The North Korean defector whose harrowing story was used by Donald Trump to highlight the brutality of Kim Jong-un’s regime during his State of the Union address has urged the US president to hammer home the issue of human rights at Tuesday’s Singapore summit.
Ji Seong-ho, 35, who lost his leg and hand in an accident before escaping North Korea in 2006, is among thousands of defectors who anxiously hope human rights will not be sidelined in the race to abolish Kim’s nuclear weapons. He believes the summit could be a first step towards reunifying the Peninsula.
The president described how Mr Ji was a “starving boy” 22 years ago when he tried to steal coal from a train to barter for food. “He passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs,” said Mr Trump.
Mr Ji lost his left leg above the knee and his left hand at the wrist, enduring “amputations without anything to dull the pain.” He was later tortured by the regime to find out if he had met any Christians during a short trip to China. “He had – and he resolved to be free,” the president said.
Despite his disabilities, Mr Ji still managed to flee North Korea across the Tumen river, and made his way across China on crutches, before reaching the safe haven of South Korea via Southeast Asia. Most of his family followed, but his father was caught and killed.
He still recalls the standing ovation he received from US legislators this year with pride and emotion.
“I could barely hold back the tears when I lifted up my crutches to the audience. The people who were attending are the people who will shape America’s future with the laws they make,” he said in an interview with the Telegraph.
“Seeing them cheering and clapping for me made me think that everything was over for Kim,” Mr Ji added. “The North Korean regime has called me ‘a cripple’, tortured my father to death and starved my grandmother to death. However, at that moment I felt like I was the victorious one,” he said.
He has little faith that Kim will be willing to contemplate improving his country’s dire human rights record, but believes that Mr Trump will not miss the opportunity to raise it.
In numbers | North Korean defectors
“The reformation of its society is not the main agenda for Kim. I believe his main priority is to keep his regime in order and to be recognised by the international community,” he said.
“President Trump knows about the pain and the struggles of North Koreans. I also know that he is interested to find a solution for North Korea’s human rights issues,” Mr Ji added.
The 35 year-old, who now helps rescue other defectors, said he dreams of a day when North Korea can enjoy a democratic system like the US, and the Peninsula can be reunited once again.
“I believe reunification is coming closer. We have come so far and are still on our way for a reunified Korea. Reunification will allow North Koreans to be free and I strive for that,” he said.
“I do not believe in a reunification in which we have to continue living in the current North Korean system,” Mr Ji added.
“North Korea is currently out of options and cannot continue to do things the way they have done over the years. The North Korean people are screaming out for freedom,” he said.
“When North Korea’s society is reformed and opens its door to the outside world, people will know the truth.
They will know why they had to starve and why their background and roots kept them from climbing up the social ladder, why their family had to live in gulags, and why other privileged people could eat plentifully. When the people know the truth, there will be a change.”
Mr Ji’s calls for human rights to be at the centre of talks with the North Korean regime have been backed by advocacy groups around the world, who fear the issue will take a back seat to nuclear non-proliferation.
As many as 130,000 North Koreans are believed to be languishing in labour camps and the repressive regime has been accused of arbitrary arrests, torture, forced labour and restricting freedoms of expression, assembly and religion.
“As the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore approaches, the world should demand improvements instead of ignoring the dire human rights situation facing 25 million people in North Korea,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Mr Ji, who for years has used the story of his own suffering to shed a spotlight on the cruelty of the regime remains optimistic for change.
“There are many human rights issues in North Korea. Oppression of people with disabilities, freedom of speech, and the fact that North Korea is one big prison,” he said.
“I believe this summit will be an event that won’t sideline such human rights issues, but rather that Trump will receive a clear answer from Kim.”