Ji Seong-ho escaped North Korea when he was 24 and "there were both North Korean and Chinese soldiers guarding the border, who would shoot people to death if caught."
Today, more than a decade later, he is a human rights activist, calling on the international community to keep pressuring North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons ambitions and push for human rights.
Awarded the Oslo Freedom Forum prize in 2015, he's a law student in Dongguk University in Seoul, where he lives with his family, and is the president of Now Action & Unity for Human Rights, where he helps broadcast information into North Korea and facilitates the resettlement of defectors in South Korea.
Ji lost his left hand and foot in a accident and nearly drowned when he tried to escape North Korea with his brother, whom he urged to go on without him. He was later united with his brother in South Korea.
Recently, Ji was in New York for an Oslo Freedom Forum meeting not long after the U.N. Security Council adopted tough new economic sanctions against North Korea.
He told VOA Turkish that pressure from the international community "is causing market prices to fluctuate" in North Korea, "raising the food prices and impacting the lives of the people. I think Kim Jong Un will have a hard time dealing with it."
Ji pointed out that North Korea's state media "tell its people that the North is the strongest country in the world, but not that the U.S. could launch an airstrike to destroy North Korea. … I think many North Koreans make themselves aware of realities by secretly listening to [Voice of America and Radio Free Asia]." Although people are "more worried about the regime, I don't think they live in fear of war."
However, Ji said, the international community should "keep pressuring North Korea, which is continuing along [the nuclear path] without knowing what the consequences would be. Only pressure can show that Kim Jong Un is wrong."
Hunger drives escape
During the famine of the mid-1990s, when Ji was 14, he "was helping my parents make a living by stealing coal off trains and selling it in the market. I got dizzy once and I ended up falling off a moving train. It ran me over," he told VOA.
Ji crossed into China to find food. But on the way back, he was caught by North Korean guards, "who told me that because I am disabled I brought shame to North Korea and that someone with only one leg should stay home. That is when I lost my trust in the North Korean government."
"Because I was so hungry, I ate grass at one time without knowing that it can be toxic, and my entire body swelled up," Ji said. "Another time, I climbed a mountain and tried eating tree bark.
"At the time, my wish was to eat just a few ears of corn, not even a bowl of white rice. My biggest wish until I defected from North Korea was to cook an entire chicken and gorge on it," he added.
"A lot of my friends lived off food scraps they found in marketplaces," Ji said. "A bowl of noodles, for example, was very expensive, so people [who could afford it] would finish the entire bowl without leaving a single strand. Nonetheless, my friends would wait all day, hoping that they could find some leftovers."
Triggered by a series of natural disasters and the disintegration of its economic policies after the collapse of the Soviet bloc eliminated key support, North Korea's famine of 1995-98 may have killed as many as 3 million people, many of them urban residents unable to forage for sustenance. But as people starved, they "never cried out for help," Ji said, adding that then-leader Kim Jong Il "had spread a downright lie that we will live well soon.'"
As North Koreans realized the truth, Ji said, they "began to mistrust the regime and rely on themselves to produce food."
Pretending to smile
In 2006, Ji fled again. He crossed the Tumen River, which serves as the North Korea-China border, and endured a three-month, 10,000-kilometer journey through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to reach South Korea.
He said he left behind a society where "people needed to smile and pretend that they are impressed" when official events took place, because "otherwise, they might die." If people laughed or sang during dark times for the government, "all the members of the family and even the future generations may face death," because people from the North Korean security agency were always watching, "and they sent people to political prison camps."
"The same goes for North Korean elections. I had to go out and vote because I would have died," Ji said, adding that "just like other North Koreans, I also was called to gather at places where I had to cry."
Ji, noting the omnipresent security apparatus and other strictures, called on the international community to pay more attention to human rights in North Korea.
"Although it appears that they pledge allegiance to [the Kim family], in their minds they wish eagerly for outside help so that change can take place in North Korea," he said. "I hope the international community can stand on the North Korean people's side."
Although Ji has been out of North Korea for over a decade, he said there have been changes, particularly the development of outdoor markets, allowed by the current regime, where people buy and sell basic items, such as food and clothes.
"For the people of North Korea, happiness derives from the satisfaction they get from eating and living well," he said. "Many people make ends meet by selling goods at markets, but as the regime's nuclear weapons and missile development is resulting in the rise in prices, I assume people are displeased about it."
Jenny Lee of VOA's Korean service contributed to this report.