'When I was five years old, I flew from Seoul to Washington Dulles International Airport and I can distinctly remember to this day, that I was going to meet my new family. I still had memories of my grandmother and my older brother, but I also knew that I had a new family that was waiting for me. I was really excited, believe it or not.' For Joseph 'Han Do-kyun' Wilson, an infant from the South Korean island of Chejudo, that plane journey in 1981 marked the beginning of a new life with his white, Irish, Catholic family in the US. It was also the beginning of his own personal odyssey that would take him around the world and culminate in a voyage back to the country of his birth. His journey has been replicated by hundreds of thousands of South Korean children, whose adoption by families living overseas has earned South Korea an unenviable reputation for 'exporting babies'. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the official beginning of international adoptions from South Korea. According to Seoul's Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, during that period more than 150,000 South Korean children were adopted internationally. Other sources suggest the figure is closer to 200,000. As increasing numbers of adoptees come of age, and to the shock of authorities, the country is reaping the fruits of this mass immigration, with the return each year of many South Korean adoptees in search of their personal and cultural heritage, and sometimes their biological parents. 'Koreans feel that adoption is disgraceful, shameful. South Koreans didn't expect overseas adoptees to come back and search for their roots,' said Molly Holt, who heads of one of the largest adoption agencies in the country. South Korea began sending children for adoption overseas in the wake of the devastation and poverty following the Korean war. Initially the government's aim was to allow the mixed-race children born of American soldiers and Korean women to be adopted overseas. But the sheer number of orphaned and abandoned children gave way to more wide-ranging legislation. Over half the infants were sent to the US, with the remainder going to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. A recent gathering of adoptees in Seoul attracted more than 400 ethnic Koreans from 15 different countries. For the hundreds of thousands of babies and children sent abroad, the legacy has been bittersweet. Many have built happy and successful lives, enjoying opportunities that would probably not have been available to them in South Korea. 'Quite frankly, a lot of them would have died otherwise. It was a matter of life and death. Back then, we didn't have milk to feed the babies. We would feed them rice water. My father always said it made the babies die slower,' said Ms Holt, whose parents adopted eight South Korean children before setting up the Holt Adoption Programme, which has placed about half the South Korean adoptees now overseas. But for others, especially those adopted in the early years, the lack of proper screening of adoptive families and the complete absence of post-adoptive services led to many inappropriate placements that have left some adoptees angry, damaged and bitterly opposed to overseas adoptions. In a furious letter to a local newspaper following the recent adoptees' conference in Seoul, one adoptee wrote: 'The simple fact that South Korea continues to export its children abroad, at the rate of more than 2,000 babies per year, especially when the domestic birth rate is at an all-time low, is nothing less than a disgrace...international adoption should not be an option.' It is the issue of race that lies at the heart of much of the rage. Successful or not, many of the South Koreans who grew up in foreign countries, with parents of different races, speak of isolation, alienation and a sense of loss. 'I had to learn not to hate this container, not to hate my eyes, this Asian skin,' said Jane Jin Kaisen, brought up by Danish parents. In Joseph Wilson's case, despite not being able to communicate with his family on his arrival in the US, within six months he had picked up English and within a year had lost his Korean language skills. 'In my personal experience, I am for adoption, because I see how much I love my parents and how much joy I have brought into their lives. But at the same time, at what expense? I was stripped of my heritage, my culture, my identity.' Many adoptees return to South Korea in a bid to fill those gaps in their personal history. Driven by frustration and a desire to learn more about his past, in 1996, at the age of 20, Mr Wilson decided to travel back to the country of his birth. 'It was such a culture shock for me actually seeing Korean men and women. You see one or two Asians here and there in America, but not like here. I finally got a chance to know why I looked the way I looked and just fitting in was absolutely fantastic. In terms of personal healing, it brought a lot of peace of mind.' For Mr Wilson and many fellow adoptees, the conference held in Seoul last month was an opportunity to swap personal anecdotes and address issues familiar to many overseas adoptees. Conference seminars ranged from discussions on racial discrimination, to practical advice on living and finding work in South Korea for adoptees who decide to return, with special sessions tailored for spouses and children of adoptees. South Koreans are acutely aware of the international ignominy attached to sending children to be reared abroad, and the practice has made it vulnerable to criticism from North Korea. The communist country state has accused the South of engaging in the ultimate form of capitalism by exporting its offspring. In the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the accompanying media scrutiny, the government was also stung by headlines such as 'Babies for Sale: South Korean makes them, America buys them'. Seoul responded with a gradually decreasing quota system for overseas adoptions and a target of ending the practice by 1996. But the lack of families willing to adopt domestically forced a rethink, and following the economic crisis in 1998, the practice of overseas adoption is now on the increase. But South Koreans are unwilling or unable to make the cultural and social adjustments to end the practice. The importance which South Koreans attach to the bloodline makes them extremely reluctant to adopt from outside the family. South Korea's experience of international adoptions has, however, produced an unexpected boon. With growing numbers of Chinese babies being sent abroad for adoption, Beijing has been keen to learn lessons from the South Korean experience. The China Centre of Adoption Affairs, which oversees the foreign adoptions on the mainland, has twice visited the offices of Holt International in Seoul. During the first visit in 1997, a five-member delegation visited its children's centre just outside of the capital and received briefings on the organisation's adoption procedures, foster care and work with the handicapped. 'There are many similarities between Chinese and Korean culture - the family closeness, the family control and the pressure for success. In both countries these can result in women being forced to relinquish their children,' Ms Holt said. But there are also often crucial differences between Chinese and Korean parents in their motivation for putting a child up for adoption. China's one-child policy and the desire for a son has meant adoptees are overwhelmingly female. In South Korea poverty, one of the major drivers behind the first wave of adoptions, remains a crucial factor, while growing numbers of single mothers have continued to produce a steady stream of children in need of a home. Ms Holt also organised a small group of South Korean adoptees to brief mainland officials on their personal experiences. During the meeting, Lenee Gower, a South Korean adopted by American parents more than 35 years ago, made a plea for authorities to keep accurate records of children sent abroad, for possible future use. 'I said to them, 'Keep accurate records, don't make anything up. Even if it's a bad thing, we really need to know'. Every adoptee has this gap, whether they pursue it or not it's up to them,' Ms Gower said. South Korean adoptees who try to track down their biological parents have often been hampered by the lack of detail or false information on adoption papers. 'They [the Chinese officials] didn't understand the curiosity and the need of the adoptees to return,' Ms Gower said, in an uncanny echo of the early responses of South Korean authorities. 'We had to tell them, we are coming back, whether you like it or not.'