Featured during the final minutes of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday night was Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who, after his escape, has devoted his time to raising awareness about the situation in his home country.
In his speech, Trump introduced Ji’s as a witness to the “ominous nature” of the North Korean regime, highlighting the brutality of government under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.
Trump devoted a significant amount of time detailing Ji’s powerful story of triumph — how he rose above great adversity to attain his eventual freedom.
In the 1990s, Ji grew up in North Korea’s North Hamgyeong Province at a time of great famine. He was 13 years old when he lost his left hand and his left foot in a train accident after collapsing due to exhaustion while scavenging for coal to sell.
“He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain,” Trump said.
After a brief visit to China, he was interrogated by North Korean officials on the nature of his visit.
“His tormentors wanted to know if he’d met any Christians. He had — and he resolved, after that, to be free.”
When he lost hi limbs, Ji reportedly underwent an operation which lasted for over four hours without any form of anesthetic. His survival was reportedly due to the sacrifices of his family, who shared their rations with him as he was recovering from his wounds and ate dirt themselves, stunting their own growth in the process.
Trump also told about Ji’s dramatic escape in 2006 when he and his brother, Ji Cheol-ho, crossed an underground network in the dark.
“Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom,” Trump narrated. “Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death.”
He ended up reaching China, Thailand, Laos, and Taiwan after he got separated from his brother in the darkness of the freezing Tumen river.
Six months later, he finally arrived in Seoul, South Korea where he was reunited with his family.
“Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come,” Trump said. “Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.”
Trump, who called his story “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” gave him a moment to stand amid the thunderous applause of the crowd.
With tears in his eyes, Ji stood up hoisting the wooden crutches that his father had made for him. It was the same pair of wooden crutches he used in his long journey to freedom.
In Seoul, with his family, he’s revealed he was still “definitely happier” while living in a small apartment and struggling financially.
“The difference between South and North Korea is like the difference between heaven and hell,” he said in a 2012 interview.
Soon after settling in, Ji eventually founded the organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights (NAUH), which he utilized to initiate programs that provide assistance to North Koreans who are still in the North as well as those who have already escaped to the South.
By 2012, he was already studying law at Dongguk University in the South Korean capital.
“I think that freedom means being able to do what you want without harming others,” Ji said in an interview in 2015. “Freedom isn’t something given by the government. I think it is a God-given right, and you are born with this right as a human being….I only had a vague understanding of what freedom meant when I was back in North Korea….When I thought about freedom or rights, I thought it was a concept that was given under the great leader. Everything was subordinate to the great leader of North Korea.”
It should be noted that while he has showered Ji praises during his speech, the Trump administration would have restricted travel by people like Ji from North Korea among six other countries under a presidential proclamation he issued in September 2017. That presidential proclamation stated that “the entry into the United States of nationals of North Korea as immigrants and nonimmigrants is hereby suspended.”
Some have observed that Ji’s presence in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives was to merely prove the point that North Korea, being a brutal country that it is, should not be trusted with nuclear weapons.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.”
Image via YouTube/PBS NewsHour