For years, South Korea was the world’s leading baby exporter. Since the 1950s, it has sent about 200,000 children abroad for adoption, including about 150,000 to the United States.

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SEOUL, South Korea — Five years ago, Sun Mi Stapel, a claims handler at a Dutch insurance company, began searching for her South Korean birth family.

Stapel first turned to the Dutch adoption agency that had placed her with her adoptive parents in Krommenie, the Netherlands, where she grew up. Then she tried Korea Social Service, which had handled the Korean side of her adoption. Last year, she obtained her adoption files, but they were missing vital information.

She traveled to Seoul, appearing on a morning television show with her baby photos and asking viewers to call a hotline with any information. She registered for a national database for missing people. She distributed fliers in the neighborhood around her orphanage in Incheon, where she was born, and visited nursing homes and community centers there in hopes of finding someone who knew her parents.

No one did.

So on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Stapel, 46, went to a guesthouse for adoptees in Seoul, where a volunteer rubbed the inside of her cheek with a cotton swab, dropped the swab in a tube and shipped it to a lab in Texas, where her DNA will be analyzed and uploaded to a website that scans submitted samples for genetic matches.

The result could link her to her birth family and fill in some of the blanks of her personal history.

“I want to know the simple things,” she said. “When is my real date of birth? Who is my father? Who is my mother? Do I have siblings? Do I look like somebody?”

Many South Korean adoptees who have the same questions are turning to DNA testing to circumvent what has long been a complicated and often fruitless process.

For years, South Korea was the world’s leading baby exporter. Since the 1950s, it has sent about 200,000 children abroad for adoption, including about 150,000 to the United States.

Every year adoptees return, looking for information about their past. But South Korean laws block them from obtaining their full birth records without their birthparents’ consent. And government adoption files are often falsified, incomplete or missing, making birthparents impossible to track down.

From 2012-15, fewer than 15 percent of adoptees who asked to reunite with their birthparents were able to do so, according to Korean government figures.

Flawed records

For many, DNA testing offers a way around the bureaucratic hurdles and flawed records.

Stapel was one of a few dozen adoptees who took free DNA tests made available in Seoul this month during the International Korean Adoptee Associations Gathering, which meets every three years.

Monica Toudahl Knudsen, 33, who grew up in the Jutland peninsula, in Denmark, also took the test. She has been searching for her birth family since 2012.

According to her adoption file, her parents were teenage sweethearts who could not afford to raise her. On a previous trip to Seoul, she had visited the site of the midwife clinic where she was born. It now houses a cafe and fried-chicken restaurant.

She feels grateful for her life in Denmark, where she is a chef. If she is ever able to meet her birthparents, she said, “I just want to thank them for letting me go.”

The DNA testing movement has been largely financed by Thomas Park Clement, a Korean adoptee who now lives in Manhattan and in Bloomington, Ind. A scientist who founded Mectra Labs, a medical-manufacturing company, he has pledged to spend $1 million on DNA kits to give away.

“I have throughout the years experienced so many of my fellow Korean adoptees’ frustrations with birth-relative searches,” he said in a recent interview. “DNA is shortcutting the search process and bringing all parties in direct communication with each other.”

He has donated 2,550 kits to Korean adoptees and Korean War veterans in the United States. Some of the veterans are the fathers of the first wave of South Korea’s international adoptees. He has also given 450 test kits to 325Kamra, a volunteer organization started last year, to distribute in South Korea.

When testing works, it is remarkably efficient.

This month, 325Kamra announced its first match between a Korean birth mother and a U.S. adoptee. Within 48 hours, the adoptee, Kyung Eun Davidson, 33, of Everett, was speaking to her mother for the first time in 30 years.

“It’s been an amazing, crazy and wonderful experience,” Davidson told The Korea Herald.

Databases incompatible

The biggest obstacles to finding more matches are the databases. There is no single consolidated database widely available both to Korean birthparents and to overseas Korean adoptees. Databases used by Americans and Koreans are incompatible and cannot share information.

The South Korean police collect DNA samples for their national database of missing people. Adoptees and birthparents are eligible to submit DNA for this database, and many do, but not nearly enough.

The testing done by 325Kamra goes into the databases of Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based DNA-testing company, and GEDMatch, a service that scans for genetic matches from three popular testing companies: Family Tree, 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Davidson used 23andMe, her birth mother took the test with 325Kamra in South Korea, and they were connected by GEDMatch.

Another limitation is the parents. While an estimated 1,000 adoptees have submitted their DNA for matching on GEDMatch, only 100 birthparents have taken tests with 325Kamra. Many are afraid to come forward because of the shame associated with adoption in South Korea, where they risk being shunned by their families and communities.

Stigma has always been a factor in South Korea’s international adoptions, which began in the mid-1950s, when the children of Korean women and U.S. servicemen were ostracized for their mixed racial heritage. Later, the shame of single parenthood fueled abandonments, and the poor local economy favored international adoption.

But by 1988, the country’s reputation as the leading baby exporter had become a national embarrassment, and the government introduced a quota system for international adoptions and began promoting domestic ones.

No benefit for parents

Adoptees are not the only ones placing their hopes in DNA tests.

Last month, Song Chang-sook, 89, traveled 200 miles from Pusan with his caregiver to take a DNA test in Seoul. Having heard about the testing on a morning television program, he was searching for the three sons he relinquished for adoption more than 40 years ago.

When his wife died of typhoid fever in 1970, his mother-in-law decided that the children should be given up for adoption rather than raised by a single father. He gave up his three sons: Won Ho, born in 1965; Won Young, born in 1967; and Won Hee, born in 1968.

Five years later, he returned to the adoption agency, Holt International, asking for their whereabouts. He inquired many more times after that. At one point, someone told him his sons were living together in France. But Holt was barred from disclosing personal information about the three boys. The 2012 adoption law that gives adoptees the right to petition for their birth records offers no such benefit to the parents.

Song thinks about the last time he saw his children, on Nov. 3, 1971. The year before, his oldest son, Won Ho, had been hospitalized for a month with a broken shoulder from a car accident.

He wants to tell his children: I love you. You have no idea how much I struggle to find you.