Go to contents

Sorokdo Belgian doctor honored with medal

Posted May. 06, 2023 07:56,   

Updated May. 06, 2023 07:56


"I will always remember saving a three-month-old baby named 'Kimchi' who was dying under a pile of rice bags on Sorokdo Island 50 years ago."

On Thursday (local time), Charles Navez (81), the nearly forgotten 'Sorokdo Belgian Doctor,' received the Moran Medals of the Order of Civil Merit at the Korean Embassy in Brussels, Belgium. Navez expressed that being recognized by the Korean government was a great honor. The Moran Medal is awarded to those who have made significant contributions to politics, economy, society, education, and academia for Korea.

Navez worked as a doctor for five years at a leprosy hospital on Sorokdo Island, South Jeolla Province, in the late 1960s, but the Korean government had been unaware of his service until recently.

According to the Korean Cultural Center in Belgium, Navez, a graduate of the KU Leuven Medical School in Belgium, decided to work in Korea in 1966 at the age of 24, following an agreement between the Belgian human rights organization for leprosy eradication, the 'Damien Foundation' and the Korean Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. Before coming to Korea, he gained experience treating leprosy in India.

With his late wife Paulette and daughter Agnes, Navez, arrived in Korea in 1967 and worked at the Sorokdo Hospital until 1971, treating leprosy patients alongside one doctor and five nurses. They treated approximately 4,000 patients, including those from outside Sorokdo on weekends. Paulette learned Korean and assisted in documenting patients' names.

Due to health issues, Navez returned to Belgium just before the commemoration day for the end of the bilateral agreement in 1971. He missed Sorokdo deeply that he revisited the island in 1985 and 2001. In the 1980s, he also supported the adoption of Korean children to Belgium by participating in the establishment of the Belgian nonprofit organization 'Children of the World.'

"I was delighted to see the improved sanitation and treatment levels when I visited Sorokdo again," Mr. Navez said during the medal ceremony.

In 2021, he published an autobiographical novel titled 'Kimchi,' which recounts his experience of saving a child known only as 'Kimchi' on Sorokdo. All proceeds from the book were donated. His service in Sorokdo was brought to the attention of the Korean government through research by Adrian Carbonnet, the director of the Center for Korean Studies at KU Leuven. Director Adrian informed the Korean embassy of Navez’s contributions, and the Korean government decided to award him the medal.

Eun-A Cho achim@donga.com