Organ Harvesting in Korea: Myth or Reality
People pledging organs as collaterals for loans. Does that happen for real in Korea?
In the Netflix drama Squid Game dead competitors are taken to a morgue where their organs are removed by an unscrupulous doctor. Earlier in the show the main character Seong Gi-hoon signs his organs away when loan sharks confront him about unpaid debt.
Organ harvesting is a common trope in Korean films and dramas. "The Man From Nowhere" a.k.a. "Ajeossi", a 2010 vehicle for A-list actor Won Bin, is but a particularly horrific example. Earlier this year TV series Taxi Driver introduced organ trafficking as a central plot element. Squid Game, too, references organ trade in underscoring how human bodies themselves can become commodities in hyper-capitalist Korea.
It begs the question: can human organs actually get traded in Korea?
The short answer is no. Under no circumstance does Section 1, Article 7 of the Organ Transplant Act permit selling of human organs. There are only two legally allowed situations in which an organ can be transplanted from one human being to another: a person is brain dead and the family agrees to donate her or his organs, or a family member (defined as being a cousin or closer in kinship) makes a conscious decision to donate to another family member. In this regard Korea is no different from many developed countries.
Yet Korean filmmakers routinely portray illicit organ harvesting, and there may be a (tiny) grain of truth to it. The Ministry of Health has a webpage for reporting illegal organ sales, implying that the problem does in fact exist. Each year a small number of illegal organ trafficking cases is detected (13 in 2012 and 31 in 2013 — I haven't seen more recent data).
In 2015 police caught a criminal cartel that sought to profit from organ trade; they were reportedly pricing a liver at 200 million KRW (169,000 USD) and a kidney at 100 million KRW (84,500 USD), plus or minus some "depending on the size".In the period between 2015 to 2020 the Korean government shut down some 1,300 websites facilitating organ trade, according to Korea Communications Commission. In 2019 an opposition lawmaker introduced a legislation aimed at punishing Koreans who "receive organs harvested overseas without consent". That same year one person was sentenced to 18 months in prison for "attempted human trafficking for the purpose of organ harvesting". He had posted some 120 times on social media that he wanted to sell the organs of two entire families including children because they owed him money.
Many Koreans would admit going to a public toilet and seeing at least once a sticker or two that advertise organ buyers. "Will buy liver/kidney," they usually read. I myself saw one in the toilet of Seoul National University Hospital in central Seoul, but that's already more than ten years ago. Nowadays it's much more likely that offers to buy and sell human organs are advertised on social media (though it's hard to say if any of them—like the Twitter examples below—is genuine).
All this suggests that there may be possible though extremely unlikely ways of getting around the law. Because there will always be buyers and sellers (the organ donation rate in Korea is very poor compared to that in other developed countries). Certificates of brain death or IDs can be forged. Doctors can be corrupted. It makes sense that Korean shows or movies, when portraying illegal organ harvesting as a realistic situation, often deploy an unscrupulous doctor character (as in Squid Game), because without a medical professional the whole thing wouldn't be feasible.
But it goes without saying that Squid Game is just a fiction, and it is best to see organ harvesting in the show as a dramatic embellishment on reality. Few Koreans lose organs over debt or a game. Court documents show that in a small number of criminal cases threatening to take organs (from the main victim or their family) takes place—but without the threat actually being carried out.A colloquial Korean term for organ trade is 통나무 장사, meaning "lumber business". It telegraphs a belief that like a tree can be chopped into parts and sold as products, a human body is reducible to a commodity.
That may be why this motif is so popular among cultural producers portraying the most downtrodden and desperate in Korean society: a person cannot be said to be left with nothing until even their body has been emptied out, literally.
Cover: an organ harvesting scene from the Netflix drama Squid Game