He was born into freedom in Pusan, South Korea, 60 years ago. Still, Jong C. Jang of Marriottsville spent much of his boyhood hearing his father, Ok Kyun Jang, rhapsodize about growing up in a place about 350 miles to the north.
Families were close-knit in the mountainous region around Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, Ok Kyun Jang said. Life was stable and opportunity abounded.
But that was before 1950, when a Communist army invaded the South, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and helping give rise to one of the world's most harshly repressive dictatorships.
"Every day for the rest of his life, my daddy prayed he would be able to return" to what is now the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Jong Jang says.
Ok Kyun, who died in 2004, never realized his dream, but his son, a Howard County martial arts instructor, has carried it forward. Jang has toured North Korea once and traveled to Yanji, a Chinese city near the North Korean border, more than 20 times, becoming a part of the underground network of activists and missionaries who help refugees from his father's native land.
The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il last week has raised fresh hopes among Korean-Americans that relations with the mysteriousStalinist nation might improve. But like many others, Jang has little clue whether anything will change.
"Kim Jong Il's death is good," he says. "I'm happy. This could be [a] moment that moves toward freedom. But [life] could also become worse."
However things unfold, Jang says, he'll keep at his mission "I don't know if I still have [blood relations] there, but to me, everyone in North Korea is my family," he says, giving himself a firm tap on the chest. "I am North Korean in my heart."
Rivers of death
One of three children of Ok Kyun and Sung Ja Jang, Jong Jang left Pusan, South Korea's southernmost big city, for the United States in 1980, when he was 29.
Like his parents, who had become street peddlers in South Korea after the war and ended up owning a family farm, Jang volunteered as a tae kwon do instructor in Maryland rec centers until 1985 when he startedJang's Martial Arts, the business the eighth-degree black belt still owns.
The work brought him full circle. In the fall of 1990, he helped usher a team of Korean-American athletes to the Asian Games in Beijing. It was the first sporting event at which North and South Korean athletes had faced each other.
"When South Koreans won, I cheered," he says. "When North Koreans won, I cheered. I was in between."
It also was the first time he'd met people from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea— still under the thumb of its founding dictator, Kim Il Sung — and heard firsthand about life in a land where the vast majority of people live in unspeakable conditions and a well-connected few live like kings.
"Do something for North Korean people," one of his new friends pleaded.
He didn't wait long. Jang took a detour to Yanji, a 24-hour journey by train and rental car. What he witnessed that winter changed him.
Christian missionaries, he saw, had established a network of underground churches along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, the bodies of water that separate China and North Korea. Prohibited from helping refugees, the missionaries secretly allowed the churches to serve as jumping-off places for clandestine, part-time volunteers like Jang.
He won't talk about who, exactly, the other volunteers were — a few, he confides, live in the Baltimore-Washington area — but between midnight and 2 every morning, when the greatest number of North Korean border guards are said to be asleep, he says they kept vigil along the frozen river at two-mile intervals, waiting to greet anyone who came across the so-called "rivers of death."
The refugees came in droves, he says, 30 per hour or more every night. Most weren't even trying to flee North Korea permanently. Humanitarian organizations say most of the people who do that end up in slave-like conditions or prostitution in China or Russia, living at the mercy of gangs or police. (According to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Japan-based nonprofit, as many as 300,000 live in that fashion today.)
Many simply wanted what the volunteers had to offer — hot food, warm clothes, words of encouragement, a bit of cash — then to return across the ice.
The next dawn usually revealed the frozen bodies of those who didn't make it, but Jang found that no more agonizing than watching people return to North Korea, where more than 2 million people reportedly have died of starvation since 1994.
He insists he has never aided an escapee. The North Korean regime kills the families of those who escape for good, he says, a practice that inflicts a special kind of cruelty: It leads to evisceration of family lineages, those links of memory and culture between generations that Asians traditionally view as sacred and basic to societal health.
"I want families to [remain] as intact as possible," Jang says. "Someday, reunification may come. Every morning for 20 years, I pray for that."
He sits in the cramped office of his dojo on Baltimore National Pike, surrounded by photos, banners and the trophies his students have won over the years. Just outside, children filter in with their parents, taking up their positions on the mat.
A banner reads: "Never Fall Down."
Jang once ran three such facilities; he now concentrates his efforts on this Ellicott City branch.
"Our family is not wealthy," says his wife, Kathy Jang, an ESL teacher who is there to help translate his words into English. "Sometimes when he'd be away on his missions, I wished he'd be working on his business. I wondered if he thinks about money."
She's smiling, but only a little. Between 1990 and 2005, he went to Yanji at least once a year — and always in winter, the season when the ice on the rivers guarantees more refugee traffic.
He gave away at least $5,000 each trip, on top of what he spent for travel expenses. "It's my hobby," he says with a grin.
Jang became so well known among those who work in the field that when Samaritan's Purse, an organization founded by Billy Graham Ministries to direct aid efforts for the people of North Korea, planned a humanitarian mission there in 1997, he was asked to take part. The main purpose was to offer treatment for tuberculosis sufferers. Jang's task was to make sure the medicine got where it was intended to go.
"Western people give money to North Korea, and [if there's no monitoring], 100 percent of it goes to making bombs" or to the wealthy, well-connected elite in Pyongyang, he says.
For 10 days, he traveled by truck throughout his father's home province, Pyong-An Do.
Official guides, he says, strictly controlled his movements. He was allowed to see the clean commercial districts of Pyongyang and whatever else was visible as he traveled from clinic to clinic. It was moving, he says, to travel through Yong Chun, the town in which his father grew up. He found the area as ruggedly beautiful as Ok Kyun had described. The clinics, though, were filthy, he recalls, and electricity was so scarce that doctors worked by flashlight.
"I didn't like," says Jang, who helped get the medicine to more than a thousand North Koreans.
He hasn't been inside the country since, but that hasn't kept him from cultivating his connection. He has led small fundraising drives at his church and served as chief fundraiser for the Korean-American Sharing Movement, a nonprofit based in Annandale, Va., founded 14 years ago to carry out relief and charity programs for North Korean famine victims.
He also has been president of the North Korean Five Provinces Association, a social organization based near Washington that has about 1,000 members in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, mostly elderly individuals who lived in North Korea before the war. It meets four times a year, mostly to foster a sense of connectedness between Korean-Americans and their brethren under Communist rule.
He kept visiting Yanji until 2005, when rising travel costs got to be too much. But he still contributes financially, leads the odd fundraising drive at church and says he'd go back if he could.
He waits until Kathy leaves the room. "Give me $5,000, [and] I'll be there tomorrow," he says.
Reading the tea leaves
The Korean Society of Maryland, an organization that promotes Korean traditions in the state, was holding its annual end-of-year banquet at Martin's West on Sunday night when a member got a call telling him the news: Kim Jong Il, regarded as a brutal tyrant for 17 years, was dead at 69. His largely unknown youngest son, Kim Jong Un, would take over, becoming the third ruler in the family dynasty.
"He came to me and I ordered my staff to make sure this is the truth," says Kwang Hee Choi, the outgoing president. "We found out it really happened. We announced it. There was a cheer, but it only lasted for a few seconds. The mood was subdued."
Michelle Kim of Ellicott City, another among the tens of thousands of Korean-Americans who live in the Baltimore-Washington area, says that's because the news was bittersweet.
"Death is sad, but people were also happy to hear [it]," she said. "At the same time, we know we can't predict what is going to happen in North Korean society. A revolution could happen. The world is crazy these days."
Jang wasn't at the banquet. He was watching the Ravens play the San Diego Chargers on TV when his daughter called with the news.
"I was shocked — frozen. One side of me [was] worried. The other side — excited," he says.
Reading the tea leaves from North Korea is still a complex thing. Human rights abuses abound, yet Jang, who is unconvinced that a heart attack caused Kim's death, believes there's significant opposition in Pyongyang.
Word from his sources is that Kim Jong Un might be crueler than his father. Yet Jang is guardedly hopeful because "The Great Successor" was educated partly in Switzerland and because more North Koreans than ever have cellphones, making it more likely they know about — and may be inspired by — recent revolutions in the Middle East.
For now, he and other Korean-Americans are combing the Internet and newspapers for any scrap of news, looking for signs of change.
"East Germany, West Germany — they became one country" again, Jang says. "Why not Korea? This is what I pray for. It's my dream."