North Korean Man at SOTU a Reminder of American Exceptionalism

For anyone that watched the full State of the Union address Tuesday night, the image of an Asian man holding up crutches as he held back tears will undoubtedly remain with them for some time to come.


That man is Ji Seong-ho, and his story of escape from the brutality of the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea is inspiring and horrific at the same time. While trying to steal coal to barter for corn for a family starving to the point of hallucination, Ji fell between two train cars and was grievously injured.

Mr Ji lost his left leg above the knee and his left hand at the wrist, enduring “amputations without anything to dull the pain”.

The president said Mr Ji was later tortured after returning from a brief trip to China.  “His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had – and he resolved to be free,” the president said.

Ji eventually made it to South Korea after swimming across the Tumen River into China and, from there, traveling thousands of miles on crutches across China to the South Korean embassy in Bankok, where he was fitted with prosthetic limbs. He would eventually reunite with family in South Korea (losing his father to death in a North Korean prison along the way).

When President Donald Trump told Ji’s story, and the camera panned to the slight man in the balcony who appeared to be holding back tears, it was a moment topped by nothing else the entire evening. Until Ji stood, holding aloft those old crutches he no longer needs but keeps as a reminder of his journey, slightly shaking them as if to show them they have been defeated.


And it became clear in that moment: the things Westerners, particularly Americans, take for granted — freedom of movement, thought and speech; food in our bellies; the innate right of a man to determine his life course; family we can see; medical care; the ability to celebrate life rather than suffer it, etc. — are not easy to come by in so many other parts of the world.

Young people in this country look at standing for the flag, or singing the old patriotic songs, or periodic reminders from grandparents of the exquisiteness of the founding documents as cheesy and old fashioned.

But to Ji Seong-ho, those things mean something. His story and his joy at being free shone an immediate spotlight on what we’ve tried to do in this country to ensure the souls of her inhabitants remain as free and intact as circumstances allow. And how the rest of the world, certainly the part Ji comes from, cares less about those things.

It was fine thing to remember for a moment, not just what a man can accomplish who demands to be free, but what makes this country exceptional because we understand what yearning to live with dignity is about, so much so we codified it into law.

We owe Mr. Ji a debt of gratitude for reminding us.


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