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Doctor Describes Conditions in North Korea - 2002-07-10

After spending a decade as a family doctor in Germany, Norbert Vollertsen went to North Korea to work for a German aid group. He was later expelled from the isolated nation and now says he feels compelled to tell the world what he saw.

Norbert Vollertsen grew up in post-war Germany, and remembers seeing photographs of the victims of Adolf Hitler's Nazi government. He recalls the prisoners' gaunt bodies and the fear in their eyes.

Now, in the early 21st century, he warns that similar horrors are taking place in North Korea. Dr. Vollertsen said, "We do not have to make the same mistake twice and as a German, what shall I do. Keep silent again? I think I have to act and speak out in order to not be accused in front of history, as a German, to fail again. I think it is my duty, especially as a German, to speak out and to raise the awareness of misery of these North Korean people."

Dr. Vollertsen, an intense sandy-haired man of 44, went to the isolated communist state in June 1999 as a volunteer doctor. He won the gratitude of the North Korean government when he gave some of his own skin for a graft operation on a burn victim. Pyongyang awarded him a friendship medal, a rare honor.

Equipped with his medal, he could pass military checkpoints, allowing him to see towns and villages inaccessible to other outsiders.

He said he frequently saw small graves bearing the remains of children who had died of starvation. He often visited hospitals without drugs, disinfectants, electricity or clean water.

Dr. Vollertsen, the son of a German Army draftee in World War II, said that a lack of evidence was the main excuse the outside world gave for not stopping Germany's extermination of the Jews. He said he cannot remain silent about what he witnessed in North Korea, where the government blames floods and droughts for a famine that aid groups say has killed at least five percent of the population.

"The children were starving and dying at my hands," he said, "because of lack of food - but not because of natural disaster but because of man made politics. I saw a lot of food showcased in Pyongyang. In the capital city, there are diplomatic shops where you can get Danish sweets and caviar, etc. In the countryside, there is nothing. People are lining up on streets and hundreds of women are going hundreds of kilometers away to exchange vegetables."

Dr. Vollertsen began to criticize the treatment of starving people in the impoverished rural areas to others in the aid and diplomatic communities. "There is something wrong in the political system," he said. "As a German doctor, this is an emergency case. When people are dying, I have to act and do something. I have to inform world society what is going on there. So I decided to be a political activist to speak up."

When he spoke out to visiting Western journalists, the North Korean authorities reacted quickly and expelled him in December of 2000.

Since then, his mission has been to attract international attention to what he calls "heinous human rights violations" in North Korea.

In March, Dr. Vollertsen helped 25 North Korean refugees storm the Spanish Embassy in Beijing successfully demand passage to South Korea. China, which views North Korean asylum seekers as economic migrants, permitted them to travel to South Korea via the Philippines. Since then, more than 40 people have made similar asylum bids.

Dr. Vollertsen said he and other volunteers organized the asylum bid not only to help those refugees but also to focus a spotlight on the plight of all North Korean asylum seekers. Aid groups say more than 300,000 may be hiding in China, hoping to make their way to South Korea.

His goal now, he said, is to encourage a larger exodus of North Koreans. He compares the idea with the Soviet-era deluge of Eastern Europeans who sought asylum in Western embassies and helped destroy the Iron Curtain more than a decade ago.

While most outsiders agree that the government in Pyongyang is brutal, the doctor's aggressive approach has drawn criticism. Some aid workers and diplomats think his actions are misguided and could harm the very people he hopes to help. There are reports that in the wake of the recent string of asylum bids, Chinese and North Korean authorities have cracked down on refugees along the border.

But Dr. Vollertsen said that he will only succeed through dramatic actions that capture international attention. He says he knows that he risks going too far, but he is determined to help the people of North Korea and at the same time, to atone for his own country's past.