Today we will speak with Ji Seong Ho, a North Korean man who lost his leg and hand in a sudden accident at the age of 15. His personal experiences thereafter living as a handicapped person in North Korea provide insight into the state of rights for the disabled in North Korea.
Hello Mr. Ji Seong Ho. Please introduce yourself.
I am from Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, a place known for its coal mines. It’s the most northern city on the map. From where I lived, it was a six kilometer walk from the Tumen river area. I crossed the river in April 2006 and defected to South Korea in July.
Were you born with a disability or did it happen in an accident?
There are many homeless street children in North Korea, known as kotjebi. They often steal coal and food from trains to survive. I was a kotjebi child growing up, and I fell off a train one day while I was foraging for supplies. As the freight car passed me by, it ran over my left leg and hand, rendering both useless.
I am very sorry to hear that. How does the average North Korean citizen view handicapped people?
Attitudes vary. North Korean citizens will generally feel sorry for the disabled, but they will also view them as people who cannot function successfully in society. It’s also commonly believed that handicapped people are less loyal to the Workers’ Party.
When a baby with a deformity is born, I have heard that parents without the means to care for the child will abandon it upon birth or euthanize the baby through a doctor. Is this true?
It is hard to verify because people definitely cherry-pick stories to sensationalize. Murder is still murder, even in North Korea. That being said, what you described does tacitly happen. In particular, North Korean doctors are known to help euthanize handicapped babies.
Would you say that there is a general prejudice toward the disabled in North Korea? Or is there compassion for them?
From what I have experienced, people typically treat the disabled with disdain. As a society progresses and becomes more civilized, it should create a safe environment that better educates the general population about disabilities and provide a means of living for handicapped people.
However, North Korea has been unable to provide this sort of support for its disabled citizens. The common sense of morality in South Korea dictates that one should not discriminate against those who are handicapped. Instances of such discrimination can be redressed through legal means, either in the form of fines or litigation for human rights violations. However, North Koreans generally do not view contempt toward the disabled as a significant problem. In fact, the very people who are meant to protect the weak in society, like the police, are often the ones taking advantage of and abusing them the most.
Are assaults against handicapped people common in North Korea?
Yes, there are many cases of abuse against the disabled. Children in particular have been known to assault handicapped people in groups. And because there is no systematic solution in place, the disabled continue to suffer—with the exception of those with money and socioeconomic status, who fare slightly better.
At what age did you become disabled?
I was born in 1982, and I had my accident in 1996, so I was 14 years old.
In North Korea, is there political or economic support for the plight of handicapped citizens?
Like other countries, North Korea has its own system of social welfare. If one suffers a debilitating injury, the quota for heavy labor is reduced to six hours a day. However, realistically speaking, there are some disabled people who struggle to work even six hours a day, and there is no other support for such individuals. Moreover, the most physically demanding activities such as coal mining are upheld as incredibly important services to the state. Given that physically able-bodied workers do not even receive sufficient state rations, there’s even less for disabled citizens, who physically contribute less to the state. North Korea always confronts international accusations of human rights abuse by flat-out denial and that its citizens are happy. However, this is far from the truth.
When I first came to South Korea, I began to study law. It was only through these studies that I found out that North Korea has disability laws. If you look at what is written on paper, you’d think that there are no problems for the rights of the disabled in North Korea. However, this is all a front to appease international observers. Such laws are not implemented in practice. The citizens are not even aware of such laws and, as such, cannot invoke them.
Is there any support for wounded servicemen in North Korea?
Even if you are an honored serviceman, there is no welfare support. You have to have lost your leg in a mining or railroad accident, for example, to even have the opportunity to receive a prosthetic leg. But there is no support for them in regards to daily food or necessities. These laborers must also hopelessly forage for supplies, usually in packs. Some even work in the marketplace, preparing goods for illegal transport to other regions by railway. But these are only the lucky ones, and even they live hand to mouth due to the lack of a social safety net.
I heard that you first escaped to China from North Korea. When and why did you decide to defect?
It’s incredibly difficult to scrape together a living as a street child in North Korea selling coal, especially as a disabled person. No matter how hard one works, it is hard to make enough money to buy even two to three kilos of corn. One day, I noticed that some of the other street children were traveling back and forth from China. On their return, they would bring back a whole backpack full of corn. It was out of this need to forage for food that I also decided to make a trip to China, where food seemed more plentiful. And I was not wrong; I was able to bring back several kilos of rice with me into North Korea.
I heard that you were arrested shortly after you crossed the North Korea-Chinese border. What happened?
I risked my life by crossing into China, and the Chinese people I met knowingly told me to take back as much as I could to make the trip worth the risk. However, because of my disability, I could only carry a limited amount. Despite this, I was happy that I had brought back any rice at all, because I had not eaten rice in a long time. I was in the middle of cooking this hard-sought food at my house when the police suddenly stormed through my doors. They confiscated my rice and threw me in jail, where I suffered abuse and torture. The reasoning was because I had illegally crossed the North Korea-Chinese border.
I heard that your abusers in jail often shouted, “You are ruining the [North Korean] republic” and “are undermining the dignity of the state system.”
Yes, they did. And those kinds of statements eventually motivated me to defect. I had long been able to tolerate physical pain, having been caught and severely punished for stealing coal many times as a young street kid. However, the shameful insults I received as a disabled person in North Korea made me question my place in society. I constantly lamented the fact that I had become handicapped and was forced to travel to China to find food to survive. Eventually, I realized that the source of my troubles was North Korea and its societal system. I sadly concluded that North Korea is not even worthy of being called a sovereign state that is responsible for its citizens.
When I was told that I was shaming the republic, it meant that I was disgracing North Korea by choosing to live as a handicapped citizen in North Korea instead of letting myself die. The North Korean authorities made it clear that they thought I should have just rolled over and wasted away or have lived quietly without being noticed. Instead of protecting the citizens, they insult and abuse them.
I see that you currently have a prosthetic leg and prosthetic hand – was that the case in North Korea?
In the 10 years I lived as a handicapped citizen in North Korea, I had never even considered getting a prosthetic leg or hand. Even if I worked for the rest of my life, I would have never been able to afford it. However, I remember that my greatest wish during that period was to somehow get a prosthetic leg and hand so that I could walk and live normally again. It was not until I arrived in South Korea that I was able to fulfill that wish. In North Korea, I was solely dependent on crutches to get around. Using crutches was particularly difficult in the winter with the snow, and I slipped and fell many times. In such situations, I had to tied my shoes to the ends of my crutches for better traction. Additionally, because I did not have a left hand, I used string to loop the left crutch around my neck and keep it in place, while my right hand carried the brunt of my weight on the right crutch. Even like that, I was able to sell coal and steal corn from the train that carried it to Camp 22.
What was the most difficult part of living as a handicapped person in North Korea?
Honestly, I just wished that someone could have simply cared about disabled people like myself. I found myself desperately wishing that China was my home country when I rode the freight carriage across the river into China for the purpose of stealing goods. It made me very sad. It also made me think that North Korea made life unbearable for its disabled citizens.
If North Korea wanted to improve rights for the disabled, what policy actions could the state take?
The state has to create foundations so that disabled citizens are able to make a living. While many other citizens do not receive a sufficient amount of rations, handicapped people have much greater difficulty in compensating for this lack through other means. Moreover, it is very difficult for physically able people to defect from North Korea – imagine how much more difficult it is for the disabled. There are so many people who depend on state rations to survive. The North Korean authorities can start by making sure these rations are sufficient.
In 2003, the North Korean government released a set of disability rights laws in response to accusations from the international community regarding its discriminatory practices against handicapped citizens. Even so, the issues remain, with systematic discrimination against the disabled perpetrated by the North Korean authorities. The regime must make a greater effort to respect the dignity of the handicapped and protect their rights and independence.