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A lonely fight

Traumatic injuries occur in hazardous places, but that doesn’t stop Dr. Lee from going there.
Nov 29,2017
It was like a scene from a movie. In footage released by the United Nations Command, a North Korea soldier makes a desperate dash toward the southern side of the demarcation line on Nov. 13 amidst a barrage of gunshots fired by fellow soldiers racing after him. He drives a jeep on a tree-lined road at full speed. He does not relent when his vehicle crashes into a ditch near the border line and even when angry guards rush after him and fire 40 rounds. The near-fatal wounds could not stop a 24-year-old North Korean, who had been brainwashed all his life, from making his final sprint to freedom.

The soldiers, who might have shared meals and laughed with him in the past, fired mercilessly to stop one of their own from fleeing the Hermit Kingdom. The escape was desperate and so were the other soldiers’ attempts to stop it.

In a world that has become increasingly borderless, North Korea remains the only land where people put their lives at stake to leave. Living in the country is a kind of hell. To North Koreans, crossing any border is a matter of life and death.

There are several students at Seoul National University who fled the North. I dare not ask them to talk about their ordeal. A graduate student who defected a decade ago said she acted on her long-held dream when her workplace — a smelting factory — was demolished one day. She had been a teacher. She followed mountain trails along the Amnok (Yalu) River, which separates North Korea and China. Security was heavy and the waters were cold. When she was discovered by a guard by the Duman (Tumen) River, she bribed her way out. It took her three months to find shelter in China.

There are an estimated 30,000 North Korean settlers in the South. Few people know or are interested in how they get by. They are subsidized with a 15 million won ($13,749) settlement fund and an allowance of 6 million won. Most earn livings off precarious jobs on construction sites or in restaurants. A North Korea defector recently appeared on a TV program. He said life in the South was equally hard. The South may not be the ultimate destination for the defectors. They fled for freedom and better lives. But the outside world is hard. They turn to the South, where at least they can communicate.

“Am I really in South Korea?” was the first question from the defecting solider after he gained consciousness. He went through several surgeries on wounds that could trouble him the rest of his life. But for now, he lies in bed enjoying South Korean pop music and TV programs.

Dr. Lee Cook-jong, a trauma specialist, removed bullets and parasites he had never seen except in medical textbooks. He is famous for having saved another life in a highly intense and closely watched situation. I had an opportunity to speak to him after he was honored by the JoongAng Ilbo for saving the life of a ship captain shot by Somali pirates in 2011. Lee became a national hero for saving another hero, who refused to give up his ship even after an armed attack. Despite the media hype, his concerns centered on social misconceptions about medical professionals and their industry.

Now, Lee has suffered from being in the news once more. Kim Jong-dae, a lawmaker of the leftist Justice Party, publicly criticized him for exposing the poor health condition of the defecting soldier, which he claimed was as big a crime as being shot by his fellow soldiers. One anonymous doctor even accused Lee for seeking publicity at the expense of his patient. Lee stood tough and argued that saving the life of a patient is the true way to respect someone. Some even found fault with the government allocating 20 percent of revenues from traffic fines to trauma centers after Lee saved the captain. Despite the government subsidy, 14 trauma centers across the nation are in chronic need of funds and doctors. Unlike emergency rooms, trauma centers are entirely devoted to treating grave injuries from gunshot wounds and disasters like earthquakes.

Lee has built a trauma infrastructure despite public apathy and misunderstanding. He has a devoted commitment to reducing deaths from traumatic injuries. He is on standby around the clock. He flies to wherever care is needed. Traumatic injuries often occur in hazardous places. That never stops him from flying to patients in need.

He must fight against the sneering, prejudice and envy at home. He must overcome them if he wants to reach his goal of saving another life. “This may not be the South the North Korean has staked his life to get to,” he said. Lee, too, must continue a lonely fight.

A trauma doctor battling negligence and misconception has saved a North Korean soldier in his bold pursuit of freedom. We wish a happy ending for both of these brave men.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 35

*The author, a professor of sociology at Seoul National University, is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Song Ho-keun