(WASHINGTON) — Twelve years ago, Ji Seong-ho crossed the mountainous border into China using crutches to escape torture and starvation back home in North Korea.
On Tuesday night, Ji stood up on his prosthetic limb and triumphantly waved those crutches overhead as he received a standing ovation from U.S. legislators at President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.
“I was deeply moved to tears and deeply overwhelmed,” Ji told ABC News through a translator in an interview at the White House press briefing room Wednesday. “I was once a beggar in North Korea and I was an amputee, and I was threatened severely by the North Korean regime and they physically tormented me.”
Ji was among the guests the president’s team had invited to sit in the gallery with first lady Melania Trump for the speech on Capitol Hill.
During his State of the Union address, Trump described how, as a starving boy during North Korea’s famine, Ji lost consciousness while riding a train to steal coal to barter for food. The train ran over Ji’s limbs and he “endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain,” losing his left hand and foot, the president said. That was over two decades ago.
Ji was later detained and tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a short trip to China. He eventually escaped, traveling “thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom,” Trump said.
“I think I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t live for any single more day,” Ji told ABC News in the interview Wednesday, “And even if it means I would die by risking crossing the border, that was so worth it because I just wanted to live one single day as a genuine human being.”
Ji now works to resettle other North Korean defectors and broadcast information into the reclusive state. Ji told ABC News he was sending a defiant message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday night when he waved his crutches, which he keeps as a reminder of his journey to freedom.
“I was a man with a disability in the North, but I defected the nation in search of freedom and I stood in the arena of the international community, and particularly at the invitation of the U.S. president,” Ji said. “That was a moment that indicated I had personal victory toward the Kim Jong Un regime.”
Ji praised Trump’s hawkish stance and harsh rhetoric against North Korea. In the past year, Trump has taunted the regime leader as “Little Rocket Man” and has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” and “totally destroy” the country if Pyongyang escalates its nuclear weapons program.
“I think it is surely the very wise and the right course of action that the president of the United States is taking,” Ji told ABC News. “I think the U.S. president is wisest when he applies maximum pressure on the North.”
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