In late 1956 the Soviet Red Army brutally repressed the Hungarian anti-Communist uprising. En route from Greensboro, North Carolina, to cover the aftermath of the Hungarian freedom fight, I stopped at a refugee camp for Hungarian students in Vienna. And that short visit enriched my life forevermore!
Many of those students had crossed into Austria only hours earlier and were experiencing their first day of freedom. One of them had an Asian face, a Japanese Red Cross official or a journalist from Thailand, no doubt. The Hungarian students then sat cross-legged in a circle and started singing, holding hands and swaying back and forth. And the Asian sat and sang and swayed with them, letting me know that, whoever he was, he had just come out of Hungary, and that I had a huge story.
I crossed the room and grabbed him by the shoulders. “China?” I asked. “North Korea!” he answered. Then, pointing to myself, I said, “America!” And then we fell into each other’s arms. Three years earlier we would have shot each other!
Fortunately, a fellow escapee, a Hungarian girl, spoke fluent English, so I was able to get his story. His name was Gi Hong Zang and he was one of 200 of North Korea’s best soldiers, best students and best Communists. Those North Koreans had been sent to study military engineering in Hungary.
When the Hungarian people rebelled against Communism, the 200 North Koreans joined the freedom fight. Now Gi Hong wanted to come to America, to study architecture and live in a free country. And all of those dreams were realized!
It took me exactly one year to get Gi Hong into the United States with a full scholarship to Syracuse University. The Hungarian Revolution broke out on Oct. 23, 1956. I welcomed Gi Hong to America on the tarmac of Idlewild (now JFK) Airport on the morning of Oct. 23, 1957! And don’t forget the Hungarian girl who served as Gi Hong’s interpreter! Talk about “The Art of the Deal”! She marched into the American Embassy in Vienna and told them, “I will interpret for you until your entire caseload is done. Then I want the last visa to enter America!” Done deal! And she thereupon became Mrs. Gi Hong Zang and mother of two Korean-Hungarian children! At about the same time, I was marrying a Swedish woman, and the four of us plus our two children each became one extended international family.
For decades Gi Hong was the only member of the North Korean Army that had attacked South Korea in 1950 to break free and become first a free person and then an American citizen! Gi Hong has since been joined in that category by a few North Korean fighter pilots who defected in one “swoop” maneuver, in which their North Korean comrades had only about 30 seconds to shoot them down before they reached freedom in South Korea. Gi Hong, however, holds onto a Cold War celebrity distinction nobody can ever take away from him. Namely, Gi Hong Zang has traveled farther to escape Communism than anybody else in history. And nobody can take that distinction away because there’s just not enough Communism left to jeopardize his record! Gi Hong went from the 38th Parallel on the Korean peninsula, across China, Mongolia, Soviet Siberia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and finally Austria!
Getting to know Gi Hong began with our sign language of 1956 and, as he picked up more and more English and I picked up more and more Hungarian, it was like peeling a never-exhausted onion. It all got increasingly fascinating as he developed sources inside the Korean community in America, and North Korea became more and more important. And now, right now, North Korea has become nothing less than earth-shaking.
Forgive this long build-up, but I bring you good news from my best friend in life, Gi Hong Zang. Namely, this time it’s real. This time there may be a Nobel Peace Prize for President Trump and peace for all the rest of us!
After so many cruel, deceptive disappointments, Gi Hong thinks the time has come to chill – if not yet to pop and drink – the good champagne. Why?
My friend imputes a lot of it to body language and the almost universal hostility-fatigue on the Korean peninsula. A war that began with the Communist attack on South Korea in 1950 ended just the other day. He believes everybody’s tired and everybody wants a new deal.
China may be helping only 10 percent of what China’s pretending to do, but maybe that’s enough. Likewise, President Trump has vaccinated himself against failure quite skillfully. Trump has vowed, at the slightest whiff of the old North Korean game, to “respectfully walk out” of the negotiation.
Unlike the old Cold War interviews with political refugees, there’s nothing pitiful about Gi Hong’s explanation. The more he talks the more you find yourself agreeing with him.
Speaking of champagne, one of its legends claims that when the French monk Dom Perignon took his first sip of the stuff he cried out to his colleagues, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”
Here’s to an aging man who as a younger man turned his dormitory room into an arsenal and training camp for young Hungarian freedom fighters who’d never had military training! He was a leading candidate for a Communist firing squad and lived for well over half a century with a price on his head. And today the country he came from shows signs of re-entering civilization; the country he fought for, Hungary, is free; and his favorite country, America, granted him citizenship!
Come quickly, one and all! Join me in saluting a Star of Freedom, my dear friend, an American named Gi Hong Zang!