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North Korea Beyond the Border

The Case

On November 13, a dramatic video – filmed from the surveillance closed-circuit cameras – captured a North Korean soldier racing with his jeep towards the border with South Korea, in a desperate attempt to flee the country.


The footage shows the defector – known only by his last name, Oh – driving hastily towards the 72 bridge at 3:11 p.m. Within a couple of minutes, his fellow soldiers readily began to pursue Oh, who, having crashed his jeep, continued his escape by foot. The soldiers followed him and shot him more than forty times – though hitting the target only about five times – and he subsequently collapsed on the ground close to the border, severely wounded but in safe Southern Korean territory. One of the soldiers crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in his attempt to pursue the defector, but he quickly went back, while the others gathered on the north side of the Joint Security Area (JSA). The latter is located within the Korean Demilitarized Zone (KDZ), and is the area where South and North Korean militias stand vis-à-vis. Here the soldiers attended further indications from their superiors, but Oh was now beyond the border.

At 3.55 p.m., several South Korean JSA soldiers started crawling toward the wounded man with the aim of rescuing him. Oh was then carried to the Ajou University Hospital by a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter.

Medical Treatment: South vs. North

Currently, 24-year-old Oh is being taken care of by surgeon John Cook-Jong Lee and, according to the New York Post, might be ‘on the road to recovery’. His conditions, however, have been highly critical: while he was still being carried to the hospital, the U.S. Army medics had to intervene immediately to reinflate a collapsed lung3. Oh, attached to a breathing machine, remained unconscious for several days and had to undergo three emergency surgeries.

The soldier’s medical conditions include previously-acquired hepatitis B, tuberculosis and a parasitic worm infection. As revealed by the Washington Post on November 24, severe worm infections have been eradicated in South Korea over forty years ago – but are instead still fairly common on the other side of the border, where the healthcare system is largely lacking. Oh had reportedly been eating uncooked corn: this would confirm accounts claiming that North Korean officers have been ordering troops to steal cereals in local fields, in order to supplement the scarce rations they receive.

As explained by Choi Min-Ho (Seoul National University College of Medicine), malnourishment and lack of proteins or vitamins weaken the organism, making it more prone to contracting infections and illnesses. Besides, basic drugs to treat such infections are not made easily available to North Koreans – a lack which concurs to explaining Oh’s severe medical conditions.

Seoul’s prompt intervention to rescue and cure the defector can be used as a powerful means of propaganda against the North, and could turn into another element undermining the Northern regime. Since 2015, in fact, South Korea has resumed propaganda broadcasts along the 38th parallel, across the KDZ. In the past two years, several large loudspeakers have kept on transmitting propagandistic information to North Koreans, with the intent of encouraging them to flee their country. After Oh’s defection, the speakers have informed his former fellow soldiers that he is safe and is being given food and proper medical treatment.

The broadcast can be heard from villages which are located within several miles from the border and Kim Jong-Un’s regime is not comfortable at all with this Southern propaganda. Pyongyang has thus tried to counteract by playing loud military music along the 38th parallel and has repeatedly threatened to open fire against the loudspeakers. However, arguably, North Korean issues are far more deep-rooted and silencing Southern propaganda won’t be an effective solution.


As tweeted on November 22 by the acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Marc Knapper, ‘the North Koreans have planted two trees and are digging a trench at the spot where their soldier crossed the MDL’. But can this be enough to stop soldiers – and people in general – from attempting to leave the country? In about a decade, Oh’s case was the first defection over the border, due to the danger that people face when crossing the KDZ. Attempts to flee the country in other ways, however, are much more frequent and their attentive analysis gives us an insight into what life is like under the despotic North Korean regime – which spends abut 22% on national GDP on the military and way less on citizens’ livelihoods.

As of October 2017, 31.093 North Korean defectors have been registered officially with the Ministry of Unification in South Korea. They escape with the hope of receiving better healthcare assistance, education and access to food – but they also look for freedom of expression and association. According to Freedom House, as of 2017 freedom of expression and belief scores 0/16 points; associational and organizational rights score 0/12; personal autonomy and individual rights score 3/16 – this higher result mainly owing to the greater disposability of services and infrastructure in the capital city and to a partial private-sector economic freedom. Overall, however, civil liberties occupy the last position in the freedom scale – scoring 7/7 (with 1 being ‘most free’ and 7 ‘least free’).

As anticipated, defections are providential for South Korea, since they highlight the huge North-South cleavage and the great Southern advancement compared to the North. As a benchmark, on the 1 to 7 freedom scale, South Korea scores 2/7 and is overall defined as a ‘free country’ by Freedom House.

Relations between the two countries have always been tense, with suspected Northern cyberattacks and military exercises on both sides – but frictions have become even more palpable with the Northern nuclear-growth acceleration and empowerment. Surprisingly, South Korea is not the main destination for Northern expatriates: interestingly, most defectors do not attempt to escape to South Korea. As reported by The Telegraph, between 100.000 and 300.000 North Koreans have successfully fled the country since 1953, and most of them have escaped to Russia or China. Approximately, an additional 400 former North Korean residents now live in the UK. Most notably, a declared hydrogen bomb test in January 2016 caused an international uproar and the concomitant strengthening of sanctions targeting Pyongyang.

Conclusively, while the regime is becoming a growing nuclear power and an international threat, people are growing ill, hungry and weary. While loudspeakers broadcasting military music and thundering explosions attempt to deafen citizens, the latter keep an ear out for the Southern call. Oh is just one case of defection from North Korea, but many more like him dream a future without despotism and harsh authoritarian impositions – and no military parade or anthem will divert attention from this call of freedom.

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