SEOUL, South Korea >> A North Korean soldier’s bold attempt to defect by crossing the heavily guarded border with South Korea galvanized attention this week.
But perhaps more surprising was the disclosure by surgeons struggling to save his life of what they found while repairing his intestinal wounds: dozens of parasitic worms, some as long as 11 inches.
“In my 20 years as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a medical textbook,” said Dr. Lee Cook-jong, a lead surgeon.
The discovery opened a window on the dire conditions in North Korea, including poor hygiene and nutrition.
Surgeons raced to save the North Korean soldier, whose name and rank have not been released, who suffered serious bullet wounds racing across the border while his own troops fired on him.
“We have found dozens of fully grown parasitic worms in his damaged intestines,” said Lee. “It was a serious parasitic infection.”
Experts in parasitic worms were not surprised, however. They said that the finding was consistent with the broad sense of conditions in the isolated, impoverished North.
Defectors to the South have cited the existence of parasites and abysmal nutrition. Because it lacks chemical fertilizers, North Korea still relies on human excrement to fertilize its fields, helping parasites to spread, the experts said.
In a 2014 study, South Korean doctors checked a sample of 17 female defectors from North Korea and found seven of them infected with parasitic worms.
The North Korean soldier drove a jeep into the Joint Security Area, one of the most heavily guarded portions of the Demilitarized Zone, on Monday. He then ran across the border to defect to the South while fellow North Korean troops unleashed a hail of rifle and pistol shots trying to stop him.
He collapsed about 55 yards south of the border, bleeding profusely. South Korean officers pulled him to safety, and a U.S. Black Hawk military helicopter rushed him to a hospital near Seoul.
The soldier’s condition was particularly noteworthy because North Korean soldiers receive priority in food rationing. Yet, in addition to the parasitic worms, doctors found kernels of corn in his stomach.