Home Our Diocese Ji Seong-ho, highlighted in State of Union, spoke at Archmere in 2015

Ji Seong-ho, highlighted in State of Union, spoke at Archmere in 2015


EDITOR’S NOTE: As is customary, President Donald Trump illustrated acts of courage by numerous people throughout his State of the Union speech. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have chosen to invite people who have demonstrated specific acts of bravery, courage and kindness to be held up as beacons of strength. One such person Tuesday night was Ji Seong-ho, a Korean who overcame long odds to escape North Korea. In 2015, he spoke to Archmere Academy students and described his difficult plight. Below is Dialog staff writer Mike Lang’s article from the local event in November 2015.

By Mike Lang
Dialog staff

CLAYMONT – A North Korean man, who risked his life to help support his family as a boy and then again in an attempt to find freedom away from his homeland, visited Archmere Academy recently to tell his story of torture, persistence, escape and reward.

Ji Seong-ho, 33, captivated the Archmere students during his Nov. 12 talk, which he gave through interpreter Henry Song.

Ji Seong-ho tells his story of escape from North Korea at Archmere Academy in Claymont in 2015. (Mike Lang/The Dialog)

He told how his family – parents, a brother, sister and grandmother – lived in poverty in North Korea. His grandmother died of starvation in 1995, as did many who lived there.

“I had no strength to shed tears for my grandmother,” Ji said.

His only worry then was getting food. Since his town was near a coal mine, the residents would steal coal at night to survive, but that was very dangerous, both physically and legally. He would run alongside trains loaded with coal, hop on, place coal in a sack he carried, then sell it on the black market.

There was always a danger of falling from the moving trains, and of being caught.

“If we were caught, we would have been beaten or shot on sight,” he said.

On March 7, 1996, Ji was at the coal mine again. He had not eaten for a few days, he said, and lost consciousness while stealing coal. He fell between two cars, and when he regained consciousness on the track, he discovered that a train had run over his left leg. He reached down to try and stop the bleeding and discovered that three fingers from left hand were also missing.

Ji received substandard medical care at a North Korean hospital and no post-surgical care.

Brink of despair

After that accident, he said, his brother would forage through trash to find noodles for him to eat.

“I thought there was no future for me in North Korea, and many times I thought about taking my life,” Ji told the Archmere students.

He crossed the Tumen River into China in 2000 to get food, but upon his return he was captured by North Korean border guards and sent to prison, where he was tortured, and his crutches were thrown away.

Ji decided that he would leave North Korea for good to show the world that the “happy face” its regime portrayed to the world was a farce. He escaped with his brother in 2006 and crossed through five countries to reach South Korea.

That’s where he lives today, running his human-rights organization, Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), which raises money to help people leave North Korea.

So far, Ji said, NAUH has helped move more than 150 people leave the North to South Korea. Among those are his family members, except his father, who was tortured to death just before he attempted to cross the river into China.

Ji said he started NAUH “to make my father proud.

“I needed to refocus my life into being a voice for the people in North Korea.”

In response to a question from a student, Ji said it costs about $2,000 to move a person from North Korea to South Korea. So far, he added, not one has been arrested or repatriated.

23 million North Koreans

Ji’s Archmere talk was a way to introduce students to human rights issues and answer a call from Pope Francis, said the man partially responsible for Ji’s trip to the United States.

Brian DiSabatino, president and chief executive officer of EDiS Co., one of Delaware’s largest construction management firms, recalled that during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelpha in September, he told the story of St. Katharine Drexel asking Pope Leo XIII in 1887 what he was doing to help the less fortunate. Pope Leo turned the tables and asked Drexel, then a wealthy heiress, “What about you?” That inspired the future saint to change the direction of her life.

“With those three simple words, that’s our hope to leave today. What about you?” DiSabatino said.

“Right now, 23 million of our brothers and sisters are trapped in an open-air prison” in North Korea “and we’re completely distracted in our society by contemporary issues like movies and Facebook and Dennis Rodman, while this problem is real.”

Learn about the issue

Ji’s recent visit to the United States included meetings with Delaware’s political delegation in Washington, D.C.; the U.S. State Department, and visits to Cab Calloway School of the Arts and Wilmingon University, in addition to Archmere.

At the end of his talk at Archmere, the students gave him a standing ovation, and many stopped to shake his hand on their way out of the auditorium.

In an interview before his talk, Ji said students can help even if they don’t totally understand the situation in North Korea.

“Just the fact that they have come to a place to hear me speak, that goes a long way toward understanding more of the situation.” People can donate to his organization, but learning about the issue is a start, Ji said. He maintains a Facebook page that does not solicit funds but is a good way to gather information.

“These people have other things to do, and to welcome someone from halfway around the world, from South Korea, shows me that they have a desire not only to hear my story but, going further, to be involved with this and to pray for this issue,” he said.