The fate of the North Korean soldier who seriously injured by North Korean gunfire as he fled across the demilitarized zone into South Korea last week remains uncertain, but doctors may have already learned quite a bit about the state of the North Korean military through their attempts to save the life of the badly injured man.
The soldier had driven a military jeep into the Joint Security Area dividing North and South Korean territory, where according to reports, he was already taking fire from North Korean troops. The soldier then fled the disabled vehicle and was hit by North Korean rounds five times as he scrambled into South Korean territory. The defector collapsed some 55 yards past the border, where South Korea troops low crawled to his aid, removing him from the scene and loading him onto a UN Medevac for transport to a hospital near Seoul.
Once the North Korean soldier was brought in for life saving surgery, however, doctors discovered some horrific clues regarding that condition of North Korea’s military, and possibly, their populace at large. The soldier’s unconscious body was riddled with parasitic worms; some reaching lengths as long as 11 inches.
In my 20 years as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a medical textbook,” said Dr. Lee Cook-jong, a lead surgeon. According to the doctor, dozens of the worms were found inside the injured soldier’s intestines, adding, “It was a serious parasitic infection.”
Among other North Korean defectors, unfortunately, the discovery of the rampant infection came as little surprise. Because North Korea lacks the means to produce chemical fertilizers, the nation relies heavily on recycling human feces to fertilize the crops that feed the nation’s populous. This method creates a perfect storm for widespread parasitic infections among those who eat the food produced by the nation’s agriculture.
In a 2014 study of 17 female defectors, also carried out by South Korean physicians, seven of the subjects were found to have similar parasitic infections in their intestines, but the condition of the defector’s body may point to worsening conditions within the reclusive state.
North Korean soldiers, particularly those stationed at or around the Joint Security Area, are traditionally better fed and cared for than those tasked elsewhere in the nation. That’s not merely a security precaution, but like so many of North Korea’s efforts to manage perceptions of the nation from beyond its borders, it is intended to convey the health and vitality of Kim’s regime. Beyond the worm infestation, doctors also found hardened kernels of corn in the defectors stomach, suggesting food rations must be significantly limited, otherwise the soldier likely wouldn’t have resorted to eating them.
It is believed that more than a million people died in North Korea throughout the 1990s, as widespread famine drastically cut the nation’s food production, and 30,000 more have since managed to find their way through Kim’s tight security to defect into South Korea, usually by way of China. Although the famine of the 90’s has subsided, it is believed North Korean citizens suffer from widespread malnutrition, stunting the growth of many young people within the state.
The defector, for instance, is believed to be in his late 20s, though he stands only 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs just more than 130 pounds. By comparison, the average South Korean high school student just past the border stands at 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs in at around 154 pounds.
The condition of the soldier may point to a significant lack of food rations, as well as worsening hygiene within the North Korean military, which may be directly related to stricter sanctions being levied on the nation by United States and United Nations led efforts. The intent of the sanctions is to stifle the flow of money into the nation, forcing Kim to relinquish his efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal, though it would seem Kim continues to funnel money into the weapons programs, even at the expense of his soldiers’ health and well-being.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press
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