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France - South Korea

Korean-born French minister begins highly symbolic trip to land of her birth

Afp/Fred Dufour

The French Minister Fleur Pellerin has begun a highly anticipated visit to South Korea, the first time she has visited the country of her birth since being adopted as a child.

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Pellerin arrived in the capital Seoul, where she was born, on Saturday.

Born in 1973, she was abandoned and adopted from an orphanage by a French couple at the age of six months. She was raised in France, and speaks no Korean.

Ahead of the visit, she told an interview with a Korean-language newspaper that: “On a personal level, it’s true that I’m excited.”

“I feel very proud to set foot in South Korea as a government minister of France,” she added.

The junior minister for small and medium enterprises, innovation and the digital economy is travelling with a delegation of French business leaders. She is set to meet South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and top officials for major conglomerates Samsung and Hyundai.

But the main interest for the South Korean public lies in her ethnic roots. Her elevation to minister last year sparked intense media interest in Korea. Pellerin will be interviewed on Korean television during this visit.

She has made it clear that she has no intention of trying to find her birth parents.

Hélène Charbonnier, president of Racines coréennes (Korean roots), a support group for around 13,000 South Korean-born adoptees in France, told RFI this is not unusual.

"It’s a business and professional trip. She has made the choice not to talk a lot about adoption, because she feels it’s a very intimate issue. So if there are questions concerning her past history and adoption, she probably will avoid it. And we can understand that, because there are two kinds of attitudes. Some Korean-born adoptees prefer not to deny, but not to think a lot about adoptions. And this is the case of Fleur Pellerin. And there are other Korean-born adoptees with a lot of questions about adoption and identity.”

“Going back to Korea must be the end of a long process of thinking. The adoptee has to feel really ready, because once you are in Korea, it’s really strange, because you feel like a foreigner, but at the same time, it’s the country we come from," she adds.

Charbonnier herself travelled to South Korea four years ago for the first time, on a business trip.

"The thing is that we have Asian features, but inside we are French. You feel a foreigner inside, but you look like the other people in Korea. Korean people also recognise you are not really like them – we have different gestures, the way we
walk in the street, the fact that we are unable to speak Korean – so they are surprised.”

Adoption is something disturbing to them, at the same time, Korean people are really proud of adoptees who succeed. And Korean people are really proud of the fact that Fleur Pellerin is in the French government. In their point of view, Korean adoptees are first Korean. So it’s quite paradoxical."

After visiting South Korea, Pellerin will move on to Japan, where she does speak the language after spending a year there.

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