The USA’s first naturalized North Korean

I had never heard of fellow American Zang Gi Hong, the first US citizen naturalized from the DPRK, until a few days ago when a colleague relayed his story to me.  I have been unable to find much information on him via the Internet, except from one article (here) and the Google archive version (here). 

Excerpts from the article:

It was Vienna, Austria, in late December of 1956. Two months earlier, heroic Hungarians next door to the east had erupted against their Soviet oppressors, and for ten glorious days Hungary was in Hungarian hands.

The Kremlin feared that one satellite turned into a shooting star could infect and unravel their whole communist empire. The Red Army rolled back into Hungary with 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks and flattened the uprising. Hordes of Hungarians fled west to freedom in Austria.

After two years at the University of Budapest this young “enemy” soldier began to view communism not as a submissive North Korean but more as a repressed Western European. When the fighting started, he and 200 other North Koreans helped the Freedom Fighters.

Hungarian youths had not yet had military training. The North Koreans knew how to work every piece of captured and donated communist ordnance, from a hand grenade to a tank!

After the Soviet putdown of the uprising, special squads of Soviet troops helped the Hungarian communist police round up every Korean in Budapest. It’s hard to disguise a Korean in Budapest. Of the 200 young Koreans, only four made it to freedom. The others were shipped back to certain doom in North Korea.

When he and I and a young Hungarian woman interpreter went to the American Embassy the next day, I would have bet even money that President Eisenhower would send the Columbine (His presidential plane, before they thought of Air Force One) over to Vienna to take him and me both back to America. I was stomp-down certain they’d find a quick way to let him into America.

We were led into an upstairs office at the Embassy and I started telling the story to the official behind the desk. Do you know how a comic feels when the laughter doesn’t come through early in the act? Or when the young woman arranges for her hand to be unholdable when you reach out? That’s the feeling I got early in the narrative.

The Embassy official looked on like a zombie. No comments. No questions. If there’d been a little strip-screen across his forehead, it would have read “Non-Reacting!”

Even absent the euphoria of the Hungarian Revolution, as you read this I expect you to feel what I felt. When I finished this incredibly fortunate story for our side, the diplomat-zombie impassively opened his desk drawer and pulled forth a little booklet.

“Your friend can’t come to America as a Hungarian refugee,” he intoned, leafing to a page of rules, “because he’s not Hungarian. And he can’t come in as a North Korean because we’re at war and there’s no quota!”

At least the 200,000 Hungarian refugees in Vienna would be processed and admitted to a free country. My Korean friend was now diplomatically stateless and weightless.

Thanks to the subsequent intervention of broadcaster Tex McCrary and the supposedly villainous immigrant-hating Congressman Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania, we got that young man into America with a scholarship to Syracuse from which he graduated with honors and became a millionaire architect and builder.


6 Responses to “The USA’s first naturalized North Korean”

  1. Andrew says:

    That story is pretty crazy. Do you think it would be possible to get in contact with this person and listen to his stories?

    • corcovado says:

      I am his daughter, if you would like to contact him you can send me an email :
      upzang at yahoo dot com

  2. Werner says:

    Besides Zang Gi Hong, is there any information about the 3(?) other North Koreans who choose to go to the West.

  3. Simon says:

    There’s a book out about the MIG pilot who defected also

  4. NKeconWatch says:

    Thanks for the book link Simon.

    As for Zang, there was a short docu made about him for Swedish television. I am trying to get a copy. He lives in the US soemwhere. Maybe I can try and send him some interview questions.

  5. R. Elgin says:

    Zang’s story would be very interesting to read. I hope he might consider telling it at greater length.