I left North Korea in 2006 (at age 23)…in search of freedom. In more simple terms, I wanted to be treated as a human. On March 7th, 1996, I lost two limbs in an accident. I was 13 years-old. I had been on the way to gather coal with my mother and sister when the tragedy happened. This was during the economic problems [and subsequent famine] in North Korea, so I wasn’t as well-developed (physically) as I should have been. It was a hard time to eat and survive.
In 1995, my grandmother starved to death. I (then a 12-years-old) should have been in school, but I was searching for food. I would take coal and try to exchange it in the markets for food every seven or eight days. Back in 1996, there was a long time that I had nothing to eat.
While I was riding a train that transported coal, I slipped through a gap between train carriages and I lost my left hand and left foot. The train had run over me. It was so painful that I screamed, but the sound seemed as though it were coming from an action movie, not my own throat. Nobody helped….
(Later, in the hospital) I received surgery without anesthetic because they didn’t have it. The surgery took 4.5 hours. My mother still remembers my screams that day.
My father was a member of the [ruling North Korean Worker’s] Party. Even though he would go to work, there would be no food to eat for him. When my father came to see me at the hospital, he finally realized that his family was more important than the party he served.
There were times I blamed my father for my injuries because it happened while I was on the way to find coal (to exchange it with rice.) He often apologized to me. (In time] I realized that it wasn’t my father’s fault, but the fault of the North Korean regime for not taking care of people.
North Korea was already a society where everybody is trying to eat and survive on their own, so they didn’t really care whether you are disabled (needing others’ help) or not. That’s just how it was. There aren’t any groups that focus on or cater to the disabled community. There was no help from the government.
My treatment lasted for around 10 months, but there was no follow-up rehabilitation. I had infections (and) my father tried to treat them at home. He would gather grass and things to sell at the market to get medicine or antibiotics.
I didn’t have any friends with disabilities. There weren’t wheelchairs. There weren’t any prosthetic. My greatest wish…was to be able to walk again.
When I left North Korea the first time, I had gone across the border, to China, in search of food. I crossed through the mountains using my crutches. When I returned (to North Korea) I was arrested and tortured. They took my crutches away. I didn’t know why I was being tortured.
The reason was obviously that for anyone who leaves North Korea, they deface the image of the North Korean regime. Because the authorities know that people are using cameras to film and are afraid of that footage getting out. That was when I realized that this was a land I never wanted to stay in. I wanted to move to a land where I could be treated as a human, whether that was South Korea or somewhere else.
That’s why I defected in 2006. The most well-known way of defecting is crossing over the Tumen River [that divides North Korea and China] and into the mountains. That’s how I left. In North Korea, you are born into whatever situation you find yourself in. There’s not much room to change.
Even in South Korea, not many people know about this issue of disability rights. But with the recent UN findings on the rest of the human rights abuses in North Korea, the international community has heard a lot more about it.
So for disability rights… it’s worse. North Korea is trying to cover up [the way it treats people with disabilities]. They asked one person to compete at the 2012 Paralympics, but it’s not true to how they actually treat the disabled community.
[Ji Seong-ho, 32, now and lives in Seoul, where he is a law student at Dongguk University, and president of Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH). He was interviewed by Michael Glendinning of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRN).