Interview with South Korean TV Chosun’s Investigative Reporters
Earlier this month, DAFOH had the opportunity to interview two members of the production unit from the South Korean news channel, TV Chosun. Last fall, the channel aired a documentary exposing ongoing transplant abuse in China. The investigative team traveled to mainland China pretending to purchase an organ for a fictitious relative. They were then able to obtain first hand footage of a well-run organ transplant brokerage operation at a prominent hospital that oversees thousands of transplants a year. We met with writer Shin Duho (left) and director Kim Hyeoncheol (right) to ask them about their experience.
- DAFOH: What inspired you to make this documentary?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “As a documentary producer, we need to find topics for our show. For that, sometimes I search news articles. When I found an online news article that promoted a Korean transplant doctor’s journal article that was published in the International Transplant Society, I suspected the news company promoted the article especially because the news report was at an important level on the website. I thought that the reported number of Koreans going to China for transplants was too small: only one person in 2016. It is an open secret that the number is at least a 1,000 per year. I have only one way to confirm the number, with my own eyes. So, we made a decision to go to China to make a documentary on behalf of a patient. We even saw three [Korean] families on the day we visited.”
Translation of the news article that inspired the investigation:
“It is the first time the Korean overseas organ trade has been confirmed from 2000 to 2016 by the Survey result.
The Korean overseas organ trade decreased from 508 in 2005 to one in 2016. So, the average is 130 from 2000 to 2016. The author Ahn, Hyung, Joon, MD, PhD, (안형준) 경희대병원 이식혈관외과 교수(대한이식학회 이사) surveyed 42 major hospitals that cared for 2,206 (19.5% of the domestic cases) organ transplants patient from 2000 to 2016. Among them, 2,147 people received transplants from China. 33 from the US, 10 from the Philippines, 4 from Singapore, 4 from India.”
- DAFOH: What difficulties did you experience when making the documentary? Where you at all scared?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “Finding a coordinator to interpret, organize and prepare within a limited time and budget was most difficult. Everyone rejected the job to coordinate for this topic. They said it was too dangerous and recommended that we give it up. We almost gave up, even though we had a cooperative patient who gave us his medical record and invited us to visit the Chinese hospital where he was treated. However, a week before the actual departure date, a coordinator volunteered for the trip. Sometimes, we suspected the person because the person only suddenly volunteered.”
[Shin Duho]:” I never worried about danger. Danger is always a possibility for our documentary team when producing an investigative documentary. We faced the limitation of deadlines without adequate cooperation to give us the sources necessary to make the film. So that is the reason why I requested DAFOH’s support to make this film by email. Anyway, we had to prepare a lot and use many creative approaches to get interviews in the Chinese hospital and research centers.”
- DAFOH: What have people’s reactions been? Especially those from China?
[Shin Duho]: “Frankly, many Koreans privately wonder about the sources of organs in China but it is easy for Koreans to assume organs are unethically sourced. Korea is one of the countries that disparages the Chinese people, so we easily can just ignore organ sources or not consider these sources very reputable. From experiences during the Korean War, many Koreans feel that Communist governments are cruel and find sourcing a kidney, heart, liver or pancreas from proclaimed enemies of the state to be typical behavior for the Chinese Communist state.”
“After we aired the documentary, I heard from Dr. Ha that one person from the Korean Society for Transplantation appealed to a member of Tianjin city assembly about this issue. The appeal brought about a court case because the member of the city assembly insisted the film was produced a long time ago and was not recent. So, we had to prove that we produced the film just recently from evidence, like the blood exam record in the chart that we brought to China and showed in the film. Soon, the Korean Society for Transplantation will host a world conference in 2020. I think it is important to The Korean Society for Transplantation. I don’t know it is possible to mention this court case publicly. You can ask Dr. Ha, who asked us to prepare evidence to prove that it was a recent documentary.”
- DAFOH: Where you surprised at the response from Korean doctors?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “I could not answer easily a question from a doctor we interviewed in the film. His question was: What you would do if you needed to have an organ transplant? Regardless, I want the audience to think more deeply, with correct information, about the source of the organs and the business of organ transplants in China.”
- DAFOH: Where you surprised that the Korean government does so little to stop this?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “I guess that the Korean government only knows a little about this situation as now we (Korea) have many urgent issues. Maybe, it will be handled during the last term of this government. I think this is a complex issue and has a delicate personal part too. Some reports say that 3,000 Koreans went [to China for organs] in three years. This might be possible. For instance, we got information that a Korean patient was in the Tianjin Hospital when we were in China. We made sure to get an interview but three more [Korean] families were there, too. Therefore, how can there be only one [Korean] person a year [who goes to China for transplant surgery] as the statistics say? We saw the real situation. If you go there you can figure out the truth, just like us.”
- DAFOH: Where you shocked when you first found out that this is happening?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “We waited for action on Monday because they did not work during the weekend. Early in the morning on Monday, four to five ambulances entered the Tianjin First Central Hospital. Lee Yeongum, the nurse who coordinates between Korea and China said they do an average of seven or eight transplants every day but sometimes have to do over that in the case of kidney transplants. You can imagine the average represents the actual number of people that die for organs because there are not only kidneys but pancreases, hearts and whole liver transplants. The nurse clearly said they choose young and healthy people [as organ donors].”
- DAFOH: Do you feel a strong responsibility to produce another documentary about this issue, this time with global support?
[Kim Hyeoncheol]: “Maybe, another team can enter China because we are already on their black list but I want to film more of the details, like bringing a prisoner of conscience to an operation room and an interview from an escaped labor camp prisoner. The nurse said that the Chinese government closes their eyes because the hospital’s pediatric ward does organ transplants for children free of cost. If we donate an extra fee to the pediatric ward they can speed up the organ transplantation. I was shocked, not because of her attempt at profiteering, but because it means many children die for organs as well. I want to investigate that part too but it was too much for us to cover the first time.”
[Shin Duho]: “This is actually related to China’s human right issues. We are a Korean documentary team. Fortunately, because of a suspicious news article from one of Korea’s top three news organization about the results of a medical journal survey, we could make the film with Koreans to confirm the validity of these survey results. People will believe the results of the journal survey by Korean transplant doctors as the truth. However, I considered the research in the article wrong as soon as I saw it. The decrease from 130 to one [Koreans going to China for transplants] was too much. It is nonsense. But, finally, the suspicious results from the survey motivated us to make the documentary that confirms whether the research result is the truth or not. If it is not the truth, why did the news writer report the journal article as specially highlighted news? Maybe, they are thinking about the upcoming 2020 TTS (The Transplant Society) conference in Seoul. It is the academics who created the falsified article for their own profit but our documentary has exposed their dishonesty. As the most responsible group who should have reported this issue correctly to the Korean people, they instead on a cover-up and curtailed the truth instead. For what? Anyhow, we have a moral duty for making the next documentary. Actually, as this many numbers of Korean are involved in this problem, we have the moral duty to do so. We revealed this problem in Korea and our documentary asks the audience a moral question. However, I think we should handle this issue, not only with a Korean documentary, but as an international problem with an international program.”
These courageous investigators took great risks to expose the thriving transplant tourism industry, still active in China today. Organs from healthy, young people are still readily available on short order for patients from around the world and on even shorter order for those willing to pay more. The TV crew also raised ethical questions not only for the audience by also for the Korean transplant community.
At a recent symposium held at the Seoul National University Hospital, Han Hee-chul, Professor at the Korea University College of Medicine and member of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, asserted that South Korea is one of the leading consumers of unethical organ transplants in China. Leading up to the 2020 Transplant Society conference in Seoul, South Koreans apparently have a lot to think about how to address their role in China’s ongoing organ transplant abuse.