North Koreans have been “captivated” after finally learning of the daring defection of a soldier through the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in November, according to dissident sources.
Sources in the North told the Seoul-based DailyNK news site that the escape of 24-year-old Oh Chong-song has eclipsed interest in the visit to South Korea of Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, as well as performances by a state-sponsored “cheering squad” and the Samjiyon Orchestra.
“Even though news from the outside world is restricted and heavily censored, some information about the outside world still gets in”, a source in Pyongyang told the dissident media outlet.
“North Korean merchants active in China have returned to North Korea and began circulating the story of the defector.
“Parents who have children in the military are particularly interested.”
People in the North have expressed surprise that Mr Oh survived being shot five times at relatively close range after he drove through a series of military checkpoints before crashing his vehicle into a ditch and fleeing across the border on foot.
Airlifted to a civilian hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul, Mr Oh underwent emergency surgery before beginning a debriefing process in which he revealed he was in his eighth year as a conscript in the North Korean army. He told officials that he defected voluntarily after seeing South Korean television programmes and Hollywood films, including The Transporter movie series.
“After learning that the escaping soldier survived, even though he was shot many times, people are saying, ‘In modern nations, medical technology is so advanced that they can save someone from the brink of death,'” the North Korean source said.
The overwhelming feeling is that Mr Oh only survived because he was able to get surgery in the South and that he would have died if he had been treated for the same injuries in the North.
There has also been much discussion of the number and variety of parasites that the defector needed to be treated for, with the regime criticised for giving soldiers medicine that does not work. It also emerged that his blood contained antibodies for anthrax.
News of Mr Oh’s escape is spreading particularly quickly in the region on the border with China, where it is easier for people to obtain information from the outside world.
“Residents of the border region are surprised to learn that [South Korea] saved the life of a soldier who would normally point a gun at them”, a resident of the North’s Ryanggang Province told DailyNK. “His life was saved, his disease was cured and he managed a successful defection that enables him to make a truly new start to his life”.
The news has leaked in the North despite the regime cracking down on the flow of information across its borders. In January, North Korea installed new Russian-made radio locators along key sections of its 880-mile border with China to detect citizens making illegal phone calls over the border.