“I do not have a left foot or a left hand,” said human rights activist and defector Ji Seong-Ho, who stood in front of an eager crowd of approximately 100 students.
Ji was the final speaker at the Princeton for North Korean Human Rights Conference (PNKHR), an annual event with students from 14 participating universities along the East Coast.
Ji began his presentation with a video clip of a speech he made at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum, which detailed his life prior to escaping the regime in North Korea.
In the video, Ji recalled witnessing his own grandmother die from starvation. He also described how, in order to make ends meet, he stole coal from passing trains to trade for food, illustrating how tired his daily life made him. Ji explained how he lost his limbs; he was jumping from one train car to the next, when he lost consciousness and fell to the tracks. When he woke up, he saw that he had lost three fingers and one leg.
Some students in the audience wept as he described the gruesome details of his accident and the harsh reality of his life. After the video, he began his 40-minute speech by describing the reality of life in North Korea.
“We learn that every human being has dignity, but I witnessed people being treated like flies,” he said.
“Right this minute, there are so many North Koreans who want to escape North Korea and many North Korean women in China who want to escape human trafficking,” he said.
Ji discussed the North Korean government’s complete lack of support for disabled citizens who do not receive adequate medical attention.
“In North Korea, the state had no system set to take care of citizens who went through an accident or physical disability,” he said. “I had no choice but to leave North Korea, cross the Tumen river, and go through the escape of 6000 miles on wooden crutches.”
In 2006, Ji managed to successfully flee the country with his brother. He crossed three borders before flying to South Korea, where he finally received a prosthetic arm and leg through government aid. After going through this ordeal, he realized he wanted to defend individuals who face what he did in North Korea.
“I want to be an advocate for North Koreans,” said Ji.
However, becoming a human rights activist was not something he had always intended on doing. In South Korea, Ji had to adapt to a new way of living. Moreover, the knowledge that his father had been captured by officials in North Korea and tortured to death burdened him.
According to Ji, one of the biggest problems defectors face is a “psychological longing for their family members.” Often, defectors cannot bring elderly members of their family due to the arduous nature of the journey. In other cases, like Ji’s, some family members make it to South Korea, but others are caught or perish during the journey.
Ji has also overcome other challenges.
“I thought I had suffered enough ... and instead of living or working for others I thought I had every right to live comfortably for myself,” he said.
However, he began to reconsider these notions in early 2010 after graduating from college. He was invited to speak at churches and schools in Arizona where he entered a “great state of personal shock.” While sharing this information about his past, Ji said he realized that what he had experienced and witnessed were indeed “systematic crimes.”
He referenced the Holocaust to show parallels between recent history and the current human rights violations in North Korea.
“In Germany, there were people who were conscious [about the situation] but because these people were silent, evil was able to be carried out,” Ji said.
“I felt as if I myself was somehow criminally responsible for seeing this happen and remaining silent,” he said.
When a student asked what exactly young college students should do to help, Ji's eyes lit up. He talked for several minutes about undeveloped but promising ideas, ranging from creating a weekly radio program to organizing more symposiums.
After the talk, he handed out business cards to students, encouraging them to email him if they were interested in joining his efforts.
The lecture took place on Feb. 25 in Dodds Auditorium as a part of the PNKHR Conference.