Even by the standards of news about North Korea, this story is bizarre: Two North Korean doctors working in Cambodia died over the weekend, apparently after they got so drunk that their wives, also doctors, injected them with some mystery liquid to counteract the alcohol. Both men then had heart attacks, according to a report in the Phnom Penh Post.
Now, we’re used to stories about strange deaths in North Korea. There's Jang Song Thaek, the mercurial uncle whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shot. (Although rumors went around that he was savaged by a pack of 100 hungry dogs. Not true.) Or the singer and former girlfriend of Kim Jong Un who reappeared after her reported execution. Just last week, we heard about the sudden death of Kim Yang Gon, a key liaison with South Korea, apparently in a car crash (in a country that still has relatively few cars.)
But this case concerns North Koreans who were almost certainly among the 50,000 or more citizens outside the country earning money for Kim Jong Un’s regime. According to the Cambodian news report, local police were called to an address in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district on Saturday night, a clinic that also serves as home to the North Korean doctors. There, they found a dozen North Koreans and the two dead doctors, identified as An Hyong Chan, 56, and Chol Ri Mun, 50.
The police were immediately suspicious but apparently had their concerns allayed.
“According to the autopsy report, the victims both died of a heart attack,” local police chief Khan Khun Tith told the newspaper. The men had been drinking heavily and were running very high temperatures when their wives found them, according to the report.
“After arriving home, we checked their conditions, and their temperature had reached 40 degrees Celsius, and their heartbeat was abnormal and their pulses abnormally weak,” Tith quoted one of the wives as saying. “So we tried to save them by injecting medicine and serum to weaken the intoxication, but an hour later, they had a heart attack and died.”
When the Phnom Penh Post's reporters visited the clinic, they were told to leave by four unfriendly North Korean men. “We don’t want any interviews with journalists,” one of them said, according to the report.
This is the latest episode in a recent spate of news involving North Korean doctors abroad. Three North Korean doctors were killed — one of them beheaded — in northeastern Nigeria in 2013, apparently by Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group. Then there was a report in May last year that a North Korean doctor and his wife had been kidnapped in Libya by Islamic State militants.
In Cambodia, North Korean doctors are reported to be working at medical clinics in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, near the famed Angkor Wat site, a popular destination for South Korean tourists. They are part of a burgeoning number of North Koreans working abroad.
With few legal ways to make money in the outside world, Kim Jong Un’s regime has dramatically stepped up labor exports. From textile factories in China and logging camps in Russia to construction sites in the Middle East and mines in Southeast Asia, North Koreans are earning money for themselves and the regime. They typically get to keep one-third of what they earn — far more than what they could make at home.