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[Herald Interview] ‘Success stories of escapees threaten North Korean regime’

Ji Seong-ho makes it his mission to help North Korean escapees live the South Korean dream

By Kim Arin

Published : Dec. 20, 2022 - 18:18

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Defector-turned-lawmaker Rep. Ji Seong-ho hoists the crutches he depended on throughout his journey out of North Korea at the Panmunjom border village, on Dec. 22, 2021. (Courtesy of Ji) Defector-turned-lawmaker Rep. Ji Seong-ho hoists the crutches he depended on throughout his journey out of North Korea at the Panmunjom border village, on Dec. 22, 2021. (Courtesy of Ji)

The success stories of North Korea escapees are what will bring down the repressive regime, according to one refugee-turned-assemblyman, Rep. Ji Seong-ho. Helping North Koreans who have fled home to seek a new life and experience the South Korean dream as a reality, he says, is his mission in politics.

“Helping defectors from North Korea find success makes a difference, and it’s in everyone’s best interest. The more successful North Korean defectors there are, the more threatening it will be for the regime. People in North Korea admire the life defectors have in the South,” Ji said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“North Koreans thriving after leaving their impoverished, repressive home country is what the regime hates most.”

Ji set foot in the National Assembly as a proportional representative in 2020, 14 years after he made the perilous journey out of his home country to the South.

He said his electoral victory put people in North Korea “in shock.” In North Korea, he had been one of the street-wandering children scavenging for food, and was discriminated against as a double amputee.

“It’s an incredible joy for me that for the 25 million people in North Korea, I can be a source of hope,” he said.

In the general election, Ji was one of the first proportional representative candidates to be recruited by the now-ruling People Power Party.

Making him the offer, one of the party leaders told him that to change the world the system has to change. And to change the system, the law has to change -- and Assembly members can make and change laws. “That speech made me want to become one. I wanted to make a real change,” he said.

Ji, who was a longtime activist campaigning for the freedom of North Koreans, said he ached when the Seoul government forcibly repatriated two young North Korean fishermen in 2019 as criminal suspects.

“It’s a decision that told people in North Korea that they will not be able to take refuge here. It destroyed their hopes,” he said. “I would never have dreamed of leaving if I knew I could be sent back.”

The first bill Ji proposed to pass is one that allowed for providing support for North Korean refugees longer, even if they have initially settled in a country other than South Korea. About a dozen other bills he has proposed for better support for refugees and protection of their rights are still pending, some of them for nearly two years.

“The politics of the free Korea not being on the side of the people suffering under one of the world’s most oppressive rule is disheartening. Our inaction will go down in history,” he said.

One of the stalled bills is to allow victims of North Korea’s human rights abuses to seek compensation, he said, “sort of like the legislation named after Otto Warmbier in the US.”

He said that the triumph of the Warmbier family in the US, seizing North Korea’s illicit assets and making them pay, was “cathartic” to him and inspired him to try to find a way for victims here to do the same. Ji hangs the necktie that belonged to Otto Warmbier, gifted to him by the US student’s parents, by his desk at the office. He described the Warmbiers as his “friends and allies in the same fight.”

“I believe that compensation is important not only to restore justice, but also to help victims heal and recover.”

Asked if he, as a victim himself, would try to get the North Korean regime to compensate him one day, he replied, “Someday.”

He said now his responsibility was to the tens of thousands of North Korean defectors in South Korea and other victims of abuses of the North’s regime, here and abroad.

But he said he feels he has already won “in a more meaningful way.”

“South Korean people have chosen me as their representative. I consider it as a win against the North Korean regime. My story directly refutes the regime’s propaganda.”

Ji said that South Korea should not be afraid to confront North Korea about its ongoing human rights violations.

“North Korea hates to be reminded about its human rights problems. Some say that we should avoid bringing up rights issues at the bargaining table with North Korea because that may put the negotiation at risk,” he said.

“But human rights shouldn’t be treated like a bargaining chip. Whether it’s South Korea or the US that’s sitting across the table from North Korea, I don’t think it’s right to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of North Koreans and pretend not to know their realities in the name of peace negotiations.”

He said that without addressing human rights horrors that persist in North Korea, whatever peace results from such a negotiation would be “one-sided.”

“If we get North Korea to refrain from provocations by choosing to remain silent on the abuses that the people in North Korea put up with daily, then that’s only peace for the rest of us,” he said.

“North Korea still has concentration camps. People are being tortured there today as we speak, and North Koreans will continue to live under systematic violence as the regime passes on power from one generation to the next.”

Ji believes that one day, the Koreas will be reunited. It’s only a matter of when.

