PASADENA, Calif. – 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 where he once wandered 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 journey to the United States. He was adopted by a Minnesota professor and became a successful business executive.
Now Han wants to give other overseas orphans a shot at making a life for themselves, but his time is running out.
The soft-spoken man with twinkling eyes sleeps little: He works most days 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 and lobbies lawmakers for a bill to let Americans adopt North Korean orphans.
It is a far cry from the lifestyle he enjoyed while building a multimillion-dollar global chemical company, consulting business and condo development in Los Angeles. He hobnobbed with Republican politicians and flew to Asia to hammer out deals.
Then, in 2002, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just a few years to live.
Han moved into his daughter's home, where he started a children's foundation in this Los Angeles suburb. And while he undergoes expensive rounds of stem cell therapy and clinical trials for bone marrow cancer, 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."
Ambition is no stranger to Han. It led him, as a 12-year-old, to a Korean hospital where he hoped to learn about medicine and where he met the man who became his adoptive father.
Han lost his parents and sister during a chaotic exodus of his village in December 1950, when North Korean troops had reached the bridge over the Han River. Then 6, Han wandered door-to-door in a poor village, begging for food.
A farmer agreed to raise Han with his own two children. They lived in a tiny room for six years before Han returned to Seoul with dreams of becoming a doctor, to help the sick he saw lying in the fields he crossed when his family fled.
It was at a local hospital where he was being shooed away by a receptionist when two American officials overheard him. One 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.
Eventually, Schneider petitioned to adopt Han and bring him to the United States. But U.S. law did not allow single parents to bring adopted children from overseas, and Schneider lobbied hard for an exception. He learned Han's father had died, and he tracked down his mother, who had remarried and agreed to let her son go to America.
In 1961, Congress passed the bill on Han's behalf.
In the U.S., Sang Man Han — dubbed Sam by his American friends — finished high school and earned a master's in business administration. He took a job in Europe with DuPont, then started his own chemical trading company.
In 2002, Han felt pains in his chest. He was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, and given three to five years to live.
He had chemotherapy, then stem cell treatment. He got better, then worse. His skin itched from the treatment; his sheets were tinged with blood from scratching.
Han decided he wanted to do one last thing before he died — honor his adoptive 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 a real estate investment that flopped and depleted much of the wealth he accumulated in the 1980s. The remaining $50,000 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.
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.
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 — 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 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.
But 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 his mother is stuck in a North Korean prison.
Han clicks on another photo — this one in black and white — of a boy about the same age wearing a button-down school uniform with a name tag on the lapel. It is 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."
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