While the elite in North Korea may live in modern luxury
in the fortress city of Pyongyang, the rest of the country is in severe
poverty without adequate food and medical care.
In an airless, dark hospital in North Korea a man with burns covering two-thirds
of his body lay in the corner of a room. He had been hideously burned by
molten iron and only a skin graft could save his life. The hospital had
no technical equipment, bandages, scalpels, antibiotics or anesthesia to
treat him. So the North Korean doctors and nurses gave the only treatment
they had: their own skin. One by one they lined up to have portions of
their skin removed with a razor blade to save this manís life.
Physician Norbert Vollertsen, a member of a German medical group working
at this hospital, joined the line to donate skin - which was removed without
anesthesia. The patient survived with a combination of German and North
Korean skin. By chance the North Korean media were present, recorded the
event and, as a result, Vollertsen was awarded the Friendship Medal. He
is one of only two foreigners ever to receive that high honor. Vollertsen
also was given a VIP passport and a license to drive in the country, which
is how this German doctor was able to see more of that closed, communist
nation than any Westerner before him.
The doctor found the North Korean people living in unspeakable misery.
Reports of famine and flood damage had started to trickle out of this hermit
kingdom in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, North
Koreaís main trading partner. But even the grim rumors did not match
the misery Vollertsen saw firsthand. Humanitarian groups such as CARE and
Oxfam, and relief organizations including the World Food Program, sent
food aid to North Korea for a time, but most withdrew when they were not
allowed to make sure it went to the hungry and helpless rather than to
friends of the regime.
"Nobody really knows where such aid goes," Vollertsen tells Insight
in Washington, "except that it is not going to the ordinary citizens."
After working as a doctor in North Korea for 18 months, Vollertsen became
convinced that the starvation was being aided and abetted by the government.
"All visits for humanitarian groups are prearranged," Vollertsen
tells Insight. "The World Health Organization sees a room of children
sitting in front of their cookies, they write a positive report and leave.
I was an emergency doctor, nothing was ever prearranged, so I saw the reality
of life for these people. They have nothing." Vollertsen tells of
visiting hospitals where food and aid reportedly had been sent the week
before. Upon arrival he would find empty storage rooms and children with
The German doctor kept quiet about his observations, doing all he could
to relieve pain and suffering - until one day, after treating a torture
victim and almost two years of bearing mute witness to the deprivation
of the North Korean people, he reached a breaking point. Vollertsen drafted
a statement appealing to the government for relief of the people on grounds
of humanitarian principle and gave it to U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, who
was visiting Pyongyang. The doctor quickly was asked to leave the country.
Vollertsen now travels with steely determination between Seoul, South Korea,
Tokyo and Washington reporting what he has seen to human-rights groups,
journalists and anyone else who will listen. "I could not ignore the
plight of these people," he tells Insight. "I have to learn from
the history of my own country. As Germans, we knew about the suffering
and the concentration camps but did nothing."
Every day on his way to the hospital, Vollertsen says, he would pass hundreds
of North Korean children at the side of the roads crushing rocks with crude
hammers. "They were building the motorway," says the blond, blue-eyed
doctor, "but they were no more than 8 years old." And packs of
children were everywhere, he says sadly. At the hospital on his first day
he was shocked to see rows of orphaned children, naked and cold and treated
like animals, ordered to sit in front of him on the concrete floor. Whispered
rumors of parents starved to death or taken to concentration camps seemed
the only plausible explanation for so many orphans.
There was no running water, electricity, heat, medicine or soap. They could
not wash the sheets or sterilize the instruments. Everything was filthy.
Four children died of malnutrition soon after Vollertsen arrived at one
hospital. But the most common illness he diagnosed was depression. The
whole country is suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, he says. They
live in terror of the government, all their actions are monitored, they
have no food or amenities and they have become convinced they can do nothing
to change this situation, he says. "Pyongyang is fooling the world,"
Vollertsen tells Insight.
What struck him as most terrible was the difference in lifestyle enjoyed
by the elite compared with the miseries of the countryside. "I learned
after a while that North Korea was two countries - Pyongyang for the elite
and the countryside for the poor."
