Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a physician from what was East Germany, had the unique experience of working in hospitals in North Korea from July 1999 through December 2000. Following is a Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Vollertsen:
A human tragedy of hellish dimensions continues in North Korea. For nearly a decade, an unknown number of North Koreans, possibly as many as 300,000, have defected to China. These brave men, women and children risk their lives to flee the mass starvation and brutal oppression brought upon them by Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime. Sadly, Beijing’s official policy has been, and remains, to arrest the refugees and forcibly return them to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture and in some cases execution.
Until recently, these refugees’ stories and China’s practice of refoulement, or forced return, went largely untold. Mercifully, this is beginning to change. Now, action by human-rights campaigners from around the world –including my own small efforts– helps some of these refugees to seek asylum, and to publicize their brutal treatment at the hands of Chinese and North Korean officials. President Bush is right to call the regime in Pyongyang “evil.”
I know, because I have seen the evil with my own eyes. From July 1999 to December 2000, I traveled with the German medical aid group, Cap Anamur, and gained access to some of the country’s most secretive regions. What I witnessed could best be described as unbelievable deprivation. As I wrote for this newspaper in April 2001, “In the hospitals one see 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.”
While western critics denounced President Bush’s decision to include North Korea in the Axis of Evil, the long-suffering people of North Korea cheered it. I know: refugees have told me. They know how Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” was an early and important step