February 01, 2018

HRNK's EXCLUSIVE First Interview with Ji Seong-ho after SOTU Appearance as Guest of FLOTUS Melania Trump

Interview by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Tell us about your escape from North Korea. We heard many details in President Trump's State of the Union speech, but tell us more. How long did it take you to escape? What was your path of escape?

It took me about three months to escape from North Korea to South Korea. The distance of the route that you must take is over 10,000 kilometers (about 6,214 miles). On the journey, I had to pass through a number of countries such as China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to reach South Korea. Freedom is not so easy to reach. Since this journey is difficult, not many people attempt to escape from North Korea. If you get caught, you are tortured or sent to a political prison camp. Nevertheless, there are people with the courage to try to escape and I am one of them. I escaped from North Korea in 2006 with my younger brother by crossing the Tumen River. I almost drowned to death and after we reached China, we started to think about what we could do. Plainly speaking, we were skeptical about whether we would be able to reach South Korea or not. There was no hope that I would survive because I was not on a safe route and we had to move as quietly as possible without being detected by the Chinese police while at the same time crossing the border holding my crutches made in North Korea. At that time, I thought that I should part from my brother and go on separately. Due to my crutches, I was easily detectable. I thought it would be better if even just one of us could reach South Korea alive. Unfortunately, the journey was extremely harsh. Once, I was caught and threatened to be killed. Another time, I was dehydrated and fainted in a jungle. At that time, I cried and thought "Why was I born in North Korea, not in South Korea? Why did I have to go through this hardship? If I die here, then my body will be eaten by wild animals and none of my family would know that I am dead." I was very sad. I also felt sorrow for the fate of the North Korean people. I promised myself that I would contribute to the reunification of Korean peninsula so that in the future, no more disabled people like me will experience the hardships that I went through. I would like to wipe away the tears of the North Korean people. It is a blessing that I succeeded to escape and reach South Korea, a country of freedom.

Tell us about your life in South Korea. Where and what do you study?

When I first came to South Korea, although I had many things that I wanted to do, not knowing much, I could not do them. I was contemplating what I should do and decided that I should learn about computers. I enrolled in an academy specializing in computers. Thankfully, even though I was disabled, the academy accepted me and I was able to learn to type with only one hand.

Then, my next goal was to go to a university because I had the opportunity to do so. In North Korea, whether or not you can go to a university depends on your social classification [songbun]. In South Korea, you can attend university despite a disability, right? There are no laws that prohibit the enrollment of a disabled person nor are there any laws that prohibit North Korean escapees from attending school. South Korean society is committed to providing various opportunities like education for North Korean escapees to settle and develop themselves. For this reason, I decided to go to a university and I further realized the importance of education. My outlook on life changed and progressed. My experience at a university helped me to see beyond my own life to the broader community of “us.” I questioned myself about many things. Where was I born? How did I end up in South Korea? What was the environment that I was living in? What should I, who has settled down happily in South Korea, be doing for those who are having trouble settling and adapting in South Korean culture and society? Attending university gave me an opportunity to continuously ponder over many things in my life at that time. I understood that my disability was not a “wall” that blocked me from pursuing my life. I still worked very hard. I was admitted into Dongkuk University and majored in Criminal Law.

Today, I am at the same university and am working to obtain my Master’s degree in Law. If there is reunification of the two Koreas in the future, then new laws that are different from the ones administered currently in North Korea will be needed. We will also need temporary laws that can incorporate North Koreans into South Korean society. I want to prepare and research the development of such laws. Specifically, I want to study to help policymakers make better laws that can assist North Koreans in better adapting the democratic system of rule of law.

Tell us about your work for human rights in North Korea?

What I wanted to focus on was not the human rights issues in North Korea. At first, I thought that successfully settling down in South Korea was enough. The reason why I started to work for human rights was because I visited the U.S. When I visited Arizona, many people cried and applauded after listening to my story and they even started a campaign for me. If I did not take action, I heard that I would be no different from a Nazi. I felt burdened to do something. During the campaign, a child of about 6 or 7 years old told me that they were participating in the campaign because they watched a documentary about the suffering of the North Korean people. The child was especially touched by the "kotjebi," homeless children who rummage through the garbage in bare feet during the winter. After listening to this child, I blamed myself. I questioned whether I was the adult. I was surely no better than this child. I reflected deeply after this. I could not just live for myself any longer. There were still people suffering, including the disabled and the "kotjebi" children. It was not sufficient for me to just eat rice and wear warm clothes. It should be my role as a citizen in a democratic society to work for North Korean human rights.

