A Ready-Made Life
In the camp, there was no difference between man and beast, except maybe that a very hungry human was capable of stealing food from its little ones while an animal, perhaps, was not.
—Kang Chol-hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang
New Haven, Connecticut
Tom Nakanishi was sitting at his desk in his dorm room at Yale University doing homework when his roommate burst in clutching a stack of articles.
“You have to see these,” the roommate practically shouted to his fellow sophomore, splaying out the papers onto the desk in the Berkeley College residence they shared. The articles detailed the real-world concentration camps in North Korea where prisoners were starved, tortured, and forced to perform backbreaking manual labor.
This was Adrian Hong Chang, boyish, clean-cut, and aged nineteen, on the cusp of a momentous shift in his life. At that time, saying you were going to change the world—from a dorm room in the Gothic brick Berkeley College building at Yale—felt like the kind of utterance any number of their classmates might make over a late-night joint. Though neither young man could fathom it, the fact was that, for Adrian, his growing obsession with North Korea was the spark that would lead to hundreds of rescues of international refugees and a confrontation with one of the most brutal regimes on earth on its own soil.
“We have to do something about this,” Adrian told Nakanishi, in a moment that was still vividly imprinted in the latter’s memory nearly two decades later. The world was ignoring an ongoing genocide in North Korea, he lamented. The irony stung: Americans were shedding tears over World War II films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan while all but ignoring the concentration camps, extrajudicial killings, and mass starvation that were still happening.
The truth was, until recently, Adrian hadn’t shown more than a passing interest in North Korea, whether at college or as a child growing up in California. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the casual observer might have a vague awareness that North Korea, like Cuba, was a place seemingly stuck in the 1950s. Those paying a bit more attention might have had a sense that these conditions were a by-product of World War II and the Korean War, which had established a family dynasty now led by a cartoonish man named Kim Jong-il, with a passion for cinema and brandy, and that he operated one of the world’s last, terrifying, and sometimes darkly humorous dictatorships, with the self-importance of a real-life Bond villain. Someone who read the newspaper might have heard, too, of the country’s devastating famine in the 1990s, during which millions of people died because of massive state negligence. They certainly would have heard about Kim’s nuclear weapons.
The headlines could be scary, but often news reports about North Korea contained little nuance, and for good reason. Many so-called experts on the country had never been there at all because of its obsessive wariness of outsiders. Quirky and laden with third-world tragedies, North Korea for most Western audiences was not so distinguishable from the many places on earth where life is much harder than anything they’d ever experienced.
But beginning in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, a raft of new reporting was trickling and then flooding out in newspaper articles, reports from humanitarian organizations, and books by escapees telling dark accounts of life in the “hermit kingdom.” They told of a network of concentration camps that had been established throughout the country—camps that were reminiscent of Nazi-controlled Germany and Poland. North Korea wasn’t just an insular country ruled by a dictator with delusions of grandeur, like Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It was like something out of a dystopian novel mixed with the systematic brutality of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. “Worse Than 1984,” screamed the headline of an op-ed from 2005 by the British writer Christopher Hitchens describing North Korea.
The details were shocking, but simply too few people had been able to wrap their minds around the full scope of the regime’s atrocities. It was a problem, Adrian believed, of awareness. Surely once people heard the details and saw the pictures, as he had, policy makers in Washington and others with influence would begin to act, he declared to Nakanishi.
Something was different about the cohort of these college roommates in 2002 compared with the irony-steeped Gen X generation that had come before them. Ten years earlier, Francis Fukuyama had published his infamous book The End of History, arguing that with the breakup of the Soviet Union liberal democracy had triumphed. But just the prior year, two weeks into their first semester at Yale, Adrian and Nakanishi had witnessed the world change before their eyes when Islamic jihadists crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon.
Even before the pair arrived on campus, where they would witness the country’s 9/11 reckoning together, they had bonded over the online messenger ICQ and Xanga, the social media website of choice for Asian Americans in the 2000s. They both came of age in California, sons of Asian families living in predominantly Latino areas, and both yearned to express themselves politically without yet knowing exactly what they wanted to say. Nakanishi hailed from Los Angeles, and Adrian had grown up in a suburb of San Diego.
Over their online chats, Adrian intrigued his future roommate with his descriptions of his early life as an only child living in Tijuana, Mexico, where his family had lived until he was seven. His South Korean–born parents were Christian missionaries and continued operating an orphanage there even after they moved a few miles north to San Diego. His dad was a tae kwon do master and Adrian was, too. As his chat handle, Adrian had once chosen the moniker “tkdmaster001.”
One of his father’s main tae kwon do studios was just across the street from Bonita Vista High School, where Adrian was an A student and co-editor of the school newspaper, The Crusader. After school, an athletic and fresh-faced Adrian would often walk over to the sand-colored strip mall to the studio, next to a Fantastic Sams hair salon and a Massage Eden. Practicing since he was a small boy, Adrian was a black belt.
Classmates from those years don’t remember Adrian mentioning North Korea, but he was proud of his Korean ancestry. On the Xanga account, he set his birthday as March 1, 1919, the date when a huge protest movement by Korean citizens kicked off to demand independence from Japanese rule and cultural hegemony. Some seventy-five hundred people died, with many more injured and arrested. The movement was a turning point in Korean society, but they weren’t liberated from Japanese rule until the end of World War II in 1945. Today, in Korea, it’s known as Independence Movement Day.
To Nakanishi, these intriguing elements of Adrian’s story added up to an air of adventure, one detectable over late-night chat sessions in the months before they’d meet in person.
Once his family had moved north to San Diego, Adrian had spent most of his life in Chula Vista just to the city’s south. The area had a distinctly low-key vibe: palm trees, strip malls, and the beach. Adrian had a high-octane personality, but he would occasionally let his SoCal origins slip through, talking in the laid-back, overly familiar manner of a Chula Vista “bro.”
“Ah, the glorious life of a bachelor,” he wrote on his Xanga page one afternoon while at Yale. “Sitting on a couch watching dvds alone, eating out of a can sigh.”
Those around Adrian back then recall a confidence about him that was offset by a strong sense of empathy. Fellow students would remember for years his ability to notice one person whose voice was being drowned out by louder students, taking them aside afterward and letting them know he heard what they were trying to say. And even from a young age, Adrian had seemed to hunger for something bigger than the chilled-out suburb he called home. Together with his best friend in high school, who would go on to become a key member of Adrian’s clandestine work, he’d speak with fervor about civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
Copyright © 2022 by Bradley Hope. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.