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).
Then you can see soldiers run toward the back of the white house. They soon gather around this Kim Il Sung memorial. Many have long rifles (presumably AK-47s). What are they doing? SK analysts think they discuss whether to cross over & drag the prone solder back to their side pic.twitter.com/QQZ0ojVDpS
— Noon in Korea (@NoonInKorea) November 23, 2017
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.