty knew of the family and offered to take us to meet them.

We rode into another secluded part of Korea through rice fields and mountains before we came to a little village at the foot of a canyon. We got out of the taxi, and Brother Ch’oi talked with one of the villagers. The man told us that Kim Chin Ku lived in the village and was working in the fields. The taxi driver offered to go find him and bring him back to us. As we waited, I felt panic. What if this man really was my father?

The taxi approached. In the back seat were two people—a little boy and an old man. We greeted each other. The elderly man was wrinkled and aged from the sun, but he had a sweet, sincere air. I felt confident that he was my father.

His real name was Kim Hong Suk, but he was also known as Kim Chin Ku. He invited us to his home. We walked up a dirt road and entered the yard, where an ox was tied to a tree. On the other side of his house was a barn. Inside the house, a straw mat was spread on the floor. We sat down, and this man—my father—sat next to me. He stared at me, and I at him. One by one, the villagers came to see. We told him the story of our search, and he verified the account Mr. Ko had given.

Next we asked about the son—my brother. His name was Kim Do Yun, and he was attending a technical college in Taegu. My father indicated that he would call and arrange a time for us to meet. While he was calling, I asked the other family members if they had any family records. They brought out a huge published book of their lineage.

My father made arrangements for us to meet Kim Do Yun at a restaurant in Pohang that evening. When I met him, I had a sweet, peaceful feeling. I knew that this was the right family—my Korean family. My brother was very nervous. He shook as we told him the story and showed him our papers. Up to now he had never known that the woman who had reared him, whom he had thought was his mother, was actually his stepmother. But after the initial shock wore off, he seemed excited to be my big brother.

I knew my prayers had been answered. Each time we had found a new lead or met a family member, I felt strangely peaceful. My feelings about the Ko and Kim families were radically different from the feelings I had had when I had met other families who claimed I was their daughter. After our first seemingly unsuccessful trip to Weonju, I had prayed earnestly for the Lord to help me know when I came across the right family. He had done so.

As I reflect on the search, I can see that I was only an instrument in the Lord’s hand in doing his work. There was a strong force behind me, real and powerful. At first I didn’t understand those feelings, but now I am so grateful that I could find my family.

During the last four months of my mission, I was able to witness the baptisms of my brother and a cousin. It was thrilling to know that, after so much searching, I could see members of my new-found family accept the gospel.

This past year, my husband and I had the privilege of returning to Korea, where we visited my family again. My brother, Kim Do Yun, had married a fine LDS woman in his ward, and they now have a baby girl. The testimony they bore of the Church and the gospel brought me a sweet feeling of joy.

[photos] Backdrop: JuLee and her sister were born in this house in Ch’ungpoong, Korea. Top: The girls’ mother is seated in the middle of the second row, between her parents (right) and her brother and his wife (left). The girls’ cousin, Ko Hun Kyu, sits on the ground at far right. Bottom: JuLee, her brother, and her father stand near her mother’s grave.

[photos] Top: JuLee, second from left, was able to witness the baptism of her brother, middle. Bottom: JuLee and her husband, Kelly, visit her father and stepmother in Korea. Backdrop: Countryside near Young Duk, the village where JuLee’s father lives.

JuLee Ecklund Dunnaway is studying political science at Brigham Young University. She and her husband, Kelly, reside in Provo, Utah.