During President Trump's State of the Union address, Ji Seong Ho waved his crutches. Those crutches have borne witness to an incredibly journey. The New York Times has Ji's story, which it dubs "remarkable even by the standards of North Korean defectors." It begins in 1996 with a starving 13-year-old Ji. He says the hunger was so extreme it caused his family to hallucinate and left them eating rats and grass, per the Washington Post. Coal could be stolen from passing freight trains in the middle of the night and traded for corn, and one night in March 1996, a weakened Ji tried to do just that. But he fainted from atop the cars, fell between them, and woke up missing a left hand and foot. He was saved by having his limbs amputated in a brutal, anesthesia-free surgery.
He managed to get around using the wooden crutches, which the Guardian reports his father made for him. It wasn't until 2000 that he crossed into China, returning a month later with food for his family, and into the hands of secret police, who he says beat him for nearly three weeks. Six years later he left for South Korea, nearly drowning while crossing the Tumen River into China. He says when he reached the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok, diplomats there had never before seen a defector on crutches. And that fits a pattern of complete disregard for the disabled in the North, he says: "I had never seen people with Down syndrome until I came to South Korea. In the North, they gather such people and keep them from public view." He received prosthetic limbs, and his mother, brother, and sister ultimately made it to South Korea, too; his father was captured and died in prison. (Read more North Korea stories.)