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Top: The Choi family, from left, Sue, John, Janet and Mike with family friend H.K. Ahn.

Above: Sue Choi weds Barry Hoch, flanked by her parents, brother Mike and his wife, Jenny.

As a boy in Ham Jung, North Korea, John Choi quickly learned the cost of freedom.

He was born in 1940, the son of a railroad worker jailed six months for refusing to cooperate with the government. Soon after his father's release, when John Chi Duk Choi was 7, the family crossed the border to escape the Communist regime.

Choi can remember begging for bread from Russian soldiers. He is still haunted by images he saw when he was 10 and living in a refugee camp. Every day he would watch trains headed north with tanks, trucks, guns and soldiers. He can recall grim faces, many of them American soldiers, who seemed to sense they would die.

A new life first seemed within reach when Choi was in the seventh grade. His school was being used by American military personnel, and the chief of the compound decided that in return for use of the building, one student would be selected to study in the United States. Choi won and studied English intensively for a year. But a fire at the school shuffled priorities and wrecked the plan.

His grasp of English caught the attention of American Church of Christ missionaries, who invited him to come to Bible study. They hired him as a translator and interpreter, his job until he graduated from high school in 1959. The missionaries made him an offer:

If he would become a minister, they would send him to school in the United States. But Choi didn't want to become a minister, and he turned them down.

His real dream was to study accounting in the United States.

He finally got the chance in 1973, a decade after his sister moved to Hawai'i as a military bride. He followed on the invitation of his sister, Yang Ja Kuhn, who was briefly married to a serviceman at Hickam Air Force Base.

Choi was 34, a college instructor in South Korea with a wife and two children. He left them to try to provide a better life. They corresponded with tape-recorded messages twice a month, many filled with the tiny voices of his 5-year-old son, Mike, and 3-year-old daughter, Sue.

He paid $350 for a 1963 Chevy Nova, the first car he ever owned.

It was already an old car, but it was his pride and joy, even though it spewed inky exhaust fumes.

"I was so happy having a car," he said. "I parked it in front of my house, and I would look at it and wash it."

By 1974, his family joined him in a three-bedroom in Halawa View Apartments, across from the Arizona Memorial. Choi worked as an account clerk at the Hawaii State Teachers' Association, making $6,000 a year and attending graduate school at the University of Hawai'i.

His budget was tight, but he was making more than he did in his homeland, and felt fortunate.

"I don't remember I was any happier than that period," said Choi, now 63 and a businessman with his name on the door of his 10th-floor accounting firm in the Pan Am building on Kapi'olani Boulevard.

His immediate family also found success here. His sister became a lab technician. His mother, Song Yi Choi, now 83, arrived in 1972 and worked at Kanai Tofu Factory on Ward Avenue. His dad, San Hak Choi, came in 1980. His parents learned just enough English to get American citizenship. His dad died in 2001. His brother, Chi Soo Choi, now 59, has been here since 1980 and runs Yilmi Jung Restaurant in Waikiki.

Choi's wife, Janet, works in his office, the business he started in 1979 after earning his master's degree in business administration. She spent her first few years learning English and working at Sherry's Drive In at Pier 22.

By the early 1980s, she talked Choi into helping her run a mom-and-pop shop, Dusty's Liquor, on the corner of Liliha and Kuakini streets. After eight hours in his office, Choi would stand in front of the store as a guard until midnight.

It was his work ethic that allowed him to send his children to Punahou School to get an education that would keep them from having to work two jobs themselves. He and Janet put off buying a house until 1990 so they could afford the tuition.

They worked so much that they rarely had family dinners. Sometimes the kids would come to the store nibbling potato chips and drinking Cokes instead.

"The best we could afford was McDonald's," said Choi, who grew so fond of Big Macs he ate them daily. His doctor told him his cholesterol was too high, and he has learned to like toasted wheat bread instead. He still loves McDonald's, but his wife prefers Korean cuisine.

He and Janet are still working off the mortgage in Hawai'i Kai, but Choi is thinking about retirement.

His son, Mike, became a financial auditor and married pro golfer Jenny Park-Choi. His daughter, Sue, is an endodontist married to Barry Hoch, her dentistry school classmate. His first grandchild, Kanoe Lauren Hoch, arrived in August.

As Koreans mark the centennial of immigration to Hawai'i today, Choi is reflecting on how to give back to his community. His business already caters to Koreans. He meets immigrants in his congregation at Christ United Methodist Church on Ke'eaumoku Street.

He exchanges letters three or four times a year with relatives in North Korea. He said the letters are censored and include phrases praising the ruling party. Photographs he has received show aunts and uncles living in poverty, unaware of their extreme circumstances.

Choi sees his own family in the stories of North Korean refugees fleeing to China. He may be a success story, but he also wants success for others.

"I want to devote more time to the plights of these people," he said.

— Tanya Bricking

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