By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A photo of a 12-year-old North Korean boy on Sam Han’s laptop computer pulls the dying man a half-century back in time, across continents to a place where he once wandered alone in search of his parents.
Separated from his family during the Korean War, Han was sheltered by strangers until an unlikely meeting set him on a remarkable journey to the United States. He was adopted by a Minnesota professor, immigrated under a special bill from Congress, and years later, became a successful business executive.
Han, a 65-year-old cancer patient, wants to give other overseas orphans a shot at making a life for themselves, but there are plenty of obstacles and so much to do.
And his time is running out.
The soft-spoken man with twinkling eyes sleeps very little. He spends most days working to ship soy flour and rice meal packages to North Korean orphanages and help build a school for orphans in Tanzania. He spends nights on the phone with advocates overseas. He punches out letters to lawmakers to push for a bill to let Americans adopt North Korean orphans.
It is a far cry from the lifestyle he enjoyed for decades while building a multimillion-dollar global chemical company, consulting business, and working on condo development in Los Angeles. He hobnobbed with Republican politicians and flew to Asia to hammer out business deals.
That all changed when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2002 and was given just a few years to live.
Han sold his house and car and moved into his daughter’s three-story home, where he started a small children’s foundation in this Los Angeles suburb.
Today, Han undergoes expensive rounds of stem cell therapy and clinical trials for bone marrow cancer, but he believes it’s more than medicine keeping him alive. The prospect of losing everything gave him purpose and a reason to live.
“Many doctors didn’t think I’d live very long, but here I am,” he said. “The cancer awakened me.”
It was December 1950. North Korean troops had reached the bridge over the Han River.
Han’s family quickly evacuated Seoul with thousands of city dwellers. In the chaotic exodus, the 6-year-old lost his parents and sister. He found himself wandering door to door in a poor farm village, begging for food.
A makeshift church erected in a tent doled out powdered milk and used clothes to evacuees. Eventually, a farmer agreed to raise Han with his own two children. They walked three hours every day to the nearest schoolhouse and slept in a cramped, tiny room.
Six years later, Han returned to Seoul to try to go to middle school. He dreamed of becoming a doctor to help the sick he saw lying in the fields he crossed when his family fled.
A church official helped him find a place to stay, which was in a piping hot room above a bread oven. He was given a job cleaning the bakery below.
That left the 12-year-old little time to sleep — let alone study.
He needed a way out.
Han went to a local hospital, hoping to learn about medicine. A receptionist tried to shoo him away, but two American officials who overheard his dogged conversation with the receptionist asked to speak with him.
One of them was Arthur Schneider, a forestry expert and University of Minnesota professor in Korea to help rebuild Seoul National University after the war. After listening to the boy for two hours, Schneider offered to pay for his education.
Over the next four years, the two became close. With Schneider’s contract running out, he petitioned to adopt Han and bring him to the United States.
Schneider had to prove Han’s parents, missing for a decade, were no longer alive. They learned Han’s father had died. They tracked down his mother, who had remarried, and she agreed to let her son go to America.
Schneider then had to persuade U.S. lawmakers to let him bring the 16-year-old across the Pacific. U.S. law did not let single parents bring adopted children from overseas. Schneider lobbied hard for an exception.
Copies of letters sent to lawmakers by Schneider’s friends and family touted his character, Han’s potential as a future American, and the positive effects the pair’s travel could have on diplomatic relations with Korea.
In 1961, Congress passed the bill on Han’s behalf.
Han remembers when scores of reporters waited for them to arrive at the airport in New York.
“I have been very fortunate. I have been much loved by so many people,” Han said, recalling his first trip to America.
Sang Man Han — dubbed Sam by his American friends — finished high school and went to college and graduate school for a master’s in business administration.
He took a job in Europe with DuPont, then started his own chemical trading company that grew into a multimillion-dollar venture.
For years, Han traveled across the world for business deals, worked as a consultant, and dabbled in real estate in Los Angeles.
When Schneider grew ill during the 1990s, Han visited him every weekend and persuaded him to move to California to spend one last year by his side.
Little did he know that he’d soon find himself in a similar predicament.
In 2002, Han felt pains in his chest. One of Han’s daughters dragged him to a specialist, and he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Han was given three to five years to live.
In the beginning, he had chemotherapy, then stem cell treatment. He got better, then worse. His chest ached. His skin itched from the treatment. His sheets were tinged with blood from the scratching.
Han decided that he wanted to do one last thing before he died — honor his father by helping other orphans.
“He sold the house, he gave up all his belongings,” said Han’s 32-year-old daughter Laura. “He sold everything he possibly owned.”
The cash largely went to cover his real estate investment, which flopped and depleted much of the wealth he had accumulated in the 1980s. The $50,000 remaining helped create a nonprofit to aid orphans overseas, Han said.
Run out of Han’s bedroom, the Han-Schneider International Children’s Foundation is a small network of volunteers who send meals to two state-run North Korean orphanages and help support orphanages in Cambodia and Tanzania.
Most of the work involves finding donations and arranging for cargo containers to ship the food overseas. Tax records show the organization raised $34,000 in 2009 — enough, they say, to send 144,000 meal packets to North Korea and thousands of dollars more in donated clothing and food. No one is on payroll.
Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, said several dozen groups have sprung up to send aid to North Korea, but Han’s drive caught her attention.
“Here is a man right now who shouldn’t be walking [because] he is in so much pain, but anyone who looks at him would not know,” Yoo said. “This is what inspires him to really continue surviving.”
Han is also lobbying for a bill to encourage the federal government to let Americans adopt North Korean orphans. Opponents say the proposal could prevent families from reuniting and prompt trafficking of North Korean children.
Han believes the bill could help children like the smiling 12-year-old in the photograph on his laptop. The boy’s father is dead and he may not be able to be reunited with his mother, who is stuck in a North Korean prison.
Han moves the mouse and clicks on another photo — this one black and white, of a boy about the same age wearing a button-down school uniform with a name tag in Korean on the lapel.
It is a photo of Han shortly after he came under Schneider’s wing.
“I think God allowed me to survive to do my mission,” Han said. “That is why I am still living, and every day, what I am doing is the greatest medicine.” ♦
For more information, visit Han-Schneider International Children’s Foundation at www.han-schneider.org.