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Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician, spent eighteen months in North Korea with the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. The North Korean government was so impressed with Dr. Vollertsen's work that it gave him a special pass allowing him to travel freely throughout the country. Here is his story…


Diary of a Mad Place -
A German Doctor's Nightmare in North Korea


I was a member of a German medical group, Cap Anamur, that entered North Korea in July 1999 to carry out humanitarian medical assistance. I remained in North Korea for 18 months until I was expelled on Dec. 30, 2000 for publicly denouncing the regime for abusing basic human rights and for its failure to distribute the massive foreign food aid to the people who needed it most.

Early on during my stay I was summoned to treat a workman who had been badly burned by molten iron. I volunteered my own skin to be grafted onto this patient. With a penknife my skin was pulled from my left thigh and applied to the patient. For this action I was nationally acclaimed by the media and awarded with the Friendship Medal, only one of two foreigners-the other one was a member of our team at that time, Francois Large, who also donated his skin-ever to receive this high honor.

Together with this medal I was issued a VIP-passport and a driver's license, which allowed me to travel to many areas inaccessible to foreigners and even to ordinary North Korean citizens. I even secretly photographed my patients and their decrepit surroundings. Though I was assigned to a children's hospital in Pyongsong, a city 10 miles north of Pyongyang, I visited a number of other hospitals in other provinces. In every hospital I visited I found unbelievable deprivation; there were no bandages, no scalpels, no antibiotics, no operation facilities-only broken wooden beds supporting starving children waiting to die. The condition of the children was deplorable, emaciated, stunted, mute, emotionally depleted.

In the children's hospitals throughout the countryside one can see young children, all of them too small for their age, with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces, wearing blue-and-white-striped pajamas like the children in Auschwitz and Dachau in Hitler's Nazi-Germany. The children are starving. They are weak. A simple flu can . Most of the patients in the other hospitals suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, worn out by compulsory drills, the innumerable parades, the assemblies from 6:00 in the morning and the droning pro da. They are tired and at the end of their tether. Clinical depression is rampant. Alcoholism is common because of mind-numbing rigidities and hopelessness of life. The patients look exhausted and fed up. Young adults have no hope, no future and anxiety is everywhere. Where does the inhuman fear in the people's eyes come from? Why are there so many orphans? Where are all the parents? Who cares for the "slaves" in the countryside? What passes for a human life in this country?

During my 18 month stay I was based in Pyongyang and had an opportunity to visit my driver, a high ranked member of the military who was hospitalized because of a fractured skull. As was my custom in visiting hospitals, I took with me bandages, antibiotics and other medical paraphernalia but was embarrassed to see that unlike any other hospital I visited, this hospital looked as modern as any German hospital and was equipped with the latest medical apparatus such as MRI, Ultrasound, EKG and X-ray machines. It was obvious to me that there are two worlds in North Korea, one for the senior military and the country's elite-for the rest of society, a world of Hell.

I did not witness any improvement in the availability of food and medicine in any of the hospitals during my entire stay. One can only imagine what conditions are like in the so-called "reform institutions", where entire families are imprisoned when any member does or says something that offends the regime. These camps are closed to all foreigners; even the International Red Cross has been denied access.

My initial naivety that the famine was the result of harsh weather conditions disappeared when I saw that much of the food aid has been denied to the people who need it most. Before Cap Anamur came to North Korea other humanitarian agencies, MSF, OXFAM, ACF, CARE pulled out of North Korea, because they were not allowed to distribute the aid directly to the people. They had to turn it over to the government for the authorities to carry out the distribution. If a substantial portion of the foreign aid is going to the army or to those with status or sold to other countries I have no knowledge; but since I have not seen during my entire 18 months in North Korea any improvement in the living conditions or food supply, the question remains-where is much of the foreign aid going?

If the main doctor's diagnosis is fear and depression because of the cruel system one has to think about the right therapy and to speak out publicly about repression and human rights abuses in North Korea. The international community of humanitarian people has to look for an explanation for the fear in this country. They have to get the knowledge of a shadowy world of labor camps and a nation in shackles. They have to look for the violence behind the system.

Constraints and difficulties of operating in North Korea affect any accountable humanitarian aid assistance. There is no effective monitoring possible. Nobody really knows where the food is going to. Knowledge about the overall humanitarian situation is not available. Protection of the humanitarian interests of the population is not possible. General social and political rights, as basic rights granted to human beings in freedom of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration, ideology and association are restricted in North Korea.

