Charles Navez, a Belgian doctor, decorated by the President of South Korea

This last Thursday, May 04, at 3 pm, in Watermael Boitsfort, within the South Korean Embassy, on behalf of the South Korean President, Yoon Seok-yeol, Charles Navez, Belgian medical doctor, now retired, received, from the hands of the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, Yoon Soongu, the medal of the Order of Civil Merit of the Republic of Korea, in honor of the care he provided, from 1967 until 1971, on the Korean island of Sorokdo, “the island of lepers”.

The Ambassador insisted on the speed with which the decision was made to honor Dr. Charles Navez. In fact, it was in November 2022 that Adrien Carbonnet – a doctor in Art History at the KUL, specializing in South Korea and Japan – contacted him, and the Ambassador then referred him directly to the President of the South Korean Republic in Seoul.

It is thus in less than six months, a particularly fast deadline, the South Korean Government having to verify the authenticity of the facts, that the South Korean Prime Minister and President took the decision to grant this second highest national distinction of merit to Dr. Charles Navez.

In fact, having learned about the care that this Belgian doctor, assisted by his wife, Paulette, gave to many Koreans suffering from leprosy – or Hansen’s disease – at a time when the doctors of the hospital on the island of Sorokdo – covering an area of 4.6 km2 and housing nearly 5,000 lepers, at a time when Korea was colonized by Japan – were not yet able to help these people effectively, the Ambassador felt that Dr. Charles Navez deserved to be treated. The Ambassador felt that Dr. Charles Navez deserved to be honored in this way.

Tribute to Dr. Charles Navez © Photo: CHUNG Haetalz

Addressing the distinguished Belgian physician, His Excellency Yoon Soongu pledged in his speech, “Now it is up to us to provide the necessary help to the needy countries, on the medical level, as you have done for us, who believe that this is the only way to repay what you have given us.”

In addition, a bracelet-watch, bearing the name of the South Korean President, was given to him, on the occasion of this nice ceremony, which was attended by several members of his family and many Koreans, living in Brussels.

Before that, Dr. Adrien Carbonnet took the floor to retrace the career of Dr. Charles Navez. Charles Navez, who had studied medicine at the Catholic University of Leuven from 1959 to 1966, before going to Antwerp to study at the “Institute of Tropical Sciences” in 1966-1967, was interested in a lecture given by the French writer and journalist Raoul Follereau (1903-1977), who had created the “World Day against Leprosy” in 1954, in reaction to the exclusion of lepers from society, … as was the case on the island of Sorokdo, which was then divided in two (the lepers being confined to the eastern part) by a wire fence, which the Belgian mission succeeded in having abolished.

Thus, a few months before graduating, he contacted the Brussels non-profit organization “Les Amis du Père Damien”, founded in 1962, and confided to his interlocutors his wish to devote a few years of his life to the fight against leprosy, in any country, with the exception of the Congo, which had just been decolonized. Having been appointed to work in South Korea – as part of a Belgian medical team, assisted by two Austrian nurses – he went to India in 1967 to follow a training course for several months in the specific care of lepers.

Back in Belgium, in 1971, until his admission to the pension, in 2014, he continued to practice as a general practitioner, in Binche, while from 1980 to 2019, he was involved in the asbl “Enfants du Monde”, collaborating in the adoption of Korean children within Belgian families.

Professor Adrien Carbonnet reminded Dr. Charles Navez of what Erasmus (1467-1536) – in his “Praise of Medicine”, published in Leuven, in 1518 – underlined: “Our language cannot express the natural and innate greatness, the dignity of medical interventions going beyond the human condition, … no sufficiently dignified reward can be given to a faithful physician”.

“It is an honor for me,” said Dr. Charles Navez, upon receiving his prestigious award, addressing a message of thanks to the Ambassador, underlining the fact that, during his subsequent visits to South Korea, he had been able to appreciate the evolution of the local sanitary conditions and the care given to lepers.

His Excellency Yoon Soongu & Dr. Charles Navez © Photo: CHUNG Haetal/”Yonhap News”

When we asked Dr. Charles Navez – who was particularly moved by the tribute he had just received – what was the most important fact of his Korean experience, he answered, without the slightest hesitation, that it was his meeting with a three-year-old child, Kim Chi.

“It was somewhat by chance that I discovered, in a room of the hospital, hidden in a rice bag, this little Korean child who refused to eat. His days were therefore numbered. In the same place, a mother was breastfeeding her own baby. Seeing Kim Chi’s condition, she decided to breastfeed him. He quickly gained weight and was saved.

Dr. Adrien Carbonnet confided to us that, when he contacted Dr. Charles Navez for the first time, the latter, living in Binche, told him that he did not intend to go to Brussels to meet him, the Professor of the “KUL” having therefore gone to the “city of the Giles”, without mentioning his approaches to the Embassy, but just to find out more about this doctor, the latter saying to us: “I wondered what he wanted from me .

A Korean colleague – writing for the local media that had first revealed this beautiful story in her country – asked him if he had seen Kim Chi again.

Smiling, he replied: “Yes, when he was 20 years old and I had returned, as I often did, to the island of Sorokdo, which now has a modern hospital, perfectly equipped to treat, among other things, patients suffering from leprosy, which can now be cured in six months, whereas at the time it took three years. On the other hand, I never thought that this country could modernize at such a speed”, adding, laughing: “faster than Belgium … and then all these ‘bagnoles’ (sic).”

On the right, the Sorok Bridge, connecting, since 2009, the Sorokdo Island to the Korean continent

Nowadays, in the Korean province of South Jeolla, on this “Little Deer Island” (“Sorok” meaning “little deer”), in order to learn more about a fortunately bygone era – when access was only possible by boat – having crossed the Sorok bridge, built in 2009, we can visit the “SONAMU” (“SOrokdo NAtional hansen’s disease MUseum”)

Let us note, for our readers who would like to know more about Kim Chi, that Dr. Charles Navez has written, with the support of the Liège non-profit organization “Enfants du Monde”, a book: “Kim Chi – L’Enfant qui voulait vivre” (Ed. “Le Livre en Papier”/format A5/138 p./20€).

Synopsis: “When Charles Navez and Paulette’s children grew up, they wanted to know more about their parents’ life in South Korea. Why had they gone to Sorokdo? Why was their son, Etienne, born there? What was their life like? What were their parents doing on this island at the end of the world? Dr. Charles Navez has written this magnificent adventure, full of humanism, taking place in a surprisingly brutal everyday setting.”

Concerning South Korea, for those of us who wish to know more about this beautiful country, let us point out that the “Korean Cultural Center” of Brussels, particularly active, proposes us, in free access, until Friday August 25 – in its premises of N° 4 of the rue de Régence, close to the Petit Sablon square – an exhibition (free entrance), “Liquid Imagination”, dedicated to five contemporary South Korean artists, the following exhibition, from September to December, being dedicated to Korean comics, in the framework of the “BD Comic Strip Festival”.

On the cinema side, the “Palais des Beaux-Arts” (“Bozar”) and the “Ciné Galeries” will host, from Wednesday 27 September to Friday 06 October, the 11th “Korean Film Festival”, South Korea having been well represented at the recent 41st “Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival” (“BRIFFF”).

On the Place De Brouckère, on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 June, the second “Korean Cultural Days” will take place, the perfect opportunity to get to know this country better and, among other things, its culinary specialties, access being free. Moreover, on Wednesday 28 and Friday 30 June, on the Grand’ Place, South Korea will be the guest of honor of the “Ommegang”.

To know the whole of their cultural program, including choreographies, concerts, Korean courses of cooking, culture and language, …, consult their website:

Yves Calbert.

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