“No power is forever and dictatorships cannot last. And when that day comes, North Koreans will want to know what we were doing to save them while they were dying.”

When visiting the US in September for a meeting of the International Parliamentarians’ Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights, he had a “blast from the past” moment standing outside the office of the permanent mission of North Korea to the United Nations in New York.

“Years ago, I was staging a protest there as an activist. This time I was back as a lawmaker of South Korea. There were North Korean guards all around, some of whom followed me for a bit. But I wasn’t afraid.”

Instead the encounter reminded him of how far he’s come.

When he first got to Seoul, all he had in his pocket was some 50,000 won ($38) after he paid the broker commission with subsidy funds from the government.

“My goal then was to get out of living on basic social security. I wanted to be a taxpayer one day.”

Ji lived in a social housing apartment up until he began work at the National Assembly. He turned his office into a counseling center for North Korean defectors. About half of his aides are defectors.

He said he was determined to devote his time in the Assembly to help North Koreans settle into life in South Korea.

“Defectors are people who risked everything to get out of North Korea. I see it as my mission to help them find a new life here. I hope my presence in the Assembly and the work that I do can make them feel I’ve got their back.”

In his 2018 book, written long before he knew he would enter politics, Ji said that South Korea’s liberals tend to avoid discussing North Korea’s human rights issues while conservatives only selectively care.

Asked if he thinks politics have changed since, he said the fact that two seats of the conservative party are held by North Korean defectors “speaks for something.” Apart from Ji, the other defector-turned-lawmaker in office is Rep. Tae Yong-ho, his colleague in the People Power Party.

Ji speaks to The Korea Herald at his office in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Nov. 28. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Ji speaks to The Korea Herald at his office in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Nov. 28. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
The necktie that belonged to Otto Warmbier, gifted to Ji by the late US student’s parents, hangs at the lawmaker’s office. Ji said he keeps it there as a reminder of what he has to do. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) The necktie that belonged to Otto Warmbier, gifted to Ji by the late US student’s parents, hangs at the lawmaker’s office. Ji said he keeps it there as a reminder of what he has to do. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Ji Seong-ho (third from right) shares a hug with Fred Warmbier (second from right), whose son Otto died in 2017 after being held captive in North Korea, during a meeting with then-US Vice President Mike Pence (fourth from left) and his wife, Karen Pence (second from left), in February 2018. (Courtesy of Ji) Ji Seong-ho (third from right) shares a hug with Fred Warmbier (second from right), whose son Otto died in 2017 after being held captive in North Korea, during a meeting with then-US Vice President Mike Pence (fourth from left) and his wife, Karen Pence (second from left), in February 2018. (Courtesy of Ji)

Ji’s escape story

Ji was born in North Hamgyong Province, in a village adjoining a notorious prison camp. Growing up in the midst of a dire famine, he began to support his family from a young age, digging up grass to feed on them and looking for things to barter for food. His grandmother and many of his neighbors died of starvation.

One March day in 1996, he was trying to steal pieces of coal from a freight train so that he could trade them for corn. It was in the early hours when the cars were not patrolled by armed officers. There were dozens of other villagers, including children like Ji and his younger sister, sneaking coal away.

He had not been eating for days and he felt light-headed as he was readying to jump off the moving train. He lost consciousness and slipped. The next moment, he was on the side of the railway and in excruciating pain. His left arm and leg had been severed. His sister, in a panic, cried for help. When his mother found him, she fainted. He was 13.

He had to undergo the amputation without anesthetic because the only doses left at the hospital were reserved for wartime, doctors told his devastated parents. He spent the following months fighting recurring infections at home. His family gave him their shares of food and pilfered medicine for him.

After he recovered, he went back to train stations and black markets to make a living. He said he could not do nothing while his parents and siblings struggled to feed him before themselves. The days of hunger continued.

In 2006, he was forced to flee the country in a hurry after secret police found out about his plans to leave. His mother and sister had defected ahead of the rest of the family. Together with his younger brother, he crossed the freezing Tumen River after dark and nearly drowned. The two brothers parted in China.

Joined by other North Koreans, Ji made his way to Laos and then Thailand, where South Korea’s diplomats flew him to Seoul. There, he was reunited with his mother and siblings.

In Seoul, he studied law at a university and helped other North Koreans escape the country and settle in the South, running a group called Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights.

He was fitted with a prosthetic leg, but he kept the pair of wooden crutches his father had made for him. He had depended on the crutches crossing the river and climbing mountains in his journey out of North Korea. His father, who was the last in the family to be left in North Korea, was tortured to death in prison after he was caught trying to cross the border.

He waved the crutches to an ovation at the US State of the Union address in 2018, where Donald Trump honored him. “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” the then US president said.