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Disabled N. Korean Defector Finds Hope in Seoul

  • Jason Strother

SEOUL - For North Korean refugees, the journey to freedom can be physically grueling. Many swim across a river into China and then travel undercover, avoiding authorities before they reach Southeast Asia and head to South Korea. Imagine making the trip with only one foot and one hand.

Every week, Ji Seong-ho holds a silent demonstration against North Korea. He is one of the 23,000 defectors in South Korea who have fled the repressive Pyongyang government.

Ji's journey south was more challenging than most. During the famine of the mid-1990s, when Ji was 14, he suffered a terrible accident.

"I was helping my parents make a living by stealing coal off trains and selling it in the market. I got dizzy once and I ended up falling off a moving train. It ran me over," Ji explains.

He lost his left hand and foot.

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Eventually, Ji crossed into China to find food. But on the way back, he was caught by North Korean guards.

"The police severely beat me for a week, maybe more than other escapees. They told me that because I am disabled I brought shame to North Korea and that someone with only one leg should stay home," Ji recalls. "That is when I lost my trust in the North Korean government."

In 2006, Ji escaped again and made it to South Korea, where he was given a prosthetic foot and hand.

Many refugees arrive with traumatic injuries that leave them emotionally impaired. Kion Won-hyoung is a psychologist at a government resettlement facility for defectors.

"Because of their experience, many refugees are afraid of even the security guards at the facility," explains Kion. "They have nightmares about being tortured in North Korea, or being chased by animals."

Ji Seong-ho is now a law student. He says he had never imagined how much easier life is for the disabled in South Korea.

"I don’t feel any discrimination toward disabled people in South Korea," Ji says."I think that’s because of its democracy and good education. I really feel it’s like heaven here."

Ji says he is waiting for the Koreas to be unified. He says that's when he will finally be able to step back onto his homeland.

Producer Malte Kollenberg also contributed to this report
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