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Ji Seong-ho

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Ji Seong-ho is a North Korean defector and freedom activist. Growing up in the midst of North Korea’s great famine in the mid-1990s, he helped support his family by stealing coal and selling it. While doing so, Ji Seong-ho fell off a train and crushed his left hand and foot; portions of his limbs were amputated forcing him to move around on crutches.

In 2006, Ji Seong-ho escaped North Korea with his brother. They crossed into China via the Tumen River where Ji Seong-ho nearly drowned. After crossing over, Ji Seong-ho urged his brother to leave him fearing his disability would get them both captured. With the help of brokers and religious groups, he trekked across China on his crutches and eventually reunited with his brother in South Korea.

Since escaping, Ji Seong-ho has raised awareness about North Korea and encouraged activism to improve his country’s human rights situation. He founded the organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights (NAUH) and initiated various projects geared towards helping North Koreans and preparing for the Korean peninsula’s unification. These efforts have included enhancing mutual understanding and social integration between North and South Koreans, broadcasting information to North Korean youth via Radio Free Asia and Far East Broadcasting, and helping defectors escape and resettle in South Korea. 

I’m currently classified as a physically disabled person in the Republic of Korea [South Korea], because back when I was 16 years old, I had a serious accident and lost my left leg and left arm.

During the whole process of entering China from when I was 20 years old [to find food], being arrested, returning to North Korea and coming all the way to South Korea, I was always on crutches. It was after I entered into South Korea that their government provided medical assistance to help me walk again.
Yes, that is true. [When fleeing North Korea] I depended on my crutches the entire time crossing the river, climbing mountains, and everything.

After I crossed the Tumen River and entered into China, there were so many mountains. I remember thinking to myself, “How many mountains must I cross to reach South Korea?” [The Tumen River forms part of the border between North Korea and China.]

Previously, I had thought that as long as I could reach a Chinese city, there would be South Korean government assistance and somebody would come with a plane and take defectors like myself to South Korea. Once I reached China I realized that that was not the case. If you want to defect to the South, you have to figure out your own way. What usually happens is, once you reach China, you enter into countries like Mongolia or other Southeast Asian countries. That is how you reach the Republic of Korea [South Korea].

I was shocked to learn about this. At one point, I started having regrets about leaving North Korea, because I faced so many difficulties.

First, in China, I didn’t speak the language and people could tell by my appearance that I was North Korean. Also, I was on crutches back then, so I constantly thought to myself, “Is it really possible for me to get all the way to South Korea alive?” I started having doubts.

Once my brother and I were in China, I decided we should go our separate ways. If we were arrested, we would both be killed. At least my brother could succeed in the journey to South Korea and bring my father there. Then he could find my mother and sister. So there in China, I said goodbye to my brother.
He and I would go separately. He departed for Thailand. I left 15 days later.

During that journey I realized how big a country China was. I moved in secret from one place to another, and fled at the sight of the police. It was quite a challenge.I think it took almost one month crossing the Chinese countryside before I could enter into a Southeast Asian country. Sometimes I had to walk, and sometimes I managed other modes of transportation.

The most difficult period for me was crossing the border into Laos. Because I was both handicapped and without a passport, it was extremely difficult to carry on.

At one point, I had to cross a mountain in Laos and I became discouraged because it was a steep, jungle area where I had to climb on my crutches. It was a very long journey.

At one point, I thought I might actually die there in the jungle, because I had no strength left to carry on. I remember crying many times during that period.

I remember asking myself, “Why am I here? What am I here for? What happened to North Korea and what happened with inter-Korean relations that situations have come this far?”

I remember praying to the heavens saying, “If there is a God in this world, please save me. If you do, I will go to South Korea and lead the best life that I can.”

Perhaps my prayers were answered because fortunately, I made it to Thailand, safely with other people. 

To this day, I am emotionally burdened over the fact that I wasn’t able to keep the promise that I made with my father. I was supposed to go back to get him and bring him either to South Korea or another country to lead a better life but because he was arrested in the process of escaping and was tortured, he died. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for that. 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”

More from Ji Seong-ho

Ji Seong-ho: Impossible journey “I depended on my crutches the entire time crossing the river, climbing mountains, and everything.” Ji Seong-ho: International Support “Today, many Americans show a lot of interest in North Korean human rights.” Ji Seong-ho: Escape “I almost drowned to death.” More + Ji Seong-ho: Background Ji Seong-ho describes the severe conditions of life in North Korea, “All I could do to eat was sell coal.” Ji Seong-ho: Why I Defected Ji Seong-ho explains his motivation to risk everything and leave North Korea. Ji Seong-ho: Culture of Surveillance “We were watched closely.” Ji Seong-ho: What is Freedom? “Freedom isn’t something given by the government.” Ji Seong-ho: Becoming an Activist Ji Seong-ho discusses his motivations for becoming an activist. Ji Seong-ho: Human Diginity “The most decisive factor in my defecting was the fact that my human dignity was not respected.” Ji Seong-ho: Breaking Information Barriers “North Koreans are no longer giving unconditional and blind loyalty to the regime.”