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MagazineApr 13, 2018
Most North Koreans who break out do so by crossing the river border. Reuters team photographed and interviewed some of those who made it to Seoul.
A combination picture shows Ji Sung-ho, 35, (top) and his wooden crutches, in Seoul, South Korea, August 13, 2017. Sung-ho is from Hoeryong, near the border with China. He left North Korea in 2006 with a pair of wooden crutches. "I lived as a child beggar in North Korea. I was stealing coals from a train when I fell off and lost my leg and my hand. I had to bring the crutches with me. If I didn't have them, I wouldn't have made it here. The state doesn't help you in North Korea, and people who need crutches make their own. Mine are therefore not factory-made, so they're not perfect and break easily. I had several pairs of crutches but they all broke, and this was the last pair. I used these crutches for 10 years, until I was 25, when I arrived in South Korea. I would steal coal from moving trains and fall off, destroying my crutches. Or I would get beaten up by the police and they'd take and then break my crutches. When they broke, I would make new ones. When I had new ones, I could go back outside. When I first arrived in South Korea I thought about throwing them out. South Korea's intelligence agency gave me a prosthetic leg. My friends said I should throw the crutches out and not think about North Korea. They said I should show Kim Jong Il I was living a new life in South Korea and throw out everything I had from the North. Some asked if I got upset when I saw my crutches. But I couldn't just throw them out. To make my crutches, my friends had given me some wood that they had bought, and someone I knew in North Korea who had carpentry skills had made them. It was my father who added the final touches. There is a lot of love from my North Korean friends and family in these crutches. So I didn't throw them out. The South Korean government gave me some new crutches because the wood from my North Korean ones is hard and painful. But I still keep them, so as not to forget those memories." KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS