North Korean defectors visit campus, share their suffering

NK defector
SARRA SUNDSTROM /THE REVIEW
(Above and to the left) North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho escaped North Korea over a decade ago, making the journey after the loss of his left arm and leg, and has since traveled the world to share his story.

BY Staff Reporter

Two North Korean defectors came to Mitchell Hall on Tuesday to share their experiences of the desperate conditions in their totalitarian home country and their daring escape into the outside world.

When Ji Seong-ho, one of the speakers, was 13 years old, he watched his grandmother die of starvation. The most vivid memory he recalled from the experience was the relief felt by him and his family when they received a compensation of two kilograms of corn from the regime.

“North Korea is a country where people are being tortured to death in the 21st century,” Ji said through a translator.

The Institute for Global Studies welcomed Ji and Kim Hyekyeong, a former member of the North Korean military who defected just three months ago, for a conversation and open Q&A. Ji escaped North Korea over a decade ago, making the journey after the loss of his left arm and leg, and has since traveled the world to share his story. Most recently, he was recognized during president Donald J. Trump’s State of The Union address.

With his entire family suffering from famine, Ji would steal coal from moving trains that could be used to barter for food on the black market. One night he fainted onto the tracks due to malnourishment, and a train ran over his body, leading to the loss of his left leg and arm. After his accident, he could not afford any medicine and remained malnourished, barely sustaining himself through a slow recovery.

“I thought my destiny was to be in North Korea and die in a country that was desolate and secluded,” Ji said.

A decade later, he decided to change his fate and dared to escape, crossing the Tumen River into neighboring China.

For defectors such as Ji, crossing into China and leaving North Korea is just the beginning of a harrowing journey. The Chinese government does not recognize North Koreans as asylum seekers, and defectors who are found by the Chinese government face extradition into North Korea where they will face public execution, Ji explained.

After making the dangerous crossing out of North Korea, refugees that go this route like Ji must continue on through China, often on foot, into Thailand or Laos, where they hope to be sent to South Korea and finally receive some support.

“When the South Korean government officials saw me, they were amazed.” Ji recalled. “Because no one with a disability or handicapped body was ever able to come to South Korea on such a journey.”

When refugees enter South Korea, they may receive support from the government or organizations like the nonprofit that Ji founded, Now Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH). Ji now focuses on his nonprofit that provides assistance for defectors through sponsors who agree to help refugees in countries where they may otherwise face extradition. The organization has rescued over 400 North Korean refugees hiding in China according to Ji.

Kim Hyekyeong is one of the refugees assisted by NAUH. Three months ago, she was in the country serving her mandatory conscription in the North Korean military. After Ji shared his story, she spoke of the experience of North Korean women.

“North Korean people are dying without knowing what a good meal is or what pretty clothes look like,” Hyekyeong said. “North Korean mothers can’t provide a warm meal to their kids.”

Many mothers, out of desperation, will cross into China to search for food to bring back. However, Hyekyeong explained that many women who choose to venture to China will fall victim to human trafficking, which is becoming increasingly common at the border.

Because of the risks of defecting or otherwise leaving the country and the state of suffering within, North Koreans face an almost impossible choice.

During her service, Hyekyeong saw that even people in the military are in poor condition, having low morale and low energy from chronic malnourishment. With one million men and women deployed on mandatory military service, there are simply not enough resources to keep everyone fed.

“We want people to know that other than Kim Jong-Un, 23 million people are suffering in North Korea,” Ji said.

During the Q & A, the pair took questions on the influence of other nations and global sanctions on North Korean people. As Hyekyeong sees it, increased sanctions are testing the loyalty of the elite class and beginning to spread cracks in the society. According to Hyekyeong, global sanctions against North Korea have had an impact on the country’s elites but have had little effect on the day-to-day lives of the country’s majority who receive little government provision.

“The North Korean people want one thing,” Hyekyeong said. “They want the outside world, including the United States and South Korea to topple the regime, and save them.”

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