Security footage was released by the United Nations Command that showed the dramatic escape of a 24-year-old North Korean soldier fleeing across the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) and into South Korea while he was being shot by his former comrades in the North Korean army.
On November 13, South Korean surgeon Lee Cook-Jong received a startling call to his trauma unit, that a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was on its way with an injured North Korean soldier. Lee said he was informed that the soldier was “badly shot by North Koreans.”
Oh had been shot around five times as he made his daring escape across the line that divides North and South Korea.
“He was like a broken jar. We couldn’t put enough blood into him.”
Lee said the chopper was coming in fast and he went to meet the critically injured patient on the helipad. Lee said that he was thankful for the urgency in which the North Korean soldier was delivered to his unit, Trauma Bay 1, according to CNN.
“His vital signs were so unstable, he was dying of low blood pressure, he was dying of shock.”
The North Korean soldier had several bullets embedded within his body as he was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.
During the 25-minute emergency medical flight to the hospital, the defector hovered close to death. After the Black Hawk touched down, the extreme efforts to keep Oh alive lasted more than six hours.
North Korean Defector’s Minute-By-Minute Struggle To Stay Alive
Within the first 30 minutes, after Oh was rushed into Trauma Room One, Lee and his team worked to keep Oh breathing.
“He has one (bullet) through his right knee joint; the other one is the tricep muscle area on his arm, the third one was his back; chest and coming out from his shoulder.”
Lee encountered parasites, a complication that he had never seen in his 20-year career as a surgeon. Lee discovered the parasites during the operation as he worked to remove a bullet that had pierced Oh’s intestines.
Lee was working to repair at least seven wounds in the defector’s perforated bowel while white worms began squirming their way out of Oh’s body.
“Everything was stained with blood, but the parasite was basically a really white color and this thick, big, long and very, very hard, this kind of thing was getting out from his bowel system.”
Lee describes Oh’s vital signs as so unstable that a few times during the grueling operation, he thought the defector would die on the surgical table.
“It’s a miracle that he survived.”
All parasites were removed from Oh’s system and some of them were as long as 27 centimeters, or more than 10 inches.
Intestinal worms are typically transmitted through contact with feces or unwashed hands. The use of human fertilizer on crops and poor sanitary conditions can also aid the transmission of parasitic cysts.
Lee appears to have grown fond of Oh during the weeks he’s been treating him.
“I’m very proud of him. He fled from North Korea seeking for liberty, much more freedom. It’s quite easy to say, but it’s really, really difficult to make it happen, so I admire him.”
Lee operated on Oh again two days later for more than three hours, and within days of that, the defector began a fast-paced recovery that has surprised even his doctors.
North Korean Defector Begins Walking And Talking
Currently, Oh is reported to be walking, talking, and going to the bathroom independently. Lee said that his condition is stable but still grave as complications from tuberculosis and hepatitis B continue to compromise his recovery, especially his liver function.
Oh was also placed under psychiatric care and may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to CNN.
Lee also reported that the brave North Korea escapee has been plagued by nightmares that make him fearful that he was still in North Korea. This has prompted Lee to hang the South Korean flag in his recovery room to remind him that he was safe.
North Korea is fortifying the spot where a soldier made a dramatic dash to the South https://t.co/44DCfLAScr— TIME (@TIME) November 27, 2017
“He actually asked me, ‘is it really South Korea?’ And I said, ‘have a look at that flag. Have you ever seen that flag in North Korea?'”
Oh is likely to have valuable information on North Korea’s armed forces as a border guard on active duty. However, due to Oh’s delicate condition, Lee was compelled to tell South Korean officials “very firmly” that they had to postpone questioning.
The South Korean government screens defectors for security risks and runs resettlement programs to help them adapt and integrate into society in South Korea which can sometimes become a struggle on its own.
Lee is protective of his patient, and Oh remains under heavy security in the hospital so that nothing can compromise his treatment.
“If there’s so many questions about his past years in North Korea. It might affect his emotional status, so if he’s in depressed status, he may not be able to eat properly or recover properly.”
To take his mind off the pain, Lee encouraged Oh to listen to music — he likes K-Pop group Girls Generation and watches television. Lee says the first movie he saw was the action movie Transporter 3.
Oh told Lee that American and South Korean TV dramas are popular in North Korea, suggesting that some people have access to outside media, which surprised Lee.
Throughout Oh’s miraculous survival and recovery, Lee, a renowned surgeon who trained in San Diego, said that it has been hard to not let the stress get to him.
There’s been intense interest in Oh’s story across South Korea and by international media, and as one of the few people who have access to him, the demands for information are relentless.
He said that while Oh’s survival is a miracle, it is an outcome his team strives for every day with every patient.
Lee says he goes home just one day a week and spends the rest of his days working and sleeping in the trauma center.
The surgeon said he is not used to his newfound celebrity. Within a matter of minutes of walking outside, Lee is asked to pose for photographs.
South Korea admires how Lee saved Oh. Lee said that he knew his country was counting on him.
“People tend to say that I’m proud of my country or something, so that’s why I was trying to save Mr. Oh’s life, but it’s totally wrong, as you can see here. We are doing this job every single day.”
Oh has told his surgeon that he’s interested in studying law in the future. Lee said that he has no interest in joining the South Korean military, as other defectors have done.