Recently I had the honour of being part of an Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation to South Korea.

I ate some amazing Korean delicacies like kimchi, soju and bbq. Friends had told me how great it would be and they were so right. I rarely ate bread while I was there and have kept that up since returning home to NZ. Go no carbs!

I also saw some amazing things in Seoul and Busan; the best being the Korean War Memorial in Busan. A special occasion for me because my grandfather served in K Force during the Korean War.

I met some amazing people from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, NZ embassy, Kiwi Chamber of Commerce and the wider Korean nation. I gave a korero (talk) at the Ambassador’s residence thanking all in attendance for their hospitality on behalf of the Asia New Zealand Korean delegation.

However, of all the people I met, the most amazing was Mr Ji.

Mr Ji is a North Korean defector.  He grew up in North Korea and escaped.

I want to preface this by saying I grew up with some bad ass people, gang people. I have never met anyone as bad ass as Mr Ji.

His whole family grew up starving and malnourished. Due to this they would scrounge up coal to sell in order to be able to buy extra food. They would hang around the railway tracks hoping some coal would fall off. Eventually they graduated to jumping on the coal trains, taking some coal, all the while trying to not get caught, then jumping off. All of this danger just to feed them.

One night Mr Ji and his brother were on a train. Mr Ji was 12 at the time. He felt dizzy from malnutrition and blacked out. When he came to he was lying on the railway track. He was missing his arm and his leg was mangled and dangling by a thread. He had been run over by a train.

Mr Ji’s brother found him, picked him up and took him to a hospital. I use the term hospital loosely. They had no anaesthetic, nothing to put someone under. So Mr Ji full felt the pain. He told us that when he passed out the Dr would stop operating and slap him in the face until he woke back up again, if Mr Ji fell into a coma then he was probably going to end up dead. Which means that Mr Ji felt every second of every bit of pain. His surgery took 6 hours. He was 12. No anaesthetic. His arm required parts of it to be chopped off in order have enough flesh to ‘close’ the end of his arm in a way that it was completely his own skin. His dangling leg needed to be cut away, then the same treatment as arm in order for the leg to be completely closed. Six hours. No anaesthetic. Awake. 12 years old.

It took him a year and a half to recover.

During that time his sister and brother gave up their extra food in order to give it to him so he could recover. For a year and a half they gave him their food. As a result they have stunted growth and development.

Life in North Korea already wasn’t easy, adding being an amputee to the mix just made things so much worse. As a crippled person, North Korean soldiers subjected him to many jokes and ill treatment. It was constant. And cruel.

Despite all this Mr Ji and his brother decided to escape North Korea. Now, to escape North Korea you can’t just walk across the border into South Korea and be all like ‘Hey honey! I’m home.’ In order to escape North Korea you have to either:

  1. walk between North Korea and South Korea … through a mine field filled with around 2 million mines
  2. sail on a ship between North Korea and South Korea … through a sea of mines
  3. Walk through China, trek through South East Asia then back up into South Korea


Can I have ‘Really Sucky Choices’ for $500 please? #Jeopardy


Mr Ji and his brother escaped North Korea by walking through China, then through SE Asia then back up into South Korea. Coz it’s obviously the easiest of three.

What makes this journey even more exceptional is that he did it on crutches. The journey took him two years. He crutched himself through countries in order to get to South Korea. For two years.

That is legit badass stuff.

He was saying the whole transition can take up to10 years.

2 to 3 years to get to South Korea. Through this time you have to fend off those trying to take advantage of you and also provide for yourself at the same time. It’s a hostile lengthy trip. Not everyone makes it. He estimates there are 100,000 North Korean refugees living in China. Some of them are in indentured servitude, some working girls, some marry into China, others are roaming trying to find their way through. But it’s still better than being in North Korea.

Then there’s 6 to 12 months quarantine in South Korea (which is like a really long immigration process). North Korea have made attacks on South Korea and they want to make sure that those things aren’t going to happen again.

There’s also 3 to 6 years of culture shock. North Koreans are told through their whole education that South Korea pretends it is certain things. That it looks like it’s a great place but it’s a front (Ironic!). So there is an element of shock there for people who have been indoctrinated with all these ideas about South Korea and it’s hard for them to shake them initially. That process takes a long time.

Not one to rest on his laurels, once Mr Ji got through all of that he enrolled himself into and then graduated an South Korea university for the sole purpose of fighting for North Korea freedom.

He has started a group, Now Action and Unity for Human Rights, that fights for North Korea freedom by raising awareness amongst South Korea through publications, demonstrations and protests.

The whole time he told us his story, Mr Ji had a smile on his face. It was a retelling of his experience and he was happy to share his story with us.

I had been asked by the crew to give a mihi (greeting of thanks) on our behalf and when I agreed to I thought I’d get up and say a few normal Māori words and phrases. I didn’t do that. I karakia-ed, I chanted, I raised my voice and spoke to the heavens. I told some people it was because the cameras came out, but truthfully how could I not honour this strong guy who just shared his amazing story with us.

Kia ora Mr Ji, we have a saying in Māori, ka whawhai tonu matou.

We struggle without end.

* The Asia New Zealand Foundation is New Zealand’s leading non-government authority on Asia.

From their website:

We are a non-partisan, non-profit organisation, set up in 1994 to build New Zealanders’ knowledge and understanding of Asia. We rely on a mix of public, philanthropic and corporate funding.

With 20 staff in Auckland and Wellington, the Foundation is overseen by a board of trustees drawn from business, community, academic and leadership backgrounds.

We are supported by a panel of honorary advisers from across Asia. This group comprises leading academics, businesspeople and current and former politicians and diplomats.

The Foundation works in partnership with influential individuals and organisations in New Zealand and Asia to provide high-level forums, culture events, international collaborations, school programmes and professional development opportunities.

Our activities cover more than 20 countries in Asia and are delivered through seven programmes.

For more information please go to