How North Korea Starves
Its People - 'Unspeakable Misery'
By Catherine Edwards

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 empty stomachs.

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 to death.

"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 her visit."

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!
Yolande Manson



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