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A defector and a refugee join South Korea's National Assembly

Two North Korean refugees will be joining South Korea's National Assembly. They have taken two different paths to get to this point.

The defector: Thae Yong-ho was part of North Korea's elite. He was educated to represent North Korea, going to the best schools and having the best tutors the North Korean system could pay. He was working as a diplomat for North Korea when he escaped. He was intimately aware of the flaws with North Korea's system, as an insider expected to lie for it. He could have continued with the easy life of a diplomat.

The refugee: Ji Seong-ho was starving in North Korea when he was injured in an accident, he passed out while on a train and ended up getting run over by it. He lost a leg and suffered in many ways. After he went to China in search of food, he was arrested, tortured for a week, had his crutches taken from him. He later escaped, hobbling across China and SE Asia. North Korea had become unbearable for him, living with only one leg.

A defector (Thae Yong-ho) was just directly elected by South Korean citizens to South Korea's National Assembly last week. A refugee (Ji Seong-ho) was indirectly elected to South Korea's parliament as a proportional representative.


Both Mr. Thae and Seong-ho have spoken at TNKR events. You can view photos of Thae's event here and a video excerpt of Thae praising TNKR.

In this post, I will focus on knowing Ji Seong-ho.

I first met him in 2010 or 2011. I was in South Korea short-term, with no plans on staying. I met some North Korean refugees during the short trip. The first North Korean refugee I ever met invited me to a small gathering of North Korean refugees, mainly to give them opportunities to speak English. Seong-ho was one of the refugees there. I might be able to track down a photo of the two of us together, if so, I will add it later. This is the best I could find for now, he's in the blue shirt, looking in a different direction.

(Parenthetically: Yes, even in 2010, I preferred a fist bump rather than a handshake).

* * *

January 2013, I was invited to give a speech before North Korean refugees and volunteers. I had started volunteering at the Mulmangcho School and was sending opinion pieces to the Korea Times. Although I had seen Seong-ho a few times, I didn't know who he was and I didn't know that he had started his own organization. I had a great time that night talking about how I would like to get more involved with North Korean refugees, that I had started with Mulmangcho but it seemed that more could be done.

That was back in the day before I was active on Facebook, so I will have to search for the photos.

A few of the refugees told me that they wished they could study English with teachers as I had organized at the Mulmangcho School. They had some English classes and tutors, but from what I was hearing, it didn't sound rigorous, more of chit-chat and opportunities for volunteers to interview them.

Two months later, Eunkoo Lee and I started matching North Korean refugees with volunteer tutors. I told Eunkoo about the event above, when I spoke to NK refugees including Ji Seong-ho's NAUH. Eunkoo had no memory of it. So January 2013, Eunkoo wasn't aware of some of my activities, then shortly after this, we had our first "Matching" session with teachers from North Korea.

Our second Matching session was with Ji Seong-ho's NAUH. Unfortunately, he couldn't make it that night and didn't join as a student (although later we did assist him with two speeches).

When I hosted an event in December 2013, "When a fire is lit in the heart," I asked members of NAUH if they wanted to sell Christmas cards they had designed. I was too busy to take photos that day.

One of the speakers that day was Sehyek Oh. He later joined TNKR as a student and won our second English speech contest in August 2015.

So I was starting to realize who Ji Seong-ho was. I bumped into him a few times in 2014, then in 2015, we worked together for the first time. NAUH was planning a "Market Showcase" of items from North Korea. I was asked by one of NAUH's South Korean volunteers if I could help publicize the event. 

Yes! May 9, 2014 with Ji Seong-ho and Yeonmi Park!!!

I think the next night that I attended NAUH's 5th anniversary dinner.

 She has joined TNKR as a student about three times!

She has joined TNKR as a student two different times and she also interviewed me for her YouTube channel.

Kim Suk-woo (center), former vice-minister of the Unification Ministry, who is active with numerous NK refugee organizations. That's super special TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee on his right, and super special TNKR student Cherie Yang on his left.

The market showcase two weeks later was incredible! It was May 24, 2015. Yeonmi, Seong-ho and I took a photo together.

One day I hope I will get to collaborate with Yeonmi and Seong-ho again!

We have met other times over the years.

Two years ago, Seong-ho spoke at a TNKR event telling his story. I was the moderator, Youngmin Kwon translated during Q&A.

During 2018, Seong-ho also made a trip to the USA, one of the other invited guests was TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee! TNKR fanatics Eben Appleton and Pam Davidson traveled to meet them.

When Seong-ho was getting prepared to deliver an international speech, one of our volunteers met with him a few times.

I bump into Seong-ho occasionally. This was at a US Embassy event last year.

It has been almost a decade since we first met. Congratulations to Ji Seong-ho on joining South Korea's National Assembly! That first time we met 10 years ago, he had probably just established NAUH.

I will update this post a bit later with more photos!

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