The life of the workers has reached its limit; peasants' life is in a disparate condition too. Deprivation of the basic right to exist is obvious. The ordinary people are starving and dying. Violation of the freedom of personal inviolability and conscience by unwarranted arrest and detention seems to be common. Sexual violence against woman, forced labour and torture seems to be common as an important means for maintaining the suppression of any opposition. "Seems to be common" means that nobody is allowed to prove anything, but there are certain hints.

In North Korea a repressive apparatus is acting whenever there is any criticism. The constriction of human rights by intelligence, surveillance, shadowing, wiretapping and mail interception is enormous. The oppressive nature of the police force is evident.

The ruling class, members of the worker's party and high-ranking military people in the capital city Pyongyang are enjoying a nice lifestyle with fancy restaurants, nightclubs and casino. In several diplomatic shops they can buy for a lot of dollars delicious food like Argentine steak or New Zealand's kiwis while the people in the countryside are starving and waiting for humanitarian food-aid from the western countries. Pyongyang is fooling the world.

Aid groups, politicians and journalists must insist on human rights and better monitoring. If they behave like slaves toward their North Korean counterparts nothing will change. Without strong outside pressure from the international community North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il will not initiate political or social changes for the ordinary people though he may undertake some Chinese-style economic reform.

But the resultant combination of Manchester-like capitalism plus North Korean juche-ideology might be even worse for the people.

Working closely with the international media, the international community has to put pressure on the North Korean regime to open up toward the outside world and save North Korean citizens' lives. They have to try to enter the country with an army of journalists. To improve human rights in North Korea the world has to speak out against the current regime. The North Korean people cannot help themselves. They are brainwashed and suffer from terror and pressure. They are afraid. That's the medical diagnosis. The outside world has to take care for the right therapy.

Especially we Germans have to act when there are any "rumours" about concentration-camps in North Korea, even when there are only small hints and no "evidences"-as all the politicians are always asking for. Our forefathers in Germany were accused that they did not act despite having the knowledge of something cruel going on behind the curtain. We have to learn from history. After the Second World War we promised: never again concentration-camps like in Hitler's Nazi-Germany. Maybe those "reform institutions" in North Korea are nice holiday-resorts like in paradise. Then we have to apologize. Maybe they are not. And then we might well discover real hell on earth, the real "killing fields" as a shame for the 21st century and then we are all accused that we did not act earlier.

As a German born after the war, I know too well the guilt of my grandparents for remaining silent while the Nazis were committing indescribable crimes. I felt it my duty as a human being, particularly as a German, to expose the crimes and tyranny of this regime, a regime that has defied, soviet-style, its Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and his late father, Kim Il-Sung the Great Leader, whose portraits and statues bedeck the entire nation, and whose pictures are on display on the walls of every home and office.

Even though so much of the economy is directed to support the military, the ordinary citizen who is starving needs help. And the outside world should help! But only on condition that aid is going to the common people. Foreign NGO's journalists and diplomats must be free to travel unencumbered and unannounced to the provinces to insure that the food and medical aid is going to the needy-not the greedy. Germany has established diplomatic relations with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea incorporating conditions to this effect-free movement for their diplomats, their humanitarian aid workers, their journalists(!) and the possibility to talk about human rights issues-the only nation to accomplish this assurance.

After being kicked out of North Korea, I left for China and immediately proceeded to Seoul, the capital of South Korea where I met with a number of young stunted North Koreans who managed to escape to China and somehow were able to get to a third country-Vietnam, Myanmar or Mongolia-and subsequently to South Korea. Some of these refugees have been in the prison camps and their descriptions of the brutalities they experienced are on a parallel with those of Nazi concentration camps. Refugees from North Korea are fortunate if they succeed in reaching a third country, for China repatriates to North Korea any refugee they apprehend, where they face imprisonment, torture and occasionally execution.

After visiting the United States I will subsequently continue on to Europe and all over the world for the express purpose of exposing the tyranny and criminality of this secret state, with the hope that international pressure will be applied by the world community to bring about a reformation of this depraved nation.


For more on North Korea see:

View from the Axis by Anne Morse - more about Norbert Vollertsen. From WORLD Magazine, March 9, 2002.

A Prison Country: A Report from Inside North Korea by Norbert Vollertsen. From Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2001.

The Chosun Journal. Extensive analysis of human rights issues in North Korea.

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