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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. 

If I were to give you a definition of freedom, I think that freedom means being able to do what you want without harming others.

Freedom isn’t something given by the government. I think it is a God-given right, and you are born with this right as a human being. There can be many components when we talk about freedom
and the right to freedom could refer to the right to religion, right to travel, and so forth. Whatever the form, I believe one’s freedom should not be oppressed.

I only had a vague understanding of what freedom meant when I was back in North Korea. I thought about the issue, but never had the context to say that this is a right one is born with.

When I thought about freedom or rights, I thought it was a concept that was given under the great leader. Everything was subordinate to the great leader of North Korea.

But I would think to myself how unfair it was, that a person could be sent to a political prison camp because he said the wrong thing or that someone was publicly executed when they didn’t deserve such severe punishment.
I really asked myself questions like: “What wrong has that individual done to deserve public execution. Is this fair or not?” 

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 on this theme from Ji Seong-ho

Ji Seong-ho: What is Freedom? “Freedom isn’t something given by the government.”