Korea Today - A Prison Country

A report from inside North Korea*

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[*Editor’s Note: This editorial originally appeared in the "Opinion Journal" from The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Tuesday, April 17, 2001. It is reprinted on The Korean War Educator with permission.]

Written by
Norbert Vollertsen

"I know North Korea. I have lived there, and have witnessed its hell and madness.

I was a doctor with a German medical group, "Cap Anamur," and entered North Korea in July 1999. I remained until my expulsion on Dec. 30, 2000, after I denounced the regime for its abuse of human rights, and its failure to distribute food aid to the people who needed it most. North Korea’s starvation is not the result of natural disasters. The calamity is man-made. Only the regime’s overthrow will end it.

Human rights are nonexistent. Peasants, slaves to the regime, lead lives of utter destitution. It is as if a basic right to exist—to be—is denied. Ordinary people starve and die. They are detained at the caprice of the regime. Forced labor is the basic way in which "order" is maintained. I will recount some of my experiences.

Early in my spell in North Korea I was summoned to treat a workman who had been badly burned by molten iron. I volunteered my own skin to be grafted onto him. With a penknife, my skin was pulled from my left thigh and applied to the patient. For this, I was acclaimed by the state media—the only media—and awarded the Friendship Medal, one of only two foreigners ever to receive this honor.

I was also issued a "VIP passport" and a driver’s license, which allowed me to travel to areas inaccessible to foreigners and ordinary citizens. I secretly photographed patients and their decrepit surroundings. Though I was assigned to a children’s hospital in Pyongsong, 10 miles north of Pyongyang, I visited many hospitals in other provinces. In each one, I found unbelievable deprivation. Crude rubber drips were hooked to patients from old beer bottles. There were no bandages, scalpels, antibiotics or operation facilities, only broken beds on which children lay waiting to die. The children were emaciated, stunted, mute, emotionally depleted.

In the hospitals one sees kids too small for their age, with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces. They wear blue-and-white striped pajamas, like the children in Hitler’s Auschwitz. They are so malnourished, so drained of resistance, that a flu can kill them. Why are there so many orphans? Where are all the parents? What passes here for family life?

In North Korea, a repressive apparatus uncoils whenever there is criticism. The suffocation, by surveillance, shadowing, wiretapping and mail interception, is total. Most patients in hospitals suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, worn out by compulsory drills, innumerable parades, "patriotic" assemblies at six in the morning and droning propaganda. They are toil-worn, prostrate, at the end of their tether. Clinical depression is rampant. Alcoholism is common because of mind-numbing rigidities, regimentation and hopelessness. In patients’ eyes I saw no life, only lassitude and a constant fear.

Once, I had an opportunity to visit my driver, a member of the military, who was in the hospital because of injury. The authorities were vexed that I wanted to see him, but I was able to overcome objections. As was my custom on hospital visits, I took bandages and antibiotics—basics. On this occasion, I was embarrassed to see that, unlike any other hospital I visited, this one looked as modern as any in Germany. It was equipped with the latest medical apparatus, such as magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, electrocardiograms and X-ray machines. There are two worlds in Korea, one for the senior military and the elite; and a living hell for the rest.

I didn’t see any improvement in the availability of food and medicine in any of the hospitals I worked in during my entire stay. One can only imagine what conditions are like in the "reform institutions," where whole families are imprisoned when any one member does or says something that offends the regime. These camps are closed to foreigners.

My initial naiveté that the starvation was the result of weather conditions disappeared when I saw that much of the food aid was being denied those who needed it most. Before Cap Anamur came to North Korea, other agencies such as Oxfam and CARE pulled out because they weren’t allowed to distribute aid directly to the people. They had to turn it over to the authorities, who took complete charge of distribution. Monitoring is impossible. Nobody really knows where the aid is going, except that it is not going to the starving citizens.

If a doctor’s diagnosis is that North Korea suffers from society-wide fear and depression because of the cruel system, he has to think about the right therapy and to speak out against repression. The international community, especially humanitarian groups, must demand access to the shadowy world of labor camps. They have to look for the violence that is hidden from us by the system.

The system’s beneficiaries are members of the Communist Party and high-ranking military personnel. In Pyongyang, these people enjoy a comfortable lifestyle—obscene in the context—with fancy restaurants and nightclubs. In diplomatic shops, they can buy such delicacies as Argentine steak, with which they supplement their supplies of food diverted from humanitarian aid. In the countryside, starving people, bypassed by the aid intended for them, forage for food. Pyongyang is fooling the world.

As a German, I know too well the guilt of my grandparents’ generation for its silence under the Nazis. I feel it is my duty to expose this satanic regime, which has deified "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, just as it did his late father.

Even though virtually the entire North Korean economy is geared to the military, we should help ordinary citizens. But this must be on condition that aid goes to the deserving. Foreign NGOs, journalists and diplomats must be free to travel unannounced to the provinces to ensure that aid isn’t misdirected. Only pressure on North Korea can save lives. The people can’t help themselves. They are brainwashed, and too afraid to be able to overthrow their rulers. That’s the medical diagnosis. Only the outside world can administer the right therapy, and bring about a reformation of this depraved nation."

[Note: Dr. Vollertsen, a physician from Germany, worked in hospitals in North Korea from July 1999 to December 2000.]


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