Perhaps one of the most well-received parts of President Donald Trump’s State of Union address on Tuesday were his words recognizing Ji Seong-ho, a disabled North Korean defector who was tortured by the communist regime.
“In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea,” Trump began, detailing how Ji tried to steal coal from a railroad car to trade for food, but ended up passing out on the tracks.
Two of his limbs were run over by a train, and he had to endure “multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain or the hurt,” Trump said. After a trip to his native land from a trip to China, Ji was tortured by North Korean authorities — an experience that made him realize he wanted to be free.
“Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom,” Trump stated. Now, he works to help others who are trying to escape the communist regime.
Ji got an extended stranding ovation from the assembled lawmakers, and as he raised his crutches in the air — crutches that his father had made for him — there were tears in his eyes.
Indeed, Ji’s journey from living in the oppressive regime to being a guest of the president at the State of the Union address was long and difficult.
In 1996, Ji, then 13, lived with his family as North Korea suffered through a famine that eventually took the lives of more than 2 million people, according to The New York Times.
The family was forced to subsist on corn stalks and roots, and they would often hallucinate out of weakness, he said in a 2014 interview.
In an attempt to feed his family, Ji started stealing coal from passing freight trains, with the goal of trading it for corn. But he had to do it under cover of darkness to avoid being apprehended by armed guards.
“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,” he said. “If we missed the train, our families would have nothing to eat for a few days.”
One night, as he was taking coal off a train, Ji fainted and fell between two cars. He woke up on the side of the tracks, only to discover that his left arm and leg had been cut off.
Ji was taken to a clinic, and underwent two surgeries, both of them without anesthesia or a blood transfusion, according to The Times.
“I could feel my spine rattling as he sawed off the bones,” he stated. “I could hear blood dripping into a basin underneath. The doctor kept talking to me to keep me from passing out.”
Once again, Ji was left starving. But this time, he had to beg for food while on his crutches.
It was several years later, in 2000, that he started thinking about escaping his country of birth. That year, he entered China illegally, and when he returned about a month later, he brought back food for his family.
However, North Korean police soon found him and tortured him for almost three weeks.
“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.”
Ji was able to make contact with a friend who had defected to South Korea, and after hearing about how much better living conditions were outside of the North Korean regime, he decided to escape.
In 2006, he finally got away.
Accompanied by his brother, Ji crossed the Tumen River and entered China. At one point, he fell into the frozen river, and was saved from drowning by his brother.
But the brothers separated once they were in China, as Ji didn’t want to be a burden.
“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.
After passing through Laos, Ji eventually made it to Thailand, where he able to get help from the South Korean embassy. Then he was taken to Seoul, where the government gave him an artificial arm and leg.
“It was all so confusing, because I had never known that a society was supposed to protect its disabled,” he said.
Though Ji was able to reunite with younger brother, mother and sister, his father was caught attempting to defect. He later passed away in prison.
But Ji himself went on to study law, then founded a civil rights organization that advocates for human rights in the North.
Years later, he still has not thrown away the crutches his father made for him, though he no longer needs them, instead saying they show “that you can achieve anything if you do not give up.”
It was this story that Trump referenced in his State of the Union address, when he called Ji’s “great sacrifice” an “inspiration to us all.”
“Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” Trump said.
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