Last November, North Korean soldier Oh Chong Song made a dash toward freedom through the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone. His fellow North Koreans fired at him, hitting him at least five times and leaving him fighting for his life. When doctors in the South treated the 25-year-old, they found more problems, including an infection of parasitic worms.
Despite all this, Oh survived. And this week, roughly a year after he escaped from the North, he gave his first interview to a foreign media publication. In it, the defector offered a grim picture of life inside North Korea and the factors that motivated him to escape.
“I really felt that we would have a war with the United States,” Oh told the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun, referring to the increase in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang during the year he escaped.
The Sankei Shimbun published a video of its interview with Oh, which did not show his face but featured a man talking with a slight North Korean accent. The newspaper said Japanese security services confirmed Oh’s identity.
In his interview, Oh revealed that his father was a major general and suggested that he had enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle growing up in North Korea. However, he said he was indifferent to the rule of Kim Jong Un and had no loyalty to the North Korean regime. Oh estimated that roughly 80 percent of his generation felt the same way.
“It is natural to have no interest nor loyalty since the hereditary system is taken as a given, regardless of its inability to feed people,” he added, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse.
The soldier’s dramatic escape from North Korea captivated many people around the world. While defectors from the country are far from uncommon, few take the dangerous path through the peace village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone of the Joint Security Area – the only place where North Korean soldiers face off against their South Korean and U.S. counterparts – as Oh did.
Despite the heavy military presence, Panmunjom is best known as a tourist area now. The last time a shooting took place in the Joint Security Area was 1984, when a Soviet citizen tried to sprint to the southern side of the border. A North Korean soldier last defected in 2007, but no gunfire was exchanged at the site at that time.
Oh’s defection was captured on closed-circuit TV footage later released by the U.S. military. It showed the young soldier driving a jeep-like vehicle before it got stuck in a ditch. He then jumped out of the vehicle and began running, while other North Korean soldiers shot at him.
In his interview with the Sankei Shimbun, Oh denied reports in the South Korean press that he was wanted for murder in North Korea. Instead, he said, he had been drinking after getting into trouble with his friends. After breaking through a checkpoint, he had become fearful of being executed, so he had just kept going in a bid to escape.
He also said that he understood why his fellow soldiers had to fire at him, almost killing him. “If they didn’t shoot, they would face heavy punishment,” he said. “I would have done the same.”
Oh’s injuries were so severe that an American rescue crew that loaded him onto a Black Hawk helicopter initially thought he might not survive. “It’s truly a miracle,” Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh told The Washington Post last December.
South Koreans were so gripped by Oh’s case that the trauma surgeon who treated him, Lee Cook-Jong, became a celebrity in the country. Oh told the Sankei Shimbun that he was discharged from the hospital in February but still commutes from the suburbs of Seoul to the city center for continued treatment.
The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said it was highly unusual for a North Korean defector to talk to Japanese media, as defectors are generally kept under close watch by South Korea’s intelligence services. Seoul’s Unification Ministry would not confirm whether Oh had gone to Japan, the newspaper reported.