North Korean Defector, Honored by Trump, Has a Remarkable Escape Story
Posted January 31, 2018 1:23 p.m. EST
SEOUL, South Korea — When President Donald Trump wanted to highlight the brutality of North Korea’s government during his State of the Union address Tuesday, he pointed to a man in the audience who had traveled thousands of miles on crutches to find freedom.
The story that man, Ji Seong Ho, tells of his escape is remarkable even by the standards of North Korean defectors. When Trump pointed him out, Ji jubilantly raised his crutches as television cameras captured the moment.
In 1996, Ji was 13, his parents’ eldest son, living in a mining village near the city of Hoeryong in northern North Korea. The country was in the midst of a famine that would kill more than 2 million, by some estimates. Surviving on roots and corn stalks, Ji’s family became so weak that they spent most of the day lying on the floor, sometimes hallucinating, he said in a 2014 interview.
His grandmother had died of hunger the previous year. In school, teachers were too weak to teach. Few students showed up to class.
Ji said he began stealing coal from moving freight trains, to barter it for corn. “There must have been 100 of us. When the train moved out of the station at night, we came out of hiding and crawled up the cars like zombies,” Ji said. “If we missed the train, our families would have nothing to eat for a few days.”
Villagers could steal the coal only between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when the train was not guarded by armed police officers, he said. They had no flashlights.
On the night of March 7, 1996, as Ji was hurling sacks of coal off a train for his sister to gather up, he fainted from hunger and exhaustion and tumbled between two cars. When he came to, he was beside the rails, the train pulling away. His left leg and arm had been cut off. His frantic sister was crying for help, even as other villagers scurried away with sacks of coal.
He was carried to a local clinic, where a doctor operated on him twice, without anesthesia or a blood transfusion, he said.
“I could feel my spine rattling as he sawed off the bones,” Ji said. “I could hear blood dripping into a basin underneath. The doctor kept talking to me to keep me from passing out.”
After he recovered, he began going to markets and train stations on his crutches, begging and pilfering food.
But he said he never thought of deserting North Korea until 2000, when he made his way illegally to China. There, he was given food in churches and saw that “animals in China were fed better than North Koreans.” A month later, when he returned home with some food for his family, the secret police caught him and beat him for 20 days, he said.
“It was not the beating that really hurt me,” he said. “One of them said: ‘You cripple, begging in China before foreign cameras! You are an embarrassment for the leader and the country.’
“It was then that I realized I had no future in North Korea.” Later, he got in touch with a friend from his hometown who had made it to South Korea. He spoke to him on a cellphone that picked up Chinese signals near the border, and learned how much better conditions were in the other Korea. “They don’t beat the handicapped in the South,” he said his friend told him.
“I had never seen people with Down syndrome until I came to South Korea,” Ji said. “In the North, they gather such people and keep them from public view.”
In April 2006, Ji crossed the Tumen River into China one last time, nearly drowning when he lost his balance in a river swollen with snowmelt. His younger brother, who was fleeing the North with him, pulled him out.
In China, the brothers split up. Ji feared he would be a burden for his younger brother on the risky and difficult journey to South Korea.
“Our thinking was that at least one of us must make it to South Korea, so we can make money and bring our parents and sister out of North Korea too,” he said.
Without a guide, Ji and three other defectors trekked through the jungles of Laos. They made it to Thailand, where he was told that South Korean diplomats could help him.
At the South’s embassy in Bangkok, diplomats were surprised to see their first North Korean defector on crutches. They hurried him to Seoul, where the government provided him with an artificial arm and leg.
“It was all confusing, because I had never known that a society was supposed to protect its disabled,” Ji said.
Ji reunited with his younger brother in South Korea, where his mother and younger sister joined him years later. But his father was caught trying to flee the North and died in prison. In Seoul, Ji studied law as an undergraduate and founded Now Action and Unity for Human Rights, an organization of North Korean defectors, young South Koreans and ethnic Koreans from the United States who campaign for human rights in the North. He frequently speaks at international conferences on North Korean human rights. He has told the story of his escape from the North, most of which could not be independently confirmed, to various journalists and rights groups.
Ji says he has never thrown away the crude makeshift crutches that his father made for him. He said they symbolize “that you can achieve anything if you do not give up.”
He triumphantly raised the crutches in Congress when Trump introduced him, calling his story “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
But Trump’s mention of Ji in his speech also raised some eyebrows, given the president’s stance on immigration and tough border enforcement.
“Ok, Ji Seong Ho’s story is tragic, but wouldn’t it also make him exactly the kind of refugee Trump wants to keep out of America?” one Twitter user wrote.