Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Ann Kim, Communications Editor
On November 13, 2017, North Korean soldier Chung-Sung Oh defected over Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area, which has been designated as the “truce village” for North and South Korea since the armistice. Oh drove a car directly across the military demarcation line. Once the car lost a wheel, he exited and sprinted across the border under close-range gunfire. After being shot and wounded, Oh was rescued and airlifted to the private Ajou University Hospital, where one of South Korea’s leading trauma surgeons, Guk-Jong Lee, operated on him. In addition to being treated for the gunshot wounds through two rounds of surgery, Oh was diagnosed with pneumonia, hepatitis B, and a parasitic infection in his stomach.
While Dr. Lee was in charge of Oh’s surgery, Raul Coimbra, a world-renowned trauma expert and professor at the University of California, San Diego, advised Lee on the procedure. Coimbra said, “Take out as many intestines you can.” Post-surgery, the soldier’s recovery time took longer as he was diagnosed with multiple infections. The parasitic worms and kernels of corn found in the North Korean soldier highlight nutritional and hygiene problems that experts say have plagued the isolated country for decades.
“Although we do not have solid figures showing health conditions of North Korea, medical experts assume that parasite infection problems and serious health issues have been prevalent in the country,” said Min-Ho Choi, a professor and parasite specialist at Seoul National University College of Medicine. This assumption is, in fact, reality. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010, Amnesty International found that North Korea’s healthcare system couldn’t even provide sterilized needles, clean water, food, or medicine in its hospitals. In fact, some patients were not receiving the necessary anesthesia for surgery. More jarring is the contrast between the global average of spending $716 per capita on healthcare and North Korea spending just $1 per capita on healthcare, according to the World Health Organization, which displays a lack of care and cruelty on the part of the North Korean government.
One individual who experienced the North Korean healthcare system personally, business insider Benjamin Macker, speaks of his time in North Korea’s deeply corrupt healthcare system as “horrible.” Doctors would turn away patients too poor to afford healthcare, pointing to not only the shortage of medical supplies, but also the corruption of medical professionals as reasons for citizens’ poor medical conditions.
From the North Korean soldier’s condition to the jarring statistical gap in funding, and to Benjamin Macker’s personal recounts, it is clear that North Korea’s health issues need to be given more attention. In the future, with more medically trained professionals and economic investment, perhaps North Korea’s plagued healthcare system can be fixed.