Interview: ‘I believe my story gives hope to the North Korean people.’

Ji Seong-ho was a poor, desperate, disabled man in 2006 when he escaped from North Korea and found his way to the South. Now 14 years later, he will serve as a proportional representative in South Korea’s National Assembly, having won his election on April, 15. Ji, along with former high-level North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, will be the first former North Korean citizens to serve in the National Assembly.

In 2010, Ji founded Now Action & Unity for Human rights (NAUH), a non-governmental organization that raises awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea, helps North Korean refugees make their way to South Korea, and advocates for them once they have resettled in the South.

As NAUH leader, Ji has personally liaised with refugees on the run, guiding them to safety to third countries where they can apply for refugee status and start the process of moving to South Korea.

Many North Korea watchers have said that Ji and Thae’s successes in the elections can serve as a ray of hope for people like them in the South, who face challenges like discrimination and lack of job prospects as they try to make lives for themselves.

Others have said that news of their victories spreading through North Korea is a massive PR victory for South Korea’s style of government, as it shows that even former sworn enemies of South Korea, or the lowest of the low from North Korea can make it below the 38th parallel if they have enough ability, determination, and luck.

Fresh off his election victory, Ji sat down with reporter Yong Jae Mok from RFA’s Korean Service to discuss how his election will have an impact on the North Korean human rights situation and issues he hopes to focus on during his tenure as an assemblyman.

The English translation of this Q&A uses the English term “defector” throughout, because it is the closest approximation of the politically tinged word used in South Korean discourse to refer to all former North Korean citizens living in South Korea. Western human rights groups however would refer to Ji and people like him as “refugees,” saving “defector” only for former North Koreans who held government or military positions at the time of their escape. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Your life as a lawmaker begins in late May. How do you feel?

Ji: I am moved to tears, feel extremely happy, but I also feel a lot of pressure. I was reminded of my father who was tortured to death after being seized by North Korean police while defecting from the country. I was also reminded of some of the people in my hometown who starved to death along with millions of others in the rest of the country. Also I am grateful to the people of the Republic of Korea, because  I became a lawmaker thanks to their votes. I am also surprised because back in North Korea, I did not belong to the privileged class. I was the so-called dirt spoon, living a life of kotjebi [beggar children of North Korea]. So I would like to thank the people who made such a person as myself into a lawmaker.

In South Korea, “dirt spoon” is slang to refer to people born on the opposite end of the spectrum from “gold spoons,” those born into privilege and wealth. Both terms are based on the English idiom “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

RFA: Your election is attracting the attention not only of North Korean defectors here, but also of the people in North Korea. You were, after all, a kotjebi. So a kotjebi-turned-lawmaker, what kind of implication does that title carry?

Ji: I believe my story gives hope to the North Korean people. If you are not one of the privileged few in North Korea, you can barely make a living. You cannot even go to Pyongyang freely. I risked my life to defect to the Republic of Korea and have lived here for the last 14 years. I came here as a kotjebi, but during my time here I volunteered for the local community, studied at a university, helped out other defectors, and now became a lawmaker. This means that even the 99 percent of North Korea, not just the privileged one percent can have hope. They could think that, ‘So, there is

[an alternative to North Korea]

. I [too should] go to South Korea.’ They could also start having the hope to create a society [at home] where a man like Ji Seong-ho can become a lawmaker. I think they would have the hope that their children could live in a world where they are not limited by their background, but can live according to their will and capacity.

RFA: What would kotjebi in North Korea think if they learned that you became a lawmaker?

Ji: Kotjebi are children who are really poor and in desperate situations, yet they are quite smart even though they are not schooled. [I know because] I once lived as a kotjebi. They hear news before most of the other people and I am sure they would hear my news. I want to tell them, hang on to your life through whatever means possible. If I am the first kotjebi-turned lawmaker, you can be the second, the third. Bring changes to North Korea. Go to school and learn. Have courage because your hardship is not because of yourself, but because of the system in North Korea. Make a contribution to the country. But I know this can happen only if free democracy is achieved in North Korea – only if the two Koreas are unified.

RFA: What are you planning to focus on once you start working as a lawmaker?

Ji: I used to work as a North Korean human rights activist so I will continue to work on that front. I am now also a lawmaker for the Republic of Korea, a person who represents the people. I am planning to draft legislation to improve the lives of disabled people in this country. But I also think reunification of the two Koreas is not far off but is coming soon. So I will help North Korean defectors in the South get settled in the country and help them lead successful lives.

RFA: What do you think of the human rights situation in North Korea? What can you do about it as a lawmaker?

Ji: I will make an alliance of lawmakers around the world to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. I want to work with lawmakers from countries where people enjoy basic human rights and expose the wrongdoings of the North Korean regime. They are violating the human rights of North Koreans down to such trivial things. In North Korea, people do not have freedom of movement. They cannot eat what they want to eat or get proper compensation for their work. They are also forced to sit through government propaganda and are deprived of religious freedom. There are a lot of problems regarding North Korean human rights. I will raise all these issues one by one. I will also work with the United Nations to cooperate with the international community to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. I personally think political prison camps are the worst forms of human rights violation. I will get rid of such places where people are treated like animals and are forced to suffer for life with their family members just because they have different thoughts. Female North Korean defectors are imprisoned in a correctional labor camp located in a village called Jon’go-ri of Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province. My heart gets torn whenever I hear that human rights violations are rampant in that place and that some prisoners starve to death. I also hear that they built a plant to process dead bodies and the smoke never ceases bellowing out of its smokestack. I will bring this issue up too.

RFA: What about the human rights situation of North Korean defectors in China? What can be done to improve that?

Ji: I have a lot of plans, although they are not mature enough to be revealed in this interview. What I can say now is that a number of female North Korean defectors are in China and there are still people who are escaping from North Korea. I believe South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should play a central role in making sure they come to South Korea safely and not be repatriated to North Korea. I will lead efforts to strengthen such responsibilities. Another rising problem is the children of female North Korean defectors in China. A lot of these defectors miss their children dearly and are looking for ways to bring their children to South Korea. I will do my best to resolve this issue as well and in order to do so, I need the South Korean people’s support. We should not just see their hardship once and look away. If the South Korean people support this cause and extend help, regarding their pain our own, as that of our children, sisters and mothers, China would not be able to deal with them so recklessly.

Estimates of the number of North Korean refugees in China vary in range, with some suggesting as many as 300,000 could be living there at any given time.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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