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Man who escaped North Korea for Rochester shares message

Justin Seo, 28, moved to Rochester eight years ago after making a daring escape from North Korea followed by months of trying to survive and stay hidden in China. (Photo: Justin Seo)

Rochester, N.Y. - Tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to build after North Korea successfully tested a missile last week, reportedly capable of striking the U.S.

"All I can say is everything is a miracle," said Justin Seo, who escaped North Korea. "By God's grace."

Justin Seo, 28, moved to Rochester eight years ago after making a daring escape from North Korea followed by months of trying to survive and stay hidden in China.

He would later find refugee status in the United States after finally getting in touch with a small radio station that connected him to the humanitarian non-profit group 318 Partners.

"I didn't know where on the earth where Rochester is, and then at the immigration, interview with the immigration officers they said, 'Where do you want to live?'" Seo said he replied, "Somewhere where it's cold weather."

Video and images outsiders see of North Korea often times depict the communist regime's structure, discipline and strength. The country's "juche" mentality of being fully self capable without outside help.

But Seo's account of his home country depicts a much different picture. He says his upbringing involved oppression and hunger, being jailed in a North Korean prison camp and seeing death and misery all around him.

"My home was out of food. Nothing to eat besides rats," said Seo. "I stole some potatoes and my schoolmate she saw that and she talked to the village leader."

Seo was sentenced to prison for stealing potatoes from a government farm. In a race against time, Seo and his father were able to defect to China not far from North Korea's Baekdu Mountain.

"Crossing the border is only like three hours distance from my home, but we took three days because we were crawling, crawling," said Seo.

Seo said after crossing into China, he was exploited for labor and threatened to be handed over to Chinese Police, which would land him back in North Korea and back in a prison camp.

"I strongly encourage everybody, whoever can, write a letter to the U.N. and U.S. government to press on the Chinese government to recognize North Korean defectors as human beings, as refugees," said Seo.

Seo dreams of a different North Korea in the future he can return home to and help with the education he is now receiving in the United States.

"My ultimate goal is when Korea is united, I want to go back to Korea my hometown and try helping them," said Seo.

Seo has a message for his friends who may be in hiding. Here is the message:


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