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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Ji Seong-ho

Interviewed December 10, 2023

I’m currently classified as a physically disabled person in the Republic of Korea [South Korea], because back when I was 16 years old, I had a serious accident and lost my left leg and left arm.

During the whole process of entering China from when I was 20 years old [to find food], being arrested, returning to North Korea and coming all the way to South Korea, I was always on crutches. It was after I entered into South Korea that their government provided medical assistance to help me walk again. Yes, that is true. [When fleeing North Korea] I depended on my crutches the entire time crossing the river, climbing mountains, and everything.

After I crossed the Tumen River and entered into China, there were so many mountains. I remember thinking to myself, “How many mountains must I cross to reach South Korea?” [The Tumen River forms part of the border between North Korea and China.]

Previously, I had thought that as long as I could reach a Chinese city, there would be South Korean government assistance and somebody would come with a plane and take defectors like myself to South Korea. Once I reached China I realized that that was not the case. If you want to defect to the South, you have to figure out your own way. What usually happens is, once you reach China, you enter into countries like Mongolia or other Southeast Asian countries. That is how you reach the Republic of Korea [South Korea].

I was shocked to learn about this. At one point, I started having regrets about leaving North Korea, because I faced so many difficulties.

First, in China, I didn’t speak the language and people could tell by my appearance that I was North Korean. Also, I was on crutches back then, so I constantly thought to myself, “Is it really possible for me to get all the way to South Korea alive?” I started having doubts.

Once my brother and I were in China, I decided we should go our separate ways. If we were arrested, we would both be killed. At least my brother could succeed in the journey to South Korea and bring my father there. Then he could find my mother and sister. So there in China, I said goodbye to my brother. He and I would go separately. He departed for Thailand. I left 15 days later.

During that journey I realized how big a country China was. I moved in secret from one place to another, and fled at the sight of the police. It was quite a challenge.I think it took almost one month crossing the Chinese countryside before I could enter into a Southeast Asian country. Sometimes I had to walk, and sometimes I managed other modes of transportation.

The most difficult period for me was crossing the border into Laos. Because I was both handicapped and without a passport, it was extremely difficult to carry on.

At one point, I had to cross a mountain in Laos and I became discouraged because it was a steep, jungle area where I had to climb on my crutches. It was a very long journey.

At one point, I thought I might actually die there in the jungle, because I had no strength left to carry on. I remember crying many times during that period.

I remember asking myself, “Why am I here? What am I here for? What happened to North Korea and what happened with inter-Korean relations that situations have come this far?”

I remember praying to the heavens saying, “If there is a God in this world, please save me. If you do, I will go to South Korea and lead the best life that I can.”

Perhaps my prayers were answered because fortunately, I made it to Thailand, safely with other people.

To this day, I am emotionally burdened over the fact that I wasn’t able to keep the promise that I made with my father. I was supposed to go back to get him and bring him either to South Korea or another country to lead a better life but because he was arrested in the process of escaping and was tortured, he died. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for that.