As the 24-year-old in the Korean demilitarized zone ran from his vehicle, his fellow soldiers came in pursuit, firing more than 40 rounds at him. He was hit at least five times — but clung to life as he kept crawling south.
The brazen escape of a North Korean soldier has provided another glimpse at life inside Kim Jong Un's despotic regime, under which people are cut off from the outside world.
It's not clear why the North Korean soldier, identified only by his surname, Oh, escaped Nov. 13.
The soldier's extraordinary defection through the Joint Security Area, the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face, has military intelligence officers eager to speak with him. But a doctor at the hospital south of Seoul where Oh is being treated said the soldier shows signs of depression and post-traumatic stress and won't be ready to answer questions for about a month.
This is what we know about Oh, from how he escaped to what his doctors have learned about him.
How the soldier defected
Closed-circuit television footage released by the U.S. military shows Oh driving a jeeplike vehicle southward before it got stuck in a ditch yards away from the Military Demarcation Line that has formed the border between North Korea and South Korea since the end of the Korean War.
The soldier jumped out of the vehicle and began running, and four North Korean border guards began firing at him with pistols and AK-47-style assault rifles.
The video then shows Oh lying in a pile of leaves, south of the line, against the side of a building. Three South Korean soldiers crawled out and dragged him to safety, and a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter transported him to Ajou University Hospital, about 50 miles away.
North Korea appears to have replaced its security guards since Oh's escape, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an intelligence source in South Korea. Marc Knapper, the acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, tweeted Wednesday that North Koreans planted two trees and dug a trench in the spot where the soldier crossed.
A shooting hadn't occurred in the Joint Security Area since 1984, when North Korean and U.N. Command soldiers shot at each other during a Soviet citizen's sprint to the southern side, according to the Associated Press. North Korean soldiers defected at the site in 1998 and in 2007, but no gunfire was exchanged between the two sides in those instances, according to South Korea's military.
In the 1984 incident, the shootings happened after North Korean soldiers crossed the border and began firing, the AP reported. In the case of Oh, it's unclear whether North Korea continued to fire at him after he made it to the southern side of the Joint Security Area.
During a ceremony at Camp Bonifas on Thursday, three U.S. soldiers and three South Korean soldiers were recognized by senior military leaders for rescuing Oh.
As of Tuesday, North Korea's official media had not reported the soldier's defection. About 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. North Korean officials in the past have accused South Korea of kidnapping or encouraging people to leave.
The parasites in his stomach
Oh had no personal information when he arrived at the hospital, according to Reuters. His condition was severe: While on the flight, U.S. Army flight medics had to insert a large needle into his chest to help reinflate a collapsed lung and keep Oh alive.
After he had lost a large volume of blood, Oh's blood pressure was so low when he arrived at the hospital that doctors didn't have time to check his blood type. They quickly pumped about 40 units of type-O blood into him — about three to four times the amount of blood contained in the human body. He spent his first days in South Korea unconscious. A breathing machine kept him alive.
“He told me that he is so thankful for South Koreans for saving his life and giving him that much blood,” Oh's surgeon, Lee Cook-jong, told Reuters.
He has had three surgeries, including an attempt to repair his damaged internal organs and stop the contamination caused by 10-inch-long parasitic worms found in his intestines.
The worms indicated the severity of the humanitarian and health crisis sweeping North Korea as it pours its resources into becoming a nuclear power. With the country spending about 22 percent of its gross domestic product on the military, other public spending necessities have taken a hit. As a Newsweek headline bluntly put it: “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is starving his people to pay for nuclear weapons.”
Lee said he had never seen such an extreme case of parasitic infection. The soldier had worms not seen in South Korea since the 1970s, but they appeared to be somewhat common north of the border. In a 2014 study, South Korean doctors sampled 17 females who escaped North Korea and found that seven of them were infected with parasitic worms, according to the BBC. They also had higher rates of diseases such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis.
What was just as curious were the raw corn kernels found in Oh's stomach, which shocked many South Koreas. North Korean soldiers typically have a higher ranking on the food-rationing list, so it was alarming that the soldier had been eating uncooked corn.
Some reports claim that North Korean soldiers have been ordered to steal corn from farmers to fend off hunger.
Lee told Reuters that it took medical staff days to remove the shards of at least four bullets from Oh's body and to surgically repair his organs. They also treated Oh for hepatitis B and tuberculosis.
A 'really nice guy'
It is not yet known why Oh, described by doctors as a quiet, “really nice guy,” fled North Korea.
He joined the North Korean army when he was 17, right after secondary-school graduation, Reuters reported. His hair is styled “like a jarhead, like a U.S. Marine, so I actually joked, 'Why don't you join the South Korean Marines?' ” Lee told Reuters. Oh smiled, Lee said, and said he would never return to the military system.
North Koreans mainly had left the country to escape hunger after the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, some are fleeing because they want their children to have a better education or because they want to be able to freely speak their minds. Some leave because they think financial success is impossible in the totalitarian state.
In theory, North Korea is supposed to be a country where everything — housing, health care, education and jobs — is provided. But the reality is that the state economy barely functions. People working in factories and fields have little to do and are paid next to nothing. Many find themselves brainstorming ways to make money, by selling homemade tofu, for example, or dealing drugs. Some smuggle small DVD players with screens called “notels” over the border or extract bribes, according to a Nov. 17 Washington Post report on life in North Korea.
Criticism of the state is prohibited. Surveillance is everywhere, in the form of a menacing state security apparatus with agents far and wide. Districts in each city and town are broken up into groups of 30 or 40 households, each with a leader charged with heading up grass-roots surveillance and encouraging people to inform on their neighbors. A 20-year-old refugee told The Post that youth leaders often patrolled, looking for “things that we weren't supposed to be doing.” They would sometimes check phones to see whether people had any South Korean songs, she said.
What happens next
Oh is eating clear liquids such as broths and can talk, use his hands and smile, Lee told Reuters.
Lee doesn't want to discuss subjects that might disturb Oh's progress, though, and wants Oh to heal psychologically before speaking with South Korean military officials. The soldier awoke from a nightmare recently about being taken back to North Korea and is still anxious about South Korean guards, Lee said.
Most North Korean defectors are questioned by South Korea's intelligence agency once they arrive in the country. They are then sent to a resettlement center for three months, where they are taught about life in South Korea. Once released, the government gives them 7 million won — about $6,450 — over a year and supports them with housing, job training and education, according to Reuters.
They are protected by police officers, who are assigned to each refugee to ensure their safety.
When Oh is released from the hospital, he will have to follow a careful diet, Lee told Reuters. He will have lifelong complications with his colon, which was torn by a bullet.
In the meantime, Lee will continue playing K-pop for his patient, as well as American films and television. Lee told Reuters that Oh enjoys the Jim Carrey movie “Bruce Almighty” and the television crime series “CSI.”
But Oh won't be watching any news coverage, Lee said.