Medical privacy

North Korean Defector’s Medical Information… TMI?

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The headlines were sensational, to say the least:

“North Korean defector had 10-inch parasite in his stomach, unlike anything surgeon had seen before” (Newsweek)

“Surgeons find parasite unlike any they’ve seen in body of defector shot 5 times while escaping North Korea” (Business Insider)

Recap to the afternoon of Nov. 13: a North Korean soldier in his mid-twenties crosses the demarcation line into South Korea at the truce village of Panmunjom. As he flees, he is shot five times by North Koreans. Lying on the ground injured, south of the border, he is rescued and airlifted to Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, a city directly south of Seoul, where he has since been receiving treatment.

In the following days, updates on his medical condition emerge — some in great detail, as the above headlines suggest.

The surgeon treating him, Prof. Lee Gook-jong, is highly esteemed for having successfully operated on the gunshot-injured captain of a South Korean ship seized by Somali pirates in 2011.

On his North Korean patient, Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper in an exclusive interview, that he removed over 50 parasites from the body, and that there might be “thousands, if not tens of thousands of them in his small intestine.” This was the first time he’d seen such a case, according to the paper.

During a press briefing, Lee also discussed his patient’s condition, showing pictures of the worms, including one 27 cm long, extracted from the soldier’s body. Meanwhile, newspaper Donga Ilbo reported on Nov. 20 that the patient was also suffering from pneumonia, hepatitis B and septicaemia.

The case appeared to reaffirm to the world the horrendous circumstances that even North Korean soldiers guarding sensitive, high-security areas endure: malnutrition, poor hygiene and poor healthcare.

While the patient’s identity has not been revealed, his case calls into question issues of patient confidentiality, and whether lines were crossed in terms of medical ethics.

According to Article 19 of the Medical Service Act, “no medical personnel or person working for a medical institution shall divulge or disclose any person’s information he/she becomes aware of in the course of performing medical treatment.”

To what extent, then, must medical and privacy laws be applied? In this case, a highly politicized event, can the revelation of such information be considered to serve the public interest? And, legal technicalities aside, is it medically ethical to talk in such graphic detail about an unconscious man’s condition?

Ajou University Hospital had not returned Korea Exposé’s request for comment at the time of publication. 

Meanwhile, Kim So-yoon, a professor at the College of Medicine’s Department of Law and Bioethics at Yonsei University, said if this were a question of the privacy of a normal patient, the hospital’s actions would have been unethical. But this isn’t one of those cases, she argued.

“Considering that the overall situation in North Korea is hard to discern, we have a North Korean who is drawing maximum attention. I don’t think it is right in these circumstances to talk about whether particular medical professionals have behaved ethically or not,” Kim told Korea Exposé.

“While the medical team should be careful about what they say [to the press], they made a huge effort to save this person’s life. I think it is necessary to praise them for their great job before discussing ethics.”

What do you think? Does the exceptional nature of this case justify divulging the patient’s medical information and compromising his right to privacy?


Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article erroneously stated that Suwon was a city directly north of Seoul. It is south. 

Cover image: South and North Korean soldiers at the border truce village Panmunjom. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.