With nothing to begin with, my friends and I became activists for human rights in North Korea by starting NAUH. We started with only $200 in the beginning. However, I thought that if we show candor and diligence then, slowly but surely, others would join us and the things that were needed would be fulfilled in the end. It has been 7 years since the organization began with $200 and now, we have rescued about 270 refugees from North Korea, which cost more than $500,000 dollars. We learned that if we, people who were victims, become advocates and appeal to the world with the truth, then they can help to move the hearts of South Koreans as well as the warm-hearted people around the world in order to make miracles happen. I learned that miracles happen to people who dream and take action. We are actively trying to rescue female refugees who suffer from sex trafficking in China. We also campaign about the human rights situation in North Korea, stating that human rights in North Korea is an urgent issue and needs more attention. People should be activists for these issues so that when the two Koreas do unify someday in the future, people will not be ashamed to face those who once suffered under the Kim regime. When the time comes, we should not look at these people as mere sources of labor, but share our love. We deliver our message through the campaigns, rescue work in China, and radio broadcasts to the young people in North Korea. We show our vision, what we want to do when unified by comparing North Korea, the first homeland, and South Korea, the second homeland. We produce programs that help the “jangmadang” (market) generation to think about what they could do in the future—what they can sell in the emerging and growing market and giving them tips to vitalize the economy. We exhibit the items sold in North Korea's markets so that South Korean people are able to broaden their understanding of the North Korean people. We show what they sell and introduce "kotjebi" by reenacting their lives through theatrical plays. These novel reenactments were performed in the U.S. and South Korea and are still in the works today. This is what we are doing.

Were you able to speak with President Trump prior to the State of the Union? What did you talk about?

The first time that I saw President Trump from afar was at the National Assembly of South Korea when he was giving a speech. I remember crying a lot at the time. He understood, in depth, the sentiments of the North Korean people. I cried because President Trump had compassion for the North Korean people.

It was an honor for me to meet him face to face this time. Obviously, you are only given a short amount of time to meet the President of the U.S. I greeted him and he recognized who I was right way. I was very much surprised. He even winked at me. We took photos together and I saw First Lady Melania Trump. I took photos with her as well. After President Trump’s speech, we took photos again. We did not have a long conversation, but I could sense that President Trump knew a lot about my life and the lives of the North Korean people. He welcomed me with such a warm reception. I was very grateful.

What was going through your head and what were you feeling when every single person at the State of the Union last night was applauding you and your incredible journey?

I first thought of my father. I thought that my father would be very happy in heaven to see that the greatest President of the world, the U.S. President, remembers and speaks about him, an escapee who was tortured to death. I am truly grateful. Not just my father, but many North Koreans go through a similar situation where they are arrested, tortured, and incarcerated in political prison camps. To watch President Trump talk about all these at the State of the Union, I could not help but to think about my father. It was a time to remember our past life. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the people who are currently living in North Korea. President Trump has a will to improve the lives of North Korea and if people like us activists work hard enough, we can wipe away the tears of those North Koreans one day. There would be no more people like my father and myself, who were tortured. There would be no more starvation. There would be no more selling off North Korean people in China. It was not a long period of time, but I had many feelings and I was grateful. The officials of the U.S. executive and legislative branches at the State of the Union all applauded me, and it is a memory I will never forget for the rest of my life.

What does it mean for the North Korean escapee community that you were a guest of the FLOTUS Melania Trump and able to have the spotlight at the State of the Union?

Well, first, it was a great honor. The second that I stepped foot inside the White House, I thought to myself that this was my family’s greatest honor. However, remembering how many North Koreans would want to be there with me, rather than think that I was there alone, I believed that I was there with the hearts of the North Korean people—with all of their hopes, dreams, and wishes. For this reason, I felt that I was carrying a large weight on my shoulders regarding the work I will have to do from now on.

At the moment that I met President Trump, I could not think of anything. Like I said before, he winked at me. I was very comfortable after that. We had the photo session with the President and First Lady Melania Trump. I had many different feelings and thoughts going through my mind. This would have never happened if I was in North Korea. It was because I had escaped from North Korea. It was because the South Korean government granted me citizenship that I was allowed to travel anywhere I wanted freely—a fact that I am really thankful for. I was also bewildered and in awe of the fact that I was in the White House when I have not even been inside the South Korean Blue House yet. All in all, yesterday was a day filled with a rollercoaster of emotions.

For the North Korean escapee community, my visit to the White House and the spotlight at the State of the Union is of significant importance. This moment will be shown to North Koreans in North Korea through many news media outlets, like VOA. This is an extraordinary event. I’m sure many in North Korea have heard that some escapees go to Washington, DC, but that an escapee was invited to the White House and was welcomed by the President of the United States of America and the First Lady will come as a shock to all back home. People will be asking, “Who is that guy?” They’ll say, “He’s a handicapped kotjebi!” People will say, “Wow!” This will blow everyone away in North Korea. Of course, the North Korean government will not like my appearance at the State of the Union. However, I believe the North Korean people will be thankful for how aware and attentive the American people and their government are towards the issue of human rights in North Korea. They will know that many people in the U.S. are aware and care about their suffering in North Korea.

What do you think is going to be different now that you have been publicly recognized by the POTUS and FLOTUS?

From my point of view, this was not a small event. This was a very big event. Furthermore, at the State of the Union, the President directly spoke about the lives of escapees from North Korea and my personal story as well. I received applause from many there. They supported me. The North Korean government would not like this at all. There is no reason for them to like it. The things they wanted to hide are being disclosed to all of the outside world. Actually, that is why they tortured me and wanted me to die. Now, my story has been broadcasted to all the world. They were afraid of this reality coming out to the best known press in the world and the media in South Korea as well. I think Kim Jong-Un also watched the State of the Union yesterday. Wouldn’t he have? Wouldn’t the North Korean Bo-wi-bu (State Security Department) have watched it? I think they would really be fuming. However, at this moment, I think they should be honest about this problem. They should acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit that they have human rights issues, and provide for the disabled. Having a couple athletes in the Paralympics will not be representative of life for all of North Korea's disabled people. The government needs to feed them, provide clothes for them, and house them. This is what the country needs to do since the disabled and the non-disabled are not in the same condition. They need to help them so they do not suffer. I wish they would admit what they are not doing well and try to get better. I hope for that type of North Korea. Of course they would get angry, but what can we do?
I think this experience has become an opportunity to invoke the South Korean people to pay more attention to the North Korean human rights issue because the U.S. President directly presented the issue at the State of the Union. Most of the South Korean people already know about the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea. Even recently, North Korea threatened to launch nuclear missile tests and threatened South Korea as if a war would start. This is ridiculous. They are just like a bullying gangster neighbor. The South Korean people are angry about North Korea's provocations. Furthermore, after this spotlight, I think many South Koreans will become interested once again in the human rights issues in North Korea. After the seeing the work of activists, many people might think more about how terrible the regime has been and how they should not be that way. They could give donations to the NGOs working to improve the improve the human rights situation in North Korea. Wouldn’t this revitalize activists to be able to do more this way? If the heads of state are willing to save the 25 million oppressed North Korean people, I think many people, especially the citizens, youths, and students of the U.S. would follow suit and join the movement to help solve the issues with human rights in North Korea. Therefore, I hope this becomes a chance to disclose the difficult reality of what is happening in North Korea.

Holding up your crutches as you did at the end of the State of the Union last night was a symbol of hope for many, especially for the disabled community in North Korea. Do you have anything else you would like to share in our remaining time?

First, in North Korea, a disabled person is called a “byungshin” [“retard”]. This is what the North Korean government officially labels their own citizens who are disabled. The government tortures the disabled, telling them that they “might as well just die.” That was the life that I lived in North Korea. However, when I escaped to South Korea, never once did I think that I was a disabled person. I was able to live happily and more diligently. [Showing his crutches] These are the crutches that I brought with me from North Korea. The reason why I am actively fighting for the human rights in North Korea is because I want to be an example of hope for disabled North Koreans. I want to stop the North Korean government from torturing and persecuting the disabled in its country. There is also the role of closely monitoring these atrocities towards the disabled. But I can’t do this alone. So, I need the international community, the North Korean people, and the people that care for the North Korean people to all participate in working for the human rights of North Koreans. In this way, I believe there will be an end to the suffering of the North Korean people. I did not know that I would be showing my crutches this often, but it does symbolize my difficult journey.

My only request is that people don’t think about just one person, Ji Seong-ho, but rather, think about the many North Korean people who are still suffering in North Korea right now.

Translated by Grace Soomin Kan, Dohyun Kim, and Hyungjun Yu, HRNK Research Interns

Interview was filmed on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Please stay tuned for the interview video on our YouTube page: