FROM FAMINE TO FREEDOM: A NORTH KOREAN’S STORY OF ESCAPE | JI SEONG-HO | 2018 OFF IN TAIWAN


This is a picture I took in 1992 with my primary school classmates in Hoeryong City, Hamgyoung Province. When I was in middle school,
I started noticing empty desks in my classroom. Starting in 1994, many people in my hometown in North Korea starved to death, including my friends. Many people from the mountainous
mining village where I lived, looked for food. And people who looked for grass or tree
bark to eat eventually died, including my neighbors. On April 12, 1995, my grandmother also died from starvation, and I could do nothing but watch her. For past 70 years, the Kim family has lied
to the North Korean people. My school’s teachers taught us lies saying that the North Korean style of socialism was the best in the world. All the while,
my friends were dying. Kim Jong-il kept on pressuring our people,
despite the pervasive hunger saying that they were to
receive food very soon. I would later find out that the regime
withheld food from the areas populated by those bad “songbun”, or those from the lowest social caste, who lived in the poorest regions of the country. At the edge of my hometown in Hoeryong,
there stood the 22nd political prison camp. Prisoners in that camp had to dig out 1,200
tons of coal every day without a moment of rest. I thought I could help feed my
family if I stole some of this coal. I would go out at night with my mother
and my 12-year-old sister to steal it. One night, I got into a moving train
to try to steal some coal but because I’ve starved
for several days, I lost consciousness. When I woke up again, I realized that
my body was laying over the train tracks and that a train car was
passing over my body. I tried to stop my leg from bleeding,
but that’s when I noticed that my left hand had also been cut off, and that it
also kept on bleeding. I could not stop it. That’s when I realized that I’d
not lost only my leg, but also my hand. I yelled for my mother, my father, and for my sister,
and I begged for them to help me. But because of the subzero temperatures in North Korea, my wounds are freezing even further and this was a pain that a 16-year-old,
myself, could not bear. My 12-year-old sister found me but she was also terrorized and trembling with fear and all she could do is to unwrap the scarf that she had around her neck and then to wrap it around my wound. And it was only after she begged for people to help me
that several men came and then took me away. I was still cold and very thirsty
when I arrived at the hospital. I remember how the surgical tools
were laid out on the operating table and there was no transfusion and no
anesthesia, that’s what I remember. I remember the vibrations of the saw
as it cut through my leg bone. And I remember the pain that I felt
when the scalpel sliced my flesh open. And I remember fainting from the pain
of my tendons being cut apart. The operation took three hours,
and after those three hours the doctors sent me home
without any medication. Surviving the surgery was even harder
than if I had died right away. And I would cry every night from the pain that I would feel without any antibiotics; any kind of anesthesia. And there were times where I would cry myself to sleep
until the morning, begging for somebody to kill me. When summer came, the part of my leg
that had been amputated turned gangrenous so it started smelling putrid. And
what happened was that the parts of the bone that were still sticking out would stick out of my flesh
and cause me a great deal of pain. The pain only subsided in November,
240 days after I had the surgery. At that time, I thought I had no future,
and that I had nothing to live for. And I even considered to take my own life, because
I did not want to be a burden on my family. No longer wanting to be a burden on my family,
I crossed over to China in 2000 on my crutches. I found a few kilograms of rice in China,
and I found that in China animals, dogs in the streets,
ate better than my family did in North Korea. Once I returned to North Korea, I was immediately arrested by the police who told me that “It was a shame to our republic that a cripple like you had crossed over to China, begged for food and casted shame on the face of our great leader and brought shame upon our great republic.” They told me to die, while stepping on my neck
with their boots, and I could not breathe. I was tortured worse
than other people who had been caught by the police
and who did not have any disabilities. And I was insulted worse than all of those people.
And this was something that hurt me deeply. Eventually, I decided to leave
my hometown and my country. And it was in 2006 that I
decided to defect North Korea. I hugged my father and we were both in tears. And I promised that we would meet again very soon, and I left. I crossed the Tumen river
on the border with China. I cannot remember how many times I nearly drowned in the river and how much river water I drank because of it. Missing a leg and a hand,
I depended on my crutches to cross China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand,
spanning a total of 10,000 kilometers. I was in so much pain from the journey using my crutches and I wanted to die. I regretted having been born in North Korea, and I prayed and I swore that I would make sure that nobody would face the same kind
of suffering that I did. In July of 2006, I arrived in the Republic of Korea, South Korea, after my long journey and arrived in Seoul. At that time, my biggest dream was to
receive a prosthetic leg and a prosthetic arm. The South Korean government
provided me with both of those. Wanting to share this joyful news with my father,
I reached out to people in North Korea. And I finally got in touch
with acquaintances in my hometown. But I found out that my
father had passed away. My father was at the Chinese border on his way to also escape North Korea when he was arrested by soldiers. And he was continuously tortured once
he was handed over to the secret police. And he eventually died from his
injuries, which means that I’m a son who could not witness
the last moments of my father. Despite the tragedies that befell my family,
and despite my disability, I did not give up. I achieved my dream of walking by myself,
and now I’m a graduate student in criminal law. I also started my NGO,
NAUH now, in a small office with my friends in 2010. Over the past eight years, we’ve rescued 340 North Korean women who had escaped North Korea and who were at the risk of being trafficked inside China. And we brought them to freedom in South Korea. Because there’s no internet in North Korea,
they cannot access information. So what we do is we talk to them about human rights and about freedom through radio transmissions. And we also conduct awareness
campaigns around the world to educate people about what
is happening inside North Korea. Today, I stand before you having
been to the brink of death. Here, I present to you, in my hands,
the crutches that I used for support when I was traveling those
10,000 kilometers for freedom. These crutches symbolize my journey to freedom
and my unwillingness to give up. But they’re also the last objects that my father crafted
with his hands, and that were left behind by him. I will do my best from where I stand
in order to bring freedom to North Korea. But what is important is that this freedom is only possible when everybody, when everyone here, helps. I beg you to help us and
to support us in our goal. Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Please! North Korea freedom!
North Korea freedom!

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