By Seung-Woo Yeom
SEOUL (Reuters) – Ji Seong-ho, 35, a North Korean defector who appeared at President Trump’s State of the Union address this week, is from Hoeryong, near the border with China. He told Reuters last year about the wooden crutches that he left North Korea with in 2006.
This is an edited translation of his story:
“I lived as a child beggar in North Korea. I was stealing coal from a train when I fell off and lost my leg and my hand.
I had to bring the crutches with me. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have made it here. The state doesn’t help you in North Korea, and people who need crutches make their own. Mine are therefore not factory-made so they’re not perfect and break easily.
I had several pairs of crutches but they all broke, and this was the last pair. I used these crutches for 10 years, until I was 25, when I arrived in South Korea.
I would steal coals from moving trains and fall off, destroying my crutches. Or I would get beaten up by the police and they’d take and then break my crutches. When they broke, I would make new ones. When I had new ones, I could go back outside.
When I first arrived in South Korea I thought about throwing them out.
South Korea’s intelligence agency gave me a prosthetic leg. My friends said I should throw the crutches out and not think about North Korea. They said I should show Kim Jong Il I was living a new life in South Korea and throw out everything I had from the North. Some asked if I got upset when I saw my crutches.
But I couldn’t just throw them out. To make my crutches, my friends had given me some wood that they had bought, and someone I knew in North Korea who had carpentry skills had made them. It was my father who added the final touches.
There is a lot of love from my North Korean friends and family in these crutches. So I didn’t throw them out. The South Korean government gave me some new crutches because the wood from my North Korean ones is hard and painful. But I still keep them, so as not to forget those memories.”
(Translated and written by Heekyong Yang and James Pearson Edited by Sara Ledwith)