SEOUL, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- Reeking of herbal scents, Seok Young-hwan's office is no different from other oriental medicine clinics dotting the streets of Seoul, except that his acupuncture skills and treatment know-how were learned and honed in North Korea.
It is because of his background in the communist nation that Seok's 100 Years Oriental Medicine Clinic near Seoul's presidential office draws twice as many patients as other similar clinics. His customers include well-known politicians, businessmen, actors and other celebrities.
Seok, 46, who defected to the South in 1998, is known for practicing North Korea's "royal court medicine" that he learned while working at Pyongyang's top medical research center devoted solely to caring for the health of leader Kim Jong-il.
The research institute is known in South Korea as the Kim Il-sung Longevity Research Institute after the name of the North's late national founder and father of the current leader. Among North Koreans, it is simply called the "long life research institute," Seok said, dressed in a white lab coat during a recent interview at his two-story clinic.
"Simply put, the long life research institute is to look after the general," Seok said, referring to the North's leader. "I was with the cardiovascular and anti-aging team at the institute."
Details about the secrecy-shrouded Basic Medicine Research Center in Pyongyang are scarce, but the institute was believed to have hundreds of herbal doctors, physicians, biologists and other scientists working to make sure that the North Korean leader lives for a long time and in good health, Seok said.
Newly developed treatment methods, Seok said, were first tested on people similar to the leader in age and body type and with heart disease, an illness that killed late leader Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the current leader Kim Jong-il, now 68, is believed to be suffering from.
"These people were considered lucky because they were treated with good medicine," Seok recalled.
Besides medical research, the longevity institute was also charged with growing high-quality organic rice, fruits and other agricultural products for the leader, even burying dogs in the farm fields as fertilizer, he said.
A top graduate from the North's prestigious Pyongyang Medical College, Seok said he was plucked by authorities and assigned the research center regardless of his desires. Most graduates wanted to work at general hospitals where they could make more money.
"It's not a place you can apply to work at. It's a place you are dragged into," Seok said with a chuckle that appears to imply a sense of relief that he is no longer in the totalitarian nation and lives a happy life in South Korea.
Seok said he was born into an elite family with his father serving as a military general in the security service for Kim Jong-il. They lived near the leader's palace when he was a child.
Referring to the location of his clinic in Seoul near the South Korean presidential office, Seok said, "It appears to be my destiny that I live under a 'big house.'"
In North Korea, Seok said he was later transferred from the longevity research center to a military hospital in Pyongyang where he fell in love with a female noncommissioned officer who later became his wife. The two could not tie the knot because she was from a low-ranked family, so they decided to defect to the South, he said.
"Crossing the border through the primeval forest and mine fields, I was so scared that my hair prickled and I urinated in my pants," he said of their high-risk escape through the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, a 4-kilometer-wide buffer zone separating the two Koreas.
Seok Young-hwan and his wife Song Myong-sun right after defecting to South Korea in 1998. (Yonhap file photo)
Seok said he thought he could easily continue his career as an oriental medicine doctor in South Korea without difficulty but that it took a series of petitions to the government and tests to finally receive a license to practice medicine. He now is the first defector-turned-oriental medicine doctor in the South.
Since opening his clinic in 2003, Seok has appeared on a number of TV shows about health and has become popular. A wall at the entrance to his clinic is plastered with photos of Seok posing with the celebrities who have visited him.
"Many people came to me as I was rumored to have been a doctor" for the North's leader, Seok said.
Though North Korea is a backward nation without enough food and modern medical facilities, it may be ahead of South Korea in oriental medicine skills in some ways, Seok said, adding that he uses longer North Korean-style acupuncture needles to treat his patients.
Patients agree that Seok's clinic is known for its acupuncture treatment.
"My company colleagues recommended this clinic to me. I think the acupuncture skills here are a little different from that of other clinics," said Seo Jeong-keun, a 32-year-old office worker who has been receiving treatment for involuntary eyelid twitching for weeks.
"Most of my colleagues come here when they are sick," he said.
Seok is an author of a book that introduces some of the secrets that the late North Korean leader used to remain healthy. Titled "Kim Il-sung's Longevity Health Methods," the book was also translated into Japanese.
The therapies introduced in the book include taking a half-body hot bath in water decocted with medicinal herbs; using a pillow stuffed with herbs and sleeping with honey spread over the back.
Seok said he believes it was because of these "natural therapies" that the late North Korean founder lived until age 82 despite suffering a stroke twice in his 60s. Current leader Kim Jong-il, who is believed to have also suffered a stroke in 2008, is unlikely to die of a stroke, he said, adding that heart problems could be fatal to him like his late father.
Asked to give everyday health tips, Seok recommended losing weight, drinking a lot of water and consuming more vinegar -- all of them good for keeping blood vessels strong, which is key to a healthy and long life.
"But overall, the secret to longevity is simple," Seok said. "Eat well and excrete well."