North Korean refugee recounts escape

Seo recalls starvation, journey to America

The atrocities that occur in North Korea can sometimes seem like fiction from halfway across the globe, but for Chulryong Seo they are a harsh reality.

Seo, a 24-year-old North Korean refugee, spoke on campus Saturday at an event hosted by Tomorrow’s Hope in North Korea (THiNK) in honor of North Korean Awareness Week. He discussed his experiences in North Korea and his struggles to find a haven elsewhere, explaining that while it was dangerous to flee from famine in North Korea, escaping to China meant the opportunity to find food. Seo said he once traveled underneath a train for eight hours to find food in China.

“If these refugees are found in China, the Chinese government sends them back to North Korea, where they will face imprisonment or death,” said Yoon Sun Na, vice president of THiNK and a junior majoring in sociology.

Seo escaped from North Korea in 2007 and took refuge in China and Laos before settling down in Rochester, N.Y. in 2009.

“A lot of people do know what’s happening in North Korea, but they happen to be focused around the politics, such as nuclear missiles or dictatorship,” Na said. “We want to shift that attention away from the politics alone and shift it back towards the people. They’ve done nothing wrong, but they’re starving to death.”

Seo expressed his disdain toward the North Korean government when asked about the dictatorship. Seo commented on the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s physical appearance.

“He’s very chubby. You know why he’s chubby? Because he is eating my parents’ and grandparents’ blood,” Seo said. “I miss them … It makes me so angry.”

Seo’s speech ended abruptly after he began speaking about his siblings who died in the famine. He was unable to proceed after being overwhelmed with emotion.

Seo asked audience members to not only be aware of the problem, but to also take whatever steps they could to remedy the situation.

“Here’s the biggest thing — write letters to U.S. congressmen,” Seo said. “Don’t let [China] send refugees back to Korea.”

Kahlil Stultz, the historian for THiNK and a junior double-majoring in history and Asian studies, hopes that Seo’s speech will help students better identify with North Koreans.

“They’re not just these random people who are starving all day or fighting for their glorious leader,” Stultz said. “They’re humans like me and you.”

According to Stultz, the problem in North Korea goes beyond the country’s borders.

“There are a lot of problems in the world, but the only way we can stop them is if we take one problem and we start working on it,” Stultz said. “This is a human rights issue, not just an Asian issue or a Korean issue.”

Eunice Kim, the secretary of THiNK and a junior majoring in human development, said she wanted not only to raise awareness of the conditions in North Korea, but also to encourage students to get involved in helping refugees like Seo.

“We had probably 70-80 people come out tonight, which is a pretty good turnout,” Kim said. “But it’s not really about the numbers at the end of the day. If we even impact one person, it’s really great.”

Seo lives with a sponsor family and attends Monroe Community College where he studies information technology. John Ra, Seo’s sponsor, accompanied Seo to the event to help him with his English during his speech. Ra, 40, spoke proudly of Seo and hopes that his message will raise awareness of the dehumanization in North Korea.

“We’re not blood-related, but he’s like my family,” Seo said. “His ambition is to really go back to his country one day, if time allows, and help other North Koreans.”

THiNK hosted the event to raise awareness and money for its parent organization, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). Na said all of the donations will go toward rescue operations for North Korean refugees who are hiding in China.