The Uncrushable Courage of Ji Seong-Ho

North Korean activist Ji Seong-ho receives Oxi Courage Award

Starvation, loss of limbs, government persecution, near drowning – any of these would have stopped most people, but not Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean activist and NED grantee who received the Oxi Courage Award in Washington, DC, on Oct. 26.

As a North Korean teenager during the extreme famines of the 1990s, Ji helped feed his family by taking pieces of coal from passing trains on government transport routes, and exchanging them for food on the black market.

One day, faint from hunger, Ji Seong-ho slipped off a coal train and fell onto the tracks, where the train crushed his left hand and foot. Sections of his limbs were amputated in a surgery that lasted nearly five hours – without anesthetic. He received no prosthetics and little follow-up care.

His desperate struggle for survival continued, now on crutches hand-made by his father. Ji secretly crossed into China, and returned with supplies for his family. But North Korean soldiers captured him, and because he was disabled – thereby bringing “shame” on the country – he was held longer than others caught crossing the border, and beaten more viciously.

At age 24, he again crossed the Tumen River into China, nearly drowning in the process. This time he did not return to North Korea. Instead, he made his way on crutches thousands of miles through China to Laos, then to Thailand, and from there to South Korea.

After his excruciating journey, he was shocked to learn that in South Korea, people are not allowed to beat the disabled as they do in North Korea. Ji received medical care and prosthetics, and reunited with his brother, who had also escaped. His second shock came when he learned that the South Korean government does not prevent the disabled from accessing educational opportunities.

Today, Ji Seong-ho lives in Seoul, where he is a law student at the prestigious Dongguk University. In 2010, he founded the NED grantee organization Now, Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH).

While North Korea’s nuclear threats have seized the world’s attention, NED grantees like Ji’s NAUH have been working to expose the brutal oppression and political violence that the regime inflicts on its own people.

Ji Seong-ho and NAUH have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about North Korea and encourage activism to improve North Korea’s human rights situation. Their efforts have included enhancing mutual understanding and social integration between North and South Koreans, broadcasting information to North Korean youth via radio, and helping other defectors escape and resettle in South Korea. Ji Seong-ho has also worked to expand the international community’s awareness of the plight of ordinary North Koreans.

In recognition of his determination, commitment, and sacrifice, Ji received the 2017 Oxi Day Foundation Oxi Courage Award at a gala celebration in Washington, DC, on October 26. The video of his acceptance and his story is available online.

NED is proud to stand with remarkable activists like Ji Seong-ho and NAUH – and with the people of North Korea in their desire to live freely. Learn more about NED’s North Korean grantees here.