A soldier’s defection and survival inspire two peoples … and perhaps, a third

New reports on that North Korean soldier’s defection at the Joint Security Area last month have added even more dramatic detail to his story. First, we learned of the heroism of the ROK soldiers who crawled out to drag him to safety. Then, we saw the video of his escape, with his comrades just a few feet behind him, shooting at him (and thankfully, missing in most cases). 

Now we know his name: Oh Chong-song. We know his aspiration: to be … a lawyer. We also know that he owes his life to a quick-thinking U.S. Army noncommissioned officer.

When the injured soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk helicopter, Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh, on his last mission as a flight medic, said a prayer. He did not think the man, who had been shot five times, was going to survive.

“I could tell immediately that this guy was probably going to die in the next 15 minutes if we didn’t start working on him and get the aircraft off the ground,” said Singh, a medic in the Eighth Army’s 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Crews in the area often do medevac missions for South Korean civilians, such as those who get hurt in farm accidents. Only later did the crew learn that their patient was a North Korean soldier.

It was when the soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk that Singh, who was starting his final month in South Korea and the Army, realized how serious his patient’s injuries were.

“I actually said a prayer because I saw the condition he was in,” said Singh, who is 39 and from San Antonio. “The pilots could probably tell by my voice that he was in real danger of dying.”

The personnel at the JSA had stopped a lot of the bleeding from the gunshot wounds to the shoulder, chest and abdomen, but Oh was having difficulty breathing. He was trying to sit up on one side — a sign that he might be taking air inside his chest from a wound.

Singh performed a needle chest decompression, puncturing the soldier’s chest cavity to allow the air building up inside to escape. “I knew if I didn’t do that he would probably die because once his chest cavity filled up with air, it would push his heart and lung and everything over, and he wouldn’t make it,” he said. [WaPo]

I’ve pushed the limits of the Fair Use Doctrine far enough for one day, so read the rest of Fifield’s story on your own. From there, CNN picks up the story with video from the operating room in those first critical minutes — and more grody pictures of poor Mr. Oh’s tapeworms, which I really didn’t need at breakfast. It also interviews celebrity trauma surgeon Lee Cook-jong, who credits the American medics for saving Sergeant Oh.

“His vital signs were so unstable, he was dying of low blood pressure, he was dying of shock,” Lee said. [….]

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,” Lee said. [CNN]

It’s hard not to find this story inspiring.

“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 said. [CNN]

Oh is recovering well enough that he can already walk on his own, despite having to fight off parasitic infestations, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and (understandably) post-traumatic stress disorder.

He’s been plagued by nightmares, sometimes fearing he was still in North Korea, prompting Lee to hang the South Korean flag in his recovery room to remind him he was safe. “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?’  [CNN]

The story of Oh’s defection and recovery is still big news in South Korea. How could it fail to be, with a plot that could have been an episode of “Descendants of the Sun”? B.R. Myers worries about the tendency of certain Koreans to have an excess of nationalism (minjokjuŭi) rather than patriotism (kukkajuŭi). There is some evidence that this trend has shifted toward the latter in recent years. Here is a story that cleaves that difference perfectly by contrasting a ruthless and uninhabitable society against a liberal and compassionate one. This isn’t just a story of two men. It’s a story of how governments can suppress, but not quite extinguish, what is best about us as human beings.

“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.” [CNN]

Meanwhile, Sergeant First Class Singh, who is preparing to finish his tour in Korea and his Army service, has said that he “thought about going to congratulate” Oh for his defection and recovery. What a grave error it would be if U.S. Forces Korea Public Relations fails to give him that chance.

“It’s truly a miracle. From the time that I saw him on the aircraft, I thought he was going to die,” Singh said. “So to be able to see him make it, it’s been a good feeling for all of us as a crew.” [WaPo]

As a good doctor should, Dr. Lee continues to keep the boys from the National Intelligence Service away from Oh to give his patient a chance to recover, but I’ll confess that I have an intense interest in knowing why Oh did something so desperate. His diet was clearly terrible. His comrades’ reaction to his defection shows them stumbling (possibly over each other), acting confused and ill-prepared, repeatedly missing their target, and later milling around, perhaps wondering whether to cross the DMZ in a group to drag him back (which would have gotten very ugly, very fast).

All of this suggests that these soldiers’ standard of training fell well below what we’d expect in this unit. What can Oh tell us about the state of training, morale, and discipline in front-line units? Does his diet indicate that conditions for even the elite of the elite of the NKPA have deteriorated recently? Does this, in turn, say something about the targeting of our sanctions? Is it possible that, like most parts of the North Korean government, this unit is funded by a particular trading company that has been affected by them? Was Oh fearful of a purge or punishment for some disciplinary infraction, or abuse by a superior?

Then, there are questions about the obvious influence of South Korean culture on Oh. Did the loudspeaker propaganda I’ve intermittently ridiculed, or the ability to watch South Korean television along the DMZ, help inspire his defection? If so, what messages have the greatest potential to impact a North Korean soldier’s willingness to obey or refuse orders to kill his fellow Koreans? The general public may never know those answers, but these are all important things for our governments to know.

