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Defector soldier reveals health conditions in N. Korea

Trauma surgeon Lee Cook-jong shows images of parasitic worms found in a wounded North Korean soldier at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, Nov. 15. The soldier was shot several times during his escape to the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area before undergoing emergency surgery at the hospital. / Yonhap

By Yi Whan-woo

The defection of a North Korean soldier at the Joint Security Area (JSA) in November is raising awareness of health conditions inside the impoverished regime after parasitic worms and a chronic liver infection were found in the solider.

The finding came unexpectedly after the soldier, Oh Chung-sung, 25, was shot by his comrades during his escape to the Southern side of the JSA , was brought to safety by South Korean and U.S. soldiers and underwent emergency surgery.

Doctors found and removed several types of intestinal parasitic worms, some up to 27 centimeters long, according to Lee Cook-jong, the trauma surgeon who operated on Oh at Ajou University Hospital.

Lee said that in 20 years as a surgeon he had never seen such a case except in a medical textbook.

Lee said the soldier hepatitis B as well, which was a serious risk factor for liver cancer.

Oh' s stomach also contained raw corn kernels, which came as a surprise because North Korea was believed to assign soldiers with elite backgrounds to the JSA and treat them well.

Oh's father is reportedly a high-ranking officer in the military police, according to intelligence sources.

Since the soldier's health problems were revealed, calls have been growing in Seoul to bolster medical support for Pyongyang to help improve health conditions in the rogue state.

Experts claim that such efforts will be critical in "narrowing the gap" between the two Koreas on sanitation and other public health issues and prevent diseases spreading if the Korean Peninsula is united.

During a CNN interview, Seoul National University College of Medicine professor Choi Min-ho said poor sanitary conditions and use of human waste as fertilizer on crops were responsible for parasitic cysts in North Korea.

"It is a vicious cycle that is hard to stop in North Korea," he said. "They are so desperate to make ends meet that they cannot take proper preventive measures."

A defector-turned-journalist voiced a similar view, pointing out that she and her fellow residents in a rural village in North Korea pumped up underground water and drank it, even though it was believed to be polluted by feces from public toilets.

"There was no sewage facility and the feces from the toilets went directly underground, meaning the water is getting mixed with those feces," she said.

She said the village chief had said not to worry about pollution because the water was 15 meters below the ground and therefore "self-purified."

She said a friend in the village told her recently in a secret phone call that the villagers were "still drinking that water."

The North Korean soldier who defected on Nov. 13 at the JSA waits for emergency surgery at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. / Yonhap

Some sources said North Korean elementary and secondary students had to dry human feces in spring to be used as fertilizer.

Many dried the feces with bare hands, which made the students vulnerable to multiple intestinal worms, including roundworms, threadworms and hookworms.

"Moreover, the students cannot wash their hands regularly due to a water shortage," a source said. "The students are provided with anti-parasite medication twice a year, but it does not help much because they handle the medicine with their hands unwashed."

Kang Chol-hwan, a defector-turned-anti-Pyongyang activist, said every household was given a medicine named "Santonin," when he was in North Korea in the early 1990s.

But the black syrup could cause liver damage if taken in the long term, so developed countries rarely used it, according to Kang.

"We had to take it because we had nothing else to take," Kang said. "And it was gross to see intestinal worms actually coming out of people's mouths after we took the syrup.

"I was shocked that the North soldier at the JSA still had those worms because the medicine has been used for more than two decades," he added.

Meanwhile, North Korea has been beefing up security at the JSA since Oh defected on Nov. 13.

Soldiers dug up a deep trench in the area where Oh, a driver, had dashed across the military demarcation line after his jeep got stuck in a small ditch.

Two trees had also been planted in the small space between the ditch and the line with the South.