The harrowing tale of a North Korean defector was part of the set at US President Donald Trump’s first ever State of the Union address. Ji Seong-ho waved his crutches in the air to resounding applause. But what is his story?
Who is Ji Seong-ho?
Few people had heard of Ji Seong-ho when Donald Trump addressed him from the podium.
“In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea,” began Mr Trump, as he went on to describe the extent of Mr Ji’s suffering as a teenager in the mid 1990s when North Korea was gripped by a devastating famine.
That year Mr Ji tried to steal coal from a railroad car so he could exchange it for food. He managed to clamber on, but lost consciousness as a result of his extreme hunger.
He awoke to find that he had fallen through a gap between train carriages onto the tracks – and at that moment a train ran over his limbs.
He survived the accident but his left hand and leg were severed. Mr Ji was taken to hospital and operated on without morphine or general anaesthetic. The surgery took four-and-a-half hours.
The defector has spoken out about his ordeal before this.
“I was screaming so much that the sound would [have been] like watching an action movie in the cinema,” he told a human rights group, in an interview published by The Guardian.
How did he escape North Korea?
In 2000, Mr Ji decided to cross the border to China to search for food and traversed a mountain with his wooden crutches. But when he returned, he was arrested and tortured by North Korean authorities.
It was only in 2006 that he finally decided to permanently escape North Korea with his brother. They crossed into China through the Tumen River and later decided to split up, with Mr Ji fearing his disability would get them both captured.
With the help of others, Mr Ji trekked across China on his crutches and eventually made it to South Korea where he was reunited with his brother.
The boys later tried to contact their father, who had remained behind in the North Korean city of Hoeryeong.
According to an interview with The Freedom Collection the duo were supposed to go back to get their father once they had settled in South Korea but found that he had tried to escape himself – but failed.
He was caught by authorities and tortured to death.
What does he do now?
Today, the 36-year-old lives in Seoul where he has gone on to help other North Korean defectors.
He founded the Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights organisation (NAUH) organisation, which aims to raise awareness of the conditions that the North Korean people live in.
He has spoken in conferences across the world, including the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015, where he gave a speech titled “My Impossible Escape from North Korea”.
How did people react?
Mr Ji was greeted by thunderous applause in the House Chamber and received an equally warm reception online.
Many on social media called him an “inspiration”, though others highlighted that he would not be able to enter the US as a North Korean refugee under current immigration rules.
The speech was Mr Trump’s first ever State of the Union speech to Congress and in the address the US President also condemned North Korea, calling it “depraved”.
He warned that the US was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure” to prevent Pyongyang’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles.”
But Mr Ji’s story of endurance through suffering, as he held up the crutches he used to escape North Korea, is what won over the audience.