A Tribute to Kwang Sun Jang (1946 – 2019)

NAKASEC, Korean Resource Center, and HANA Center are profoundly sad to report that Kwang Sun Jang, a steadfast champion for democracy and peace in Korea and the U.S., transitioned on August 16, 2019. We extend our deepest condolences to his family: spouse Jung Ok Kim, children, Heran Jang and Sion Jang, and siblings, Kyung Dan Jang, Meang Dan Jang, and Kwang Min Jang, and three grandchildren. 

Mr. Jang, known to many as Jang 선배님 (sunbaenim) or 선생님 (sunsaengnim), was born in 1946 in Jangheung County, located in Jeolla Province. In college, Jang 선배님 studied agriculture. To understand why Jang 선배님 was so devoted to building a people-centered movement, it is critical to remember that he lived through 12 years of authoritarian rule under Syngman Rhee. In 1960, Rhee was overthrown by a student-led popular uprising. A new constitution and elections were held; however in May 1961, Major General Park Chung Hee overthrew the first democratic government, and ushered in 26 years of military-based dictatorial rule.

During this period is when Jang 선배님 migrated to the U.S. in 1976, starting in Kansas and eventually settling in New Jersey where he operated a dry-cleaning business. And for the rest of his life, Jang선배님 played numerous roles to support movement building. For example, in 1980, Jang 선배님 helped start solidarity chapters in the U.S. of the May 18th Truth Commission (on May 18, 1980, the people of Gwangju began mass demonstrations to protest martial law under dictator Chun Doo Hwan, who in 1979 used U.S. and South Korean troops to stage a coup in 1979) and the Kim Dae Jung Support Committee. Kim Dae Jung would later become South Korea’s President in 1997 marking the country’s first peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected opponent. In the 1980s though, Kim was a political prisoner.

Jang 선배님 never gave up the hope of democracy and organized Korean Americans to advocate for peace and to call out the U.S. government’s involvement with propping up a corrupt and dictatorial government. Jang 선배님 met Yoon Han Bong, a political asylee from South Korea. Jang 선배님 recognized that Yoon 선생님’s efforts to foster a grassroots organizing among Korean Americans needed to happen in the Philadelphia area. He lent considerable support in recruiting others and supporting political education and community engagement work.

Jang 선배님 believed that future generations of Korean Americans needed to proudly recognize their heritage and engage in American society and progressive movements too. When Young Koreans United and Korean Alliance for Peace and Justice decided to establish NAKASEC in 1994, Jang 선배님 continued to support by providing strategic guidance and mentoring emerging Korean American leaders.

For many of us, Jang 선배님 taught us to fight and that everyone can play a part. He taught us to be proud of our Korean heritage but not be nationalistic. He taught us to observe what's going around and not get stuck in old ways of thinking. He encouraged us to reach out and be in solidarity with others, as he did when organizing anti-war protests in Philadelphia. We learned from his example to give and ask others to give - like when he would mail envelopes stuffed with $10 bills from his network to help build up the Korean Resource Center or KRCC (what is now known as HANA Center). He had a green thumb and liked to grow plants, as much as he grew the spirit of movement building in others.

To learn more about Jang 선배님 and his reflections on what movements need to do, read his essay here.

His favorite Korean movement song was “임을 위한 행진곡” loosely translated as “A March for the Beloved.” This song quickly became the anthem to the South Korean democracy movement, written after the Gwangju Uprising.

Jang 선배님, we all continue to live in your light. “As I wake up, I shout a hot cry. Go ahead and follow me!”
Rest in peace and power.

- written by Sookyung Oh, NAKASEC VA Director (formerly active with SoRi MoRi, Young Koreans United, and NAKASEC in Philadelphia)