On November 13, 2017, Oh Chong Song, a soldier in the North Korean army, made a break for the South Korean border. North Korea has seen a sharp increase in defections since strict new sanctions were placed on the reclusive nation over Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, but attempts at defection across the heavily fortified border remain extremely uncommon.
As Oh leaped from his vehicle and closed with the border on foot, he quickly understood why. He made it into South Korean territory, but his malnourished and parasite-ridden body paid the price with five fresh bullet holes, each delivered by a border guard he saw as a coworker and compatriot only minutes before. Now, Oh has opened up about the nation he chose to leave and the way he left it for the first time, and surprisingly, he holds no ill will toward the men who shot him.
“If they don’t shoot, they will be severely punished. If I were in their position I would have shot me too,” Oh explained to the Japanese newspaper Sankei. Oh also mentioned that his decision to defect was based on “trouble” with his fellow soldiers, but when asked to elaborate on what that trouble may have been, he refused to.
When South Korean troops reached Oh on the border, he was badly injured and bleeding profusely. He was immediately airlifted to a nearby hospital for treatment, where doctors found his care complicated by his terrible physical health. Oh had only hardened corn kernels and parasitic worms — some of which were as long as 11 inches — in his digestive system.
In my 20 years as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a medical textbook,” said Dr. Lee Cook-jong, the lead surgeon at the time. According to the doctor, dozens of the worms were found inside the injured soldier’s intestines. He added, “It was a serious parasitic infection.”
It came as a surprise, then, when Oh revealed that he actually hailed from a fairly well off family. It was thanks to his family’s status within North Korea that Oh was able to land a military position as the driver for a senior ranking officer stationed at the border. Despite the prestige of his position and a notable family, however, Oh said that hunger was still a constant part of life inside North Korea. Despite his meager state, Oh said he was actually fed better than many others, and that his parasitic infection was so widespread because he was better fed than many of his peers.
“In the army, people use tableware again and again without washing them. But parasites don’t grow in people if they are really malnourished. In my case, I was found with parasites because I was in good condition,” Oh explained. “If you don’t have money or power, you die in a ditch.”
Oh also relayed another important element of North Korean life that may come as a shock to many on the outside: North Koreans are increasingly indifferent toward their leader, Kim Jong Un. In fact, Oh stated, “People my age, about 80% of them are indifferent and they don’t feel loyal towards [Kim]. Not being able to feed the people properly, but the hereditary succession keeps going on — that results in indifference and no loyalty.”
Watch footage of Oh’s escape from North Korea below:
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