Meanwhile, and to its credit, the South Korean government is broadcasting the story of Oh’s defection and survival back to his comrades north of the DMZ. One can only hope that this story says as much to them about the nature of their society and culture as it clearly has to many South Koreans.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing with us a blog which clearly shows that Koreans are not their own worst enemies. Kudos to Dr.Lee, ROK soldiers who bravely rescued Oh and Mr.Singh from the greatest country in the universe.

    Best of luck to Mr.Oh, and I hope one day, he can become a lawyer so he can also help those in need and even save a life or two..

    Great story. Can’t wait for Chapter II.




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  2. They need to build a jumbotron or electronic billboards to compliment the loudspeakers. Show K-pop videos with text about how to defect and incentives for defectors.

    Let’s see whether Samsung or LG can build the jumbotron that can be seen from the furthest away in NK.




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  3. South Korea should build a jumbotron to compliment the loud speaker system. Broadcast K-pop music videos all day to get the attention of the NK soldiers. Add text with news and information about how to defect and the incentives that await them as defectors.

    Get Samsung and LG to compete to see who can build the biggest electronic billboard that can be seen for miles into the north.




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  4. To me, the miraculous survival of Mr. Oh is symbolic of the Korean people once again rescued through the goodwill of their American benefactors by the mercy of almighty God.

    And I want to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude for your tireless service for my North Korean brothers and sisters. To be honest, I had been little interested in the welfare of my North Korean bretheren until recently, for which I am deeply ashamed of myself. Thanks to God, in whom I believe, I came to realize how morally repugnant it was for me to callously ignore the plight of the North Korean people, especially those whose faith in God make them an open target by the merciless regime in the North.

    The past one-year period has transformed my hitherto apoliticial mindset, and I now am resolved to do everything I can to help liberate the North Korean people and am already taking the first step in that direction. Your admirable effort in this regard has helped cement my resolve.

    And I also want to thank you for your service in ROK. I consider anyone who served or is serving in ROK my brother and am determined to do all I can to help repay the debt of gratitude we Koreans owe to our American brothers and sisters who have fought a good fight to protect our freedom.

    From the bottom of my heart and with teary eyes, I thank and salute you.

    H. Cha




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  5. To H. Cha,

    Wow, what a nice heartfelt post! Your comments echo sentiments felt by a lot of Korea watchers like myself and I really appreciated reading them..




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  6. How could the medevac crew not know their patient was a North Korean soldier? Wouldn’t he have still been in uniform?




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  7. @Gary S: might have had most of the uniform cut away by medics/CLS (or ROKA equivalent) trained personnel on scene. Considering how many times he’d been shot and that he had been lying prone bleeding for an extended time until the ROKA guys and got him, it might have been necessary to just cut the uniform off. It was probably pretty bloody.

    @Joshua: two of my big takeaways from this were that the KPA apparently at least keeps a few sets of weaponry for an infantry squad at the JSA, and that the JSA Guard Force appears to be much more of a parade unit focused on appearance than tactical functionality. In addition to the bad marksmanship and fumbling around they displayed, Twitter noted that the guards were carrying the older Type 73 machine gun vice the newer Type 82, and their Kevlars looked decidedly of an older generation. Granting it’s possible that the Norks just haven’t gotten new Kevlars recently, it also seems to me more likely that the JSA guys are there to fulfill the bad inspection mantra sometimes heard in the US Navy of “Work it may, Shine it must.”




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  8. Very heartening to read Mr. Cha’s testimony. Have shared same with older Koreans as proof that younger folks may be starting to wake up, by the grace of almighty God. Since mid-October through UTD-KCC there has been a 100 Days of Prayer movement afoot with its primary focus on our oppressed brothers and sisters in the North. With the indulgence of our host, may I share this week’s prayer schedule (alas, the much less-than-optimal translation into English my own):

    12월 3일(주일) 세계 모든 나라들이 북한의 인권탄압과 주민압제를 종식시키는데 앞장서게 하소서 All the countries of the world take a stand against North Korea’s human rights abuses and oppression of its citizens.

    12월 4일(월) 북한정권의 돈줄이 마르게 하시고 통치수단이 막히게 하여 무너지게 하소서 The NK regime’s financial resources run dry and their government measures to alleviate the situation collapse.

    12월 5일(화) 한국의 대통령과 그 참모들에게 냉철한 통찰력과 국가안보의 책임을 갖게 하소서 The Korean president and his aides have clear-headed discernment in their responsibility for national security.

    12월 6일(수) 탈북자들을 잡아내고 북송시키는 중국의 무자비한 인권탄압이 끝나게 하소서 China’s merciless human rights abuse in catching and repatriating North Korean defectors comes to an end.

    12월 7일(목) 북한내 지하성도들의 신음과 기도를 들으시사 해방되는 통일의 날이 오게 하소서 God hears the groans and prayers of His saints of the underground church in North Korea for liberation and reunification.

    12월 8일(금) 한국교회의 지도자들이 허영과 명예를 내던지고 느헤미야 같이 민족을 살리게 하소서 May leaders of the Korean church forsake vanity and privilege and like Nehemiah revive our people.

    12월 9일(토) 대한민국의 젊은 세대가 망상과 환상에서 깨어나 통일한국의 축복을 누리게 하소서 Free Korea’s younger generation be awakened from their delusions and fantasies and devote themselves to Korean reunification.




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