JI SEONG-HO | 6,000 MILES TO FREEDOM | OFFinNY


– [Translator] This is a picture with my fellow elementary
school classmates taken in 1992 in North Pyongan Province,
Pihyon, North Korea. You can tell this is before our public food system collapsed. When I was in middle school, I began to notice empty chairs in front of the desks in my classroom. After 1994, many people from my hometown in North Korea died from starvation, including my classmates. The coal mines deep in the
mountains where we lived were filled with desperate
people, planning to flee, because there was nothing to eat. Even my neighbors, behind us, next to us, they all starved to death. Those who tried to prolong life by eating tree bark and grass, they too ended up dying. On April 12, 1995, my grandmother finally succumbed to starvation, and I watched her die with my own eyes. For the last seven decades,
the ruling Kim family has deceived the North Korean people. Even as my classmates were
dying from starvation, our teacher continued to push the notion that our happy system of socialism was the best in the world. Kim Jung Il ordered people to press on, despite the hunger, telling us that food would soon be made available, and that he, too, was suffering also, along with the people. I later found out that the
public distribution system had broken down, and that Kim Jung Il withheld food from the
hungriest parts of my country, intentionally starving us to death. At the far end of my hometown was the Camp 22 Political Prison Camp. Here, the political prisoners mined 1200 tons of coal every day, without break or rest. One day I realized that I could scavenge and sell this coal for money
to buy corn to feed our family. I would go out at night, together with my mother
and younger sister, who was 12 years old at the time, to gather and steal the coal. A freight train ran from this
prison camp to a power plant, and we would grab on to it as is sped by, or sneak aboard it as
it departed the station. We did this to avoid the armed soldiers who were guarding the trains all the time. There were times that we were caught, and we were beaten until
our bones were broken. I can still feel, to this day,
the weight of my coal sack. For a starving person,
who weighed just 45 pounds and was four feet two
inches tall, like myself, this was such a difficult, hard task. Because I was so skinny and
gaunt, the heavy coal sack would scrape against my back. Sometimes, my skin would break
and blood would gush out. In the early morning of March 7th, 1996, when I was 14 years old, I ran up to a moving train
and pulled myself aboard. The car number was number 4031, and it was carrying
almost 60 tons of coal. There were many others like me, who were secretly loading
their sacks with coal. Except for their eyes and teeth, their entire body was black
from soot, sweat, and coal dust. I was dizzy as I worked, because I had not eaten for several days, and soon blacked out. When I opened my eyes,
I was lying in between the two railway tracks. The train had passed over my
left leg, and it was hanging from the rest of my body by just a tendon. Blood gushed out every
time I took a breath. It is hard to describe the
fear and the pain I felt at that exact moment. I tried to stop the flow of
blood by grabbing my leg, but then I noticed that three
fingers of my left hand were cut off, and blood was
gushing out there as well. I cried out to my mother, my father, and my sister to save me, but the subzero temperature in North Korea at that time made my injuries so cold and so much more painful. My sister found me, but all she could do was wrap her scarf around
me, and shake in fear. Finally, several men came and carried me to a local hospital. I was so cold and I was so thirsty, even when I arrived at the hospital, and I can still remember
the surgical tools laid out in the room. There was no blood transfusion, and no painkillers provided for me. I still remember very vividly to this day, the sound of the saw cutting
through my leg bone and flesh, and the vibration that it caused throughout the rest of my body. I still remember what it felt
like when a smaller scalpel was used to trim the splintered bone. And I can still feel the sound the pan below the surgical table made
as my blood dripped on it. The doctors slapped me,
to force me to stay awake, every time I began to pass out. And my mother passed out when
she heard me scream in pain. Without any additional
medicine, or anesthetics, I was sent home, and we had
no money to buy any medicine. It was harder than death to try to cope and survive like this,
each day after the surgery. Every night, I cried out in pain, whispering “please kill me, please kill me.” Repeatedly. And falling asleep only
later in the morning, as the new day began. North Korea was still deep in famine, and everyone except government
officials were starving. And I felt guilty for eating the food that my younger siblings worked
so hard to obtain for me. My younger brother scrounged
leftover scraps and noodles in the trash from the
local market all day, and washed and boiled them,
and always shared them with me by putting the noodles into my mouth. I will never forget my
feeling of gratitude for him, and I will forget the
