When Mr. Oh, a 25-year-old and member of the North Korean military, stepped into his black military jeep on a cold winter afternoon on November 13, he must have thought out what he was going to do over and over in his head. The North Korean regime is infamous for its treatment of defectors; that is, if they are caught. Usual protocol is to shoot at them with real bullets and kill if necessary. Especially more dangerous and risky would be to cross the border through the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), once called the “scariest place on Earth” by Bill Clinton.
CCTV footage released by the United Nations Command showed footage of his jeep speeding through the DMZ, past multiple North Korean border checkpoints until his jeep fell into a ditch. From there on, he had to continue by foot. Little was he thinking of life afterwards the crossing when running towards the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom, with around forty bullets whizzing past him and five having succeeded in penetrating his body. It was an act of survival, a desperate cry for life. The defector was quickly rescued by the South Korean army and transported to Ajou University Hospital in Suwon.
This event quickly gained the attention of the media, in a moment in history almost tailored for its introduction. US President Trump had visited South Korea in the same month to address the issue of North Korea, along with his favorite topic of negotiating new trade deals, and had almost done a surprise visit to the very DMZ, which was only abruptly canceled due to bad weather conditions. Also, not even a full week after this event, China’s special envoy visited North Korea to “express issues of mutual concern.”
However, this month’s feature aims to deal with the things that happened after all of this. And to understand this, we need to understand the context. Questions were asked daily to the lead surgeon, Professor Cook-Jong Lee, about the status of the North Korean soldier. Was he alive? What were the chances of survival? How old was he and what was his status in the North Korean army? Why did he decide to defect? The attention from the outside towards the incident, which had become a national issue, was too much for Professor Lee, who had been given the task of curing a patient who had been already almost dead from a medical point of view, to cope with. The conservative press targeted Professor Lee, asking questions purposefully directed towards details inconsequential to the recovery of the patient, and got the lead surgeon involved in a scandal of human rights violations of the patient via revealing too much intel.
In a twisted way, the call for life from the North Korean spurred a chain reaction and another call for life from the doctor. Professor Lee sincerely appealed to the press, the same day he announced that the patient had undergone a successful surgery and had shown signs of consciousness, for much needed help. Professor Lee described to the press the poor conditions he and his colleagues had been silently working under for years and years. Major trauma surgeons by nature have to be alert 24/7. Major trauma patients in the US can expect to be brought to proper medical care within the “Golden Hour”. However, in Korea, it is not rare for the patient to be in limbo for eight hours, nowhere to go, with the “Golden Hour” long past.
Also, the lead surgeon explained how many emergency centers in Korean hospitals had been frowned upon as the more patients they took in, the larger the hospital deficit grew due to the enormous medical costs required for a patient with severe damage. He openly lamented, “It is duty as a doctor to save the dying patient, but often his ability to carry out his job is influenced by his superiors and surroundings.”
Professor Lee had also been, not for the first time, framed as a publicity monger. It was this time from his fellow doctors, who accused Professor Lee of making a “show” out of the patient. He was being attacked from within the medical community, as he described on November 22 in an interview with JTBC. The remarks Professor Lee made are not singularities. They perhaps epitomize the problems in the Korean medical system, which are often overlooked. There had been another recent scandal involving violence and poor working conditions in hospitals. The exclusiveness of the medical community has been often criticized. And the divide between the relatively small, poor hospitals and large, rich hospitals has never been as clear as today. We wish to delve deeper into these issues through this month’s feature.