Meet Ko Yun Song, The First North Korean Defector to Become a Surgeon

D-Bo , Feb. 13, 2015, 10:50 a.m.

Ko Yun-song, the first North Korean defector to become a surgeon in the South, still speaks with slight North Korean accent. Completing four years of residency at Korea University Hospital, he passed the specialist exam last month. 

There are only about a dozen North Korean defectors in South Korea who have a doctor's license, and Ko is the first to qualify as a surgeon.  "I studied medicine in Latin in North Korea, but here people use English, so it was hard to communicate in the beginning," he recalls. 

Ko's story is dramatic. He graduated from medical school in South Pyongan Province and spent the next five years visiting villages to look after tuberculosis patients. One day, when he was 28, he became curious about the outside world and crossed the Duman River into China.

But because he was an illegal immigrant, he had to take odd jobs to survive. Opportunity knocked when he started working in a mannequin factory owned by a South Korean.  In 2007 he decided to flee to South Korea and hid in a container full of mannequins that was being shipped from Dalian to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. 

As soon as the ship arrived in Pyeongtaek, he turned himself in to the police. 

"I wondered whether there was a way to make use of my medical training, and I was told that I'd have to go for an interview with a professor at medical school," Ko says.

He went straight to the library of Korea University School of Medicine and asked whether he could borrow textbooks, but since he was not a student the library said no.

However, in the process he met Lee Won-jin, a professor of preventive medicine at Korea University, who asked Ko to give special lectures to his students on the medical situation in North Korea, and that meant he could get a library card. 

He practically lived in the library for the next two years. The university also allowed him to take part in lab classes, and finally in 2010 he became a licensed doctor here.

"In North Korea, surgeons are regarded as the best doctors, but here doctors avoid the surgery department because it's hard work. I thought that would be a great opportunity for me, so I applied to become a general surgeon," Ko says.

"It was hard because I often had to stay up all night in the intensive care unit and go into the operating room the next morning. But all these challenges seemed like luxuries to me compared with the plight of my fellow North Koreans." 

Ko says North Korea loses a lot of its labor force to perfectly treatable illnesses like hernia or piles. "If South Korea gave medical assistance to the North, the people would welcome it with open arms," he says. "North Korean doctors are passionate about their work, and if they were given systematic training with proper textbooks it would hugely reduce the gap between the two Koreas in medicine."

comments powered by Disqus