Living with disability in North Korea By Ji Sung-ho, The world News

Dec. 30, 2014

I left North Korea in 2006… in search of freedom. In more simple terms, I wanted to be treated as a human. On 7 March 1996, I lost two limbs, a leg and an arm, in a train accident. I was 13 years-old. This was during the economic problems [and subsequent famine] in North Korea, so I wasn’t as well-developed as I should have been. It was a hard time to eat and survive. My grandmother starved to death a year earlier. I should have been in school, but I was outside trying to find food by collecting coal and exchanging it in the markets for food every few days but it wasn’t easy.

Back in 1996, there was a long time that we had nothing to eat.

While I was riding the train to try to steal coal, I fell through a gap between train carriages and the train passed over me. It hurt so much that I screamed my head off for how long, I don’t know. It was surreal, like watching an action movie in the cinema. Nobody helped.

They took me to a hospital. There, I received surgery without anesthesia, because they didn’t have it. The surgery took 4.5 hours. My mother still remembers my screams – it was hard for her to listen to.

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 us. When my father came to see me after the accident he finally realized that it was more important to save his family than to work for the party.

There were times I blamed my father [for my injuries] because I had to find coal to exchange it with food. He often apologized to me. My father felt guilty towards me, but I feel guilty about my father now because he died since my accident. I realized later that it wasn’t my father’s fault, but the fault of the North Korean regime for not taking care of people. There aren’t any groups that focus [on helping people in need] or cater food to the disabled people. There was no help from the government, either.

My stay in the hospital lasted around 10 months, but there was no follow-up rehabilitation treatmen. I had infections. My father would try to try to help me (by) gathering grass or things and selling at the market to buy medicine or antibiotics. North Korea is already a society where everybody is trying to eat and survive on their own, so they don’t really care whether you are disabled or not. I didn’t have any friends with disabilities. There weren’t wheelchairs. There weren’t any prosthetic (in North Korea) at the time.

My greatest wish when I was in North Korea 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 by North Korean authorities. They took my crutches away. I didn’t know why they treated me harshly. The reason was obviously leaving North Korea and defacing the image of the North Korean regime. Because [the authorities] know of citizens using cameras to film, they are afraid of such information getting out. That was when I decided that I didn’t want to stay in the North; I wanted to move to a land where I could be treated as a human, whether South Korea or somewhere else.

I defected in 2006. The most well-known way of defecting is crossing over the Tumen River that divides North Korea and China and use the mountain roads that leads to the South. That’s how I came.

In North Korea, you are born into whatever situation you ‘re in. There’s not much room to change anything. Even in South Korea, not many people know about this issue of disability rights in the North. But with the recent UN findings on the rest of the human rights abuses in North Korea, the international community has heard about it and it’s trying to do something. But it seems hopeless. North Korea is trying to cover up the way it treats people with disabilities, beside all other human rights violations. They asked one person to compete at the 2012 Paralympics, [but the country is full of disabled people without any help.]


[Ji Seong-ho was originally from Hoeryong City, North Hamgyeong Province, in North Korea. He is 32 years-old 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).]


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