‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Parasites inside North Korean defector highlight poverty
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‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: Parasites inside North Korean defector highlight poverty

DOCTORS treating the North Korean soldier who was shot by his colleagues while defecting from the isolated country said they found “an enormous number” of parasites in his body.

South Korean doctor Lee Cook-jong said the condition of the patient was stable, but the number of worms in his body is contaminating his body and complicating his recovery, the BBC reported.

The soldier’s condition is also thought to shed light on life in North Korea. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years as a physician,” Lee told reporters. “I have only seen something like this in a textbook.”

The doctor explained the longest parasitic worm recovered from the unnamed soldier’s body stretched a staggering 27cm long.

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The parasites, along with kernels of corn in his stomach, may confirm what many experts and previous defectors have described the food and hygiene situation for many North Koreans.

“Although we do not have solid figures showing health conditions of North Korea, medical experts assume that parasite infection problems and serious health issues have been prevalent in the country,” said Choi Min-Ho, a professor at Seoul National University College of Medicine who specialises in parasites.

The soldier’s condition was “not surprising at all considering the north’s hygiene and parasite problems,” he said.

The soldier was flown by helicopter to a hospital last Monday after his dramatic escape to South Korea in a hail of bullets fired by North Korean soldiers.

He is believed to be an army staff sergeant in his mid-20s who was stationed in the Joint Security Area in the United Nations truce village of Panmunjom, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of South Korea’s ruling party, briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

North Korea has not commented on the defection.

While the contents of the soldier’s stomach don’t necessarily reflect the population as a whole, his status as a soldier – with an elite assignment – would indicate he would at least be as well nourished as an average North Korean.

He was shot in his buttocks, armpit, back shoulder and knee among other wounds, according to the hospital where the soldier is being treated.

‘The best fertiliser’

Parasitic worms were also once common in South Korea 40 to 50 years ago, Lee noted during his briefing, but have all but disappeared as economic conditions greatly improved.

Other doctors have also described removing various types of worms and parasites from North Korean defectors.

Their continued prevalence north of the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas could be in part tied to the use of human excrement, often called “night soil.”

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“Chemical fertiliser was supplied by the state until the 1970s, but from the early 1980s, production started to decrease,” said Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agriculture expert who defected to South Korea in 1995. “By the 1990s, the state could not supply it anymore, so farmers started to use a lot of night soil instead.”

In 2014, supreme leader Kim Jong Un personally urged farmers to use human faeces, along with animal waste and organic compost, to fertilise their fields.

A lack of livestock, however, made it difficult to find animal waste, said Lee, the agriculture expert.

Even harder to overcome, he said, is the view of night soil as the “best fertiliser in North Korea,” despite the risk of worms and parasites.

“Vegetables grown in it are considered more delicious than others,” Lee said.

Additional reporting by Reuters