The doctor flew to North Korea from Beijing with smartly dressed North
Koreans carrying shopping bags. When he arrived in Pyongyang, he discovered
a modern city. His hotel had CNN and the shops were filled with good food,
including Argentinian steak and New Zealand kiwi. Vollertsen had turned
down a posting in south Sudan for Pyongyang because he heard the need was
worse in North Korea, but after a few days he was scratching his head,
wondering if his medical services really were needed.
But then he went to the countryside. On his way out of town he saw military
posts guarding Pyongyang from outsiders. "People in Pyongyang have
no idea that most of their country is starving," he says. "They
did not believe me when I told them." He showed photos of Seoul and
New York City to the North Koreans in the countryside. They called him
a liar, saying he was making it up.
People in the countryside have no transportation, not even bicycles. Women
sometimes walk hundreds of miles in search of food, the roads full of starving,
emaciated people, walking and walking and dying, he says.
Their fear is palpable. Vollertsen spoke to every patient through an official
translator, so no one ever criticized the government. But after he was
kicked out of the country he went directly to Seoul where he encountered
many North Korean defectors who not only told him about the starvation
but about the concentration camps. Any antigovernment activity is a punishable
crime, they told him. This included listening to foreign radio or television
and so much as reading a Bible. The defectors also told him that three
generations of a family are punished when one member makes a misstep.
In a shop in Pyongyang, Vollertsen purchased a copy of the "Criminal
Law of North Korea." Insight obtained a copy.
Article 105 reads: "A person who causes social disruption by spreading
false or unconfirmed rumors that might cause social disorder or discredit
the state shall be committed to a reform institution for up to one year."
Article 86 reads: "A person who causes a great loss to forestry resources
by causing a forest fire, albeit accidentally, shall be committed to a
reform institution for up to three years."
The code spells out that a reform institution means reform through forced
labor. In such camps, calories are reduced below what is required to stay
alive for the term of incarceration and prisoners literally are worked
"The United States is going to make no diplomatic progress with North
Korea until we understand the terror and fear experienced by most North
Korean citizens," says Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation
(DFF), a Washington-based nonprofit educational group. The DFF brought
the first North Korean defectors to the United States in 1997 to speak
publically about the concentration camps and suffering in North Korea.
Scholte has traveled to Seoul to speak with high-ranking government defectors
and is convinced that 100 percent of the food aid reaching the country
is being diverted into the hands of the government.
Scholte urges the Bush administration to criticize the North Koreans but
to offer U.S. humanitarian help under circumstances where relief organizations
may go into the country and distribute food directly to the needy.
Meanwhile, "this is one of the worst human-rights violations the world
has ever seen," says Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute. "Living
in North Korea is like living in a lunatic asylum." Horowitz helped
draft the International Religious Freedom Act and hopes to draw further
attention to the plight of North Koreaís people.
Vollertsen also hopes President George W. Bush will speak out. He says
he disagrees with the Clinton administrationís approach, which was
to engage Pyongyangís Kim Jong-il. "It was really appalling,"
he tells Insight. "[Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright was almost
dancing with Kim as she raised her glass and toasted him during her visit
in 2000. I knew of hundreds of poor people in the countryside working so
hard to make sure there was even enough electric power in Pyongyang for
The German doctor says he continues to hope that North Korea will have
the same experience as his homeland, insisting: "It wasnít
through diplomacy that East Germany crumbled; it was through brave men
and women facing the truth about life there so that, one by one, citizens
started to defect until soon there were hundreds and the Berlin Wall came
down. That is the only way change can come to North Korea."
From Yolande Manson
Some feedback regarding this article - Either Vollertsen
was misled with some small chicken meat or the person who wrote this article
got a minor and completely unimportant fact wrong...New Zealand Kiwi is
a tiny, flightless and very endangered bird. It is sacred in NZ and would
NEVER be caught for meat as there are too few of them, let alone exported
to Korea as food! They are not found in any other part of the world.
I think someone was dreaming!