North Korean defector invited to State of the Union shares perilous escape story

THE PENTAGON -- One of the most powerful moments in President Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night came when a young man stood and proudly waved the crutches he used during a perilous escape from North Korea. Mr. Trump used Ji Seong-ho's amazing journey to highlight the cruelty of the North Korean regime and make the case that it must not be allowed to build a nuclear arsenal. 

"We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies," Mr. Trump said. 

Ji grew up in North Korea during a horrendous famine in the 1990s. 

"I saw tens of thousands of people dying out of hunger," a translator said on Ji's behalf.

Ji has told his story in speeches and in videos distributed by human rights groups around the world. 

"I had not eaten for several days. I ran up to the coal train and pulled myself aboard to scavenge and sell this coal for money to feed our family," the translator said. "I blacked out. When I opened my eyes, the train had passed over my left leg, and it was hanging from the rest of my body."   

There was no anesthesia at the hospital. 

"They ended up amputating my left fingers and my left leg," the translator continued. 

Using those crutches, Ji escaped across the Chinese border in 2006. On Tuesday night, he appeared before the largest audience of his life. 

"I once lived as a beggar in North Korea, but now, I'm in the capital of the U.S. as a guest to President Trump," the translator said. 

Ji's will to survive is worth remembering as Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un trade threats and insults. The North Korean military may be badly outclassed, but one of its strengths is that the North Korean people are accustomed to hardship. 

In fact, a U.S. Army study says that "due to the tough life most North Korean people already endure, the ravages of war would not have the same effect that military conflict would cause most other countries." 

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.