TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Ahead of the Oslo Freedom Forum happening in Taipei this weekend, Nov. 10, Taiwan News was able to interview Ji Seong-Ho, a defector from North Korea, and a guest speaker at the forum.
Ji Seong-Ho’s youth was marked by tragedy and suffering living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). During the famine of the 1990s, suffering constant malnourishment, Ji lost consciousness while he was attempting to scavenge coal from trains in order to sell it on the black market for food.
When Ji re-awoke he discovered that part of his body had been crushed under a moving train, severing his leg, and shearing three fingers off of his left hand. He underwent a four hour amputation procedure without anesthetic or transfusions.
After the accident in 1996, Ji went on to live in North Korea for another decade, experiencing life as a disabled person in one of the harshest social environments on the planet.
Since escaping from the brutal communist regime in 2006, he has been living in Seoul, South Korea, and has since founded an organization called Now, Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH) which is an advocacy group for North Korean refugees in South Korea, and which aims to raise awareness internationally about the human rights situation in the North.
Taiwan News was able to sit down with Ji for a brief interview to ask him about his personal experiences and to hear his views on Korea’s current situation, and the future prospects for improving human rights in the region.
Ji Seong-Ho, holding his old crutches, was recognized at Trump's 2018 State of the Union Address (Wikimedia Commons Image)
Taiwan News Reporter (TN): Welcome to Taiwan. I hope you’re enjoying your visit. What’s your impression of Taipei and Taiwan so far?
Ji Seong-Ho (JS): I just arrived yesterday, but Taipei is great. I had some beef noodles last night, and it was delicious. The people here in Taiwan are also very kind and warm-hearted. The architecture is also unique here. There is an interesting mix of Eastern and Western style buildings all over Taipei.
TN: I’d like to ask a few questions about your past in North Korea. When you were young, before your accident, and your change of perspective, what was your image of South Korea? How about the United States?
JS: When I was young, we were taught that South Korea was undeveloped, that poverty was rampant. People were told the South was a very oppressive society, and that no one could breathe free. In fact, South Korea was often described with what was actually the reality of the North. The U.S. was of course the world’s greatest tyrant and oppressor. The State told us we had to resist the imperialists at all costs.
TN: What was life like living with your disability in North Korea? How is the situation of living in South Korea compared to what you experienced in the North?
JS: Being disabled in North Korea is very difficult. The government has no policy to support or educate the public on issues involving the disabled, so there is no real social awareness. What is worse, there is no basic respect nor dignity given to those with physical or mental disabilities, people are even mocked, harassed and abused, with no reaction from the public.
It is even considered shameful for a household to have a disabled family member. Many believe that the disabled should just remain at home, away from the public eye. Since the public distribution system in the DPRK broke down decades ago, things are already very difficult for the average individual or household. It becomes even more desperate for a family trying to take care of a disabled member; it’s just not sustainable with the resources available.
Things are much better in South Korea, there is at least public discourse on these issues, and disabled people are treated with dignity. There are public and state considerations made for the disabled population. Living in Seoul, after so many years in North Korea, I felt that I was considered as a human being again when in public.
TN: So you escaped North Korea in 2006, through China and Southeast Asia, a decade after your accident. How long was your journey to freedom? And what was it like when you finally made it to South Korea?
JS: My trip took me three months, traveling through China to Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, before I finally managed a flight to South Korea. When defectors from the North arrive in Seoul, the government puts them through a social orientation course. We had to learn basic life skills for getting around in South Korean society.
Most of us had no idea what a bank card or an ATM were, we had to be familiarized with basic social knowledge. We lived in dorms for this period. Sometimes we would take “learning tours” out to restaurants, or noraebang. The councilors would give us money to purchase new clothes at department stores, but they would often laugh at the clothing choices some people made, because the sense of style between North and South is really quite different.
TN: After settling in South Korea, you eventually became a Christian. Can I ask you what led you to the Christian faith?
JS: I don’t think a reporter has ever asked me that before. Before I settled in Seoul, I had met some Christians during my journey. I noticed that in situations of difficulty and moments of danger, Christians always seemed willing to help. Initially, I was curious and thought, well I want to go where these well-meaning people are going. I was also surprised to learn about the diversity of religion when I arrived in South Korea. In North Korea, we only have one religion: that of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung.
After joining a church in Seoul, I reflected on my experiences, and I really believe that God’s intervention has led me to where I am today. I survived the train accident, and loss of my leg, and even with my disability, I was able to survive the height of famine in North Korea. Then I successfully escaped to South Korea, and even after all of that, I am now blessed to be in a situation where I can help others in need.
TN: What was the situation like in North Korea when you were younger? Do people there maintain any inclinations towards religion or spirituality?
JS: Officially, no, the state insists people believe only in the regime. However, there are still shamans and some people still secretly practice ancestor worship and believe in spirits. The shamans are illegal, but some people in government actually attend their rituals. It’s an interesting situation; the shamans are respected, even feared, but officially outlawed.
TN: Do you still maintain contact with any friends or family in North Korea?
JS: There is too much risk for me to try to contact people. My little brother, sister, and my mother live with me in Seoul. My father was caught by police trying to escape North Korea in 2006, a few months after I fled. He was tortured and killed.
I was officially denounced by the regime in 2014, and now that I run the NGO, people would face charges of treason if they were discovered to be in contact with me. But some of my defector friends are in touch with their relatives in the North.
TN: Do you think you will ever be able to visit North Korea again someday? Perhaps after the political and human rights situation has changed in the future?
JS: Yes, I hope so. Even though I experienced so much pain there, my perspective has changed over the years. I am optimistic, and I look forward to the seeing the situation improve. I want to be proactive in shaping a brighter future for the people of North Korea.
Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In at the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit (Associated Press Image)
TN: What are your perspectives on the future of North Korea? Do you have any thoughts on the potential of reunification between North and South?
JS: For reunification, the Kim regime must change. People have more and more access to information. As the regime opens up, it will simply be unable to sustain the current system of government control. Opening up will force structural changes to occur.
TN: What are your views on the current administration in South Korea under Moon Jae-In and the rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang?
JS: Peace is great, of course. But I feel President Moon is helping to put a friendly, lovable face on the brutal Kim regime. Promoting Kim Jong Un as a happy, friendly fellow is not good. The Moon government is diverting attention from millions of suffering North Korean people.
TN: Any perspectives on the current geopolitical situation in East Asia you can share with us? Any particular thoughts on China or the Trump Administration in the U.S.?
JS: I am no expert on geopolitics, but I can speak about human rights. There are some serious human rights problems in China, also many related to North Korea. China must stop sending refugees and defectors from North Korea back to Pyongyang, where they will suffer tremendously. China should do more to protect them.
Larger, more powerful countries are obligated to help those with less power. The United States, both this administration and Congress, as well as many U.S. citizens, have done a lot to help improve the human rights situation in North Korea, and we are thankful for that. Beijing should do better.
TN: Thank you very much. I wish you the best of luck with your address at the Oslo Freedom Forum, and the future of your NGO. Is there any statement you’d like to add for readers of Taiwan News?
JS: In the 21st century, it is important that everyone, especially minorities, be given respect and dignity. The people of Taiwan, which is a sovereign nation, deserve the same respect as those of China, or any other large country.
(This interview took place on Nov. 9, 2018. The conversation was facilitated through a translator, and has been edited for length.)