Jong C. Jang

Jong C. Jang, whose family is from North Korea, relects on the impact of the death of Kim Jong Il. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 20, 2011)

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 mysterious Stalinist 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 started Jang'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.