During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump told the story of Ji Seong-ho, who faced a painful life growing up in North Korea. Ji walked thousands of miles on crutches to defect to South Korea, where he became an advocate pursuing freedom for people from his homeland.
Ji was a "witness to the ominous nature of this regime," Trump said, as Ji sat with First Lady Melania Trump during the speech. Ji raised his crutches when Trump spoke of him and his work on human rights.
Trump used Ji’s story to highlight the threat of North Korea. We wanted to know more about his background.
Ji has been quoted in news accounts across the globe for years as he has worked to alert the world to human rights abuses in North Korea and defend the rights of people with disabilities.
Trump described Ji’s life as a starving teenager growing up in North Korea’s famine in the 1990s, when Ji tried to steal coal from a railroad car.
"In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger," Trump said. "He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain or the hurt. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves — permanently stunting their own growth."
In 2015 at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Ji cried as he told the story of how in the hospital he underwent surgery with no painkillers recalling "the sound of the saw cutting through my leg bone." His brother scrounged for noodles in the trash to feed Ji and keep him alive.
Ji crossed over into China in search of food and was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit in 2000.
He eventually made his escape on crutches, traveling 6,000 miles, crossing from China, into Laos, through Burma and Thailand, and finally making it to South Korea in July 2006. Ji said that the South Korean government gave him a prosthetic arm and leg.
Most of his family followed, but his father didn’t make it.
Ji said that people from his hometown told him that while his father was trying to escape, he was caught and tortured to death by North Korean forces
Ji is now a law student at Dongguk University and the president of Now Action and Unity for Human Rights. Ji lives in Seoul where he rescues other defectors, Trump said.
Through his organization, Ji gives theatrical performances entitled "Kotjebi" in the United States to show the horrors faced by those who defected.
In an interview for the Harvard International Review published in 2012, Ji said that his organization is comprised of students from North and South Korea and from overseas who are working to promote the rights of North Koreans.
"To do this, we want to touch the feelings of the North Korean people. Many people in the North have a very good impression of the regime, because the state media has appealed to their emotions," he said. "Every Saturday we hold a demonstration in downtown Seoul to help inform Korean society about the atrocities taking place in North Korea, as well as our activities."
In 2013, Ji testified in Seoul before a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea.
"People are treated without dignity in North Korea -- and in some cases like subhumans," he said.
Ji has spoken out on behalf of people with disabilities, criticizing the poor treatment they have received in North Korea.
"In North Korea, the handicapped are not divided in terms of their disability, but whether you are a child of the elite or not," he said, according to The Nation (Thailand) in 2014. "Only the children of the elite have good medical facilities and expensive wheelchairs and only they get to go things like the Paralympics."
In 2017, not long after the UN Security Council adopted tough new economic sanctions against North Korea, Ji said at a Oslo Freedom Forum meeting in New York that the international community should "keep pressuring North Korea, which is continuing along (the nuclear path) without knowing what the consequences would be. Only pressure can show that Kim Jong Un is wrong."
Washington Post, "Escape from North Korea: Defectors risk all on a perilous trek," Sept. 10, 2017
The Nation, Thailand, "@HD New opinion Head 48;The underground pipeline funnelling capitalism to North Korea," (Accessed in Nexis) Sept. 30, 2016
Daily Mirror, "N. Korea 'kills disabled babies and dwarves'; Crazed Kim 'feels humiliated by those who are different,’" (Accessed in Nexis) Dec. 12, 2014
The Daily Telegraph, "North Korea duped Britain into funding 2012 Paralympics stunt, says defector," Dec. 12, 2014
Harvard International Review, "The Future of North Korea: A Defector's Perspective," Fall 2012
Voice of America News, "N. Korean Defector Urges Continued Global Pressure on Pyongyang," Sept. 29, 2017
Daily NK, Issue, "Orphaned and disabled, one defector tells of his struggle to survive in North Korea," June 23, 2017
BG Independent Media, "North Korean troupe lifts curtain on harsh life under Kim Il-sung’s regime," Aug. 31, 2017
Oslo Freedom Forum, Ji Seong-ho - My Impossible Escape from North Korea, 2015
PolitiFact, "The big picture: The North Korea situation as Trump heads to the UN," Sept. 17, 2017
Interview, Steven Cheung, White House spokesman, Jan. 30, 2018