taste of those noodles my brother scrounged from the trash. He and my sister resorted to eating grass and wild mushrooms while I recovered, and their growth was stunted. For this, I will always be
grateful, until the day I die. When summer came, the
flesh around my amputations turned gangrenous, and
with the horrible stench, pieces of my leg bone pierced
through the inflamed skin. It was not until November of that year, 240 days after the accident, that the pain began to go away. But now I was a cripple, I thought there was no future for me. And I thought about killing myself, because there was nothing to live for. Eventually I felt that I could no longer be a burden to my family, so in the year 2000 I
crossed over into China, using crutches, in search of food, and was able to obtain
a few kilograms of rice. While I was there, I
noticed that dogs in China ate better than my family
did in North Korea. On my way back into North Korea, I was arrested by the
local North Korean police. They said to me, “a
worthless cripple like you is embarrassing our nation,” and that because I had gone over to China to beg for food in my condition, I had defamed and damaged the
dignity of the dear leader. They confiscated all of
my rice, and tortured me. Another person was arrested along with me, but he didn’t get beaten
as badly as I did, because they reserved special
treatment for disabled people, and that was what hurt me the most. That injustice motivated me
to leave North Korea in 2006, using crutches, and with my
brother I planned my escape. Before we left, my father and brother and
I had a drink together. We cried, embraced, and promised to see
each other soon, again. My brother and I, we went to the north, to the border, to the Tumen River. In crossing the river, holding my crutch, I fell into a deep part in the river, and I began to drown and swallow water, and I felt my life ebbing away. But at that moment, my brother spotted me, grabbed me by the hair,
and dragged me across. I owe my life to him. Using the crutches, I embarked
on a 6000 mile journey, through the jungles of Southeast Asia, through an underground
Chinese railroad network. I crossed from China,
into Laos, through Burma, and eventually to Thailand. It was so difficult,
especially going through Laos. I was in so much pain that
I literally wanted to die. At that moment, I cried
and lamented the fact that I was born in North Korea. I prayed and made a vow at that moment that I would work to make
sure that no one else would have to live
through this experience. In July of 2006, I finally
made it to South Korea. My greatest wish, up until that moment, was to have a prosthetic arm and leg. These, too, were soon provided for me by the South Korean government. I wanted to share this joy with my father, and I eventually was able to make contact with people from my hometown. But I heard the terrible and shocking news that my father was dead. I learned that after my
brother and I escaped, my mother and sister defected
also, and then he followed. But he was caught and detained. The agents wanted to find
out where his children went, so they tortured him to death. Because he had no family left, the officials just carried him in a wheel barrow and left
him in our empty house. Despite my family’s
tragedy, and my handicap, I did not give up. I rose up defiantly
against the Kim regime, and did something I once could not even dream of in North Korea, which was walking on my own, and fulfilling my father’s
wish for me to attend college. Now, I am in graduate school, studying criminal law and justice. I also formed the non
profit organization NAUH, N, A, U, H, with friends,
and for the past six years we have rescued more than
260 North Korean defectors, and brought them to safety in South Korea. The North Korean people have no internet, so we broadcast radio messages of truth, culture and knowledge to them. It is very important for
us to talk to the world about what goes on inside North Korea, but it is more important for us to
tell the North Korean people about the outside world. With outside information arriving by radio and through black markets, I believe that North Korea
will continue to change. And because of the generosity
of many individuals, our organization was able
to raise enough money to move into a beautiful office space. And two years ago, after
watching my first speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a company donated a new
prosthetic leg to me. It is because of people like you that I continue to walk,
to dream and take action. Today, I stand here, having
come from the brink of death, to triumph against all odds. These are the crutches that I used to drag myself across 6000 miles. I never lost these crutches. To me, they symbolize that
you can achieve anything if you do not give up. They are also a memory of my father, who made them for me,
as his last gift to me before he died. I will do my very best where I am for the freedom of North Korea. The dream of free North Korea
is possible with your help. Please, stand together with me. Thank you. Thank you. Please join with me together
in this journey together. Thank you. [applause]

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