The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The incredible story of the North Korean escapee at the State of the Union

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho was recognized by President Trump during the State of the Union address on Jan. 30. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

TOKYO — Twelve years after he escaped from North Korea on a pair of wooden crutches, double amputee Ji Seong-ho stood in the Capitol chamber and brandished those same crutches, to rapturous applause.

Regardless of their political stripes or their differences on how to deal with Kim Jong Un’s regime, the members of Congress and Cabinet members gathered for President Trump’s State of the Union address could all agree: Ji is a hero.

In 1996, he was a teenager, and North Korea was in the grip of a devastating famine that forced Ji and his siblings to eat grass and rats. Ji was trying to steal a few pieces of coal from a train so he could barter it for food, but he passed out from hunger and was hit by a train. He survived but had to have his left arm and his left leg amputated — without anesthesia — as a result. Life got even tougher for him.

But a decade later, he managed to escape, making the journey across the Tumen River into China and eventually all the way down to the south of the country and across into Laos and then Thailand. From there, he was sent to South Korea — and was fitted with a prosthetic arm and leg.

But he kept the crutches to remind him how far he had come, and he waved them Tuesday night as Trump described his feats and held him up as an example of the need to act against North Korea.

“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. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all,” Trump said. “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

On Twitter, critics pointed out that Trump’s travel ban on North Koreans stops people like Ji from directly entering the United States after escaping from North Korea.

Ji told his incredible story at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015 in a speech titled, “My Impossible Escape from North Korea.”

Today, he runs a group called Now Action and Unity for Human Rights, helping other North Koreans to escape from the regime.

“Every step of the escape is hard and dangerous — hiking mountains, changing methods of transportation and crossing borders,” Ji said when two Washington Post reporters accompanied him on a rescue mission to Thailand. “Because they’re so tense, some fall ill during or after the escape.”

Ordinary North Koreans are risking their lives to make a perilous journey out of Kim Jong Un’s clutches

He also talked about the ways the North Korean regime controls the population using brainwashing and repression. “My parents were very loyal,” he said in 2015, about the surveillance state in North Korea. “I think my parents really believed it, even when people were dying of hunger.”

Now 34, Ji is learning English and has traveled to the United States several times to speak about the human rights situation in North Korea. He has become a powerful advocate for the North Koreans left behind. And, amazingly, he is usually seen with a big smile on his face.