There are about 27,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, and 27,000 stories of unimaginable hardship. Perhaps none, though, quite as gut-wrenching as the one told by Ji Seong Ho, a double-amputee who, today, uses Radio Free Asia to broadcast messages of hope to the poor souls still living under the thumb of Kim Jong Un.
Ji lived through North Korea’s “Arduous March,” the propaganda term used by the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea to describe the famine of the 1990s that killed an estimated 3.5 million people. He survived by eating grass and tree bark, and by foraging through garbage at street markets.
When he was 13, he joined other boys hopping moving trains to steal coal he’d trade for food. He remembers the exact day this dangerous activity cost him his left leg and left hand.
On March 7, 1996, while jumping from one train car to another, he says he was so weak from malnutrition he passed out mid-jump. When he regained consciousness, he saw the back of the train disappearing down the track before realizing it had run over half his body.
“A piece of very thin flesh was holding my leg to the rest of my body. Blood was gushing out,” he says. “I needed to stop the bleeding. When I tried to work on my leg, I realized that three of my fingers on my left hand had been sheared off.”
This reporter spent a week with North Korean defectors who are smuggling media — including Sony’s controversial The Interview — into the so-called Hermit Kingdom. When Ji continues his story, my interpreter, Henry Song, who has heard Ji’s account many times, fights back tears before going on.
“I was a very young boy. I remember screaming out for my mom,” Ji says.
His younger brother helped stem the bleeding before lifting him into a cart and wheeling him to what passed for a hospital in North Korea during the famine. No morphine, no anesthesia.
“The doctors were thinking whether they should let me die or if it was worth it to operate. My mom was pleading and crying, so they decided to operate,” he recalls.
“On the operating table I could feel everything that was being done to my body. I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” he says. “I felt the saw cutting into the bone of my leg, and the scalpel through my flesh. Every time I passed out from the pain the surgeon would slap my face to keep me awake. The whole hospital heard my screams.”
His mother collapsed in despair.
“The simplest thing to do was cut off everything. They didn’t try to save my remaining two fingers, they just cut off my hand,” he recalls.
Over the next 10 months his father nursed him back to health primarily by feeding him a little bit more food than usual, which he got by lessening the rations allocated for the other family members. His father had been a loyal communist till then, but never again.
Once able to walk on crutches, Ji was back to foraging for food, which sometimes involved crossing the border into China, a risky endeavor that could have resulted in torture, or worse, if captured. One time he was caught, and he quickly realized that the North Korean authorities were beating him more severely than they were the other hungry kids who had been apprehended that day.
“An agent told me, ‘You went over to China hobbling on crutches. You’ve dishonored the leader by doing that in a foreign land. Sons of bitches like you are throwing mud on the face of our leader who is doing all he can to provide.'”
In 2006, he and his brother escaped North Korea. Within a month of arriving in South Korea, he was provided prosthetics, and a few years later he founded a human-rights activist group. Besides broadcasting radio signals, his group helps rescue North Korean defectors trapped in China where authorities — if not sufficiently bribed — will ship them back where they came from.
During his broadcasts, Ji compares the conditions in the North to those in the South. He knows North Koreans are aware of The Interview because he has mentioned it on-air, though he knows that those who dare tune in to his show — or try to acquire the movie in the black market — risk incarceration in a slave-labor camp. His favorite part of the film is when Sook, played by Diana Bang, turns against the Kim regime. “It shows it’s possible,” he says.
His activities are operated on a shoestring, out of an office far too small for all of the boxes of supplies it houses. And he’s remarkably good-natured, considering all he has been through, with a broad smile affixed to his face except when reliving the hunger, beatings and train accident he endured.
“I’m so grateful for all the blessings,” he says. “I’m living the life that all the disabled, homeless kids aren’t able to live in North Korea, so I have a great responsibility.”