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
of a Mad Place -
A German Doctor's Nightmare in North Korea
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
For more on North Korea see:
from the Axis by Anne Morse - more about Norbert Vollertsen. From WORLD
Magazine, March 9, 2002.
Prison Country: A Report from Inside North Korea by Norbert Vollertsen. From
Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2001.
Chosun Journal. Extensive analysis of human rights issues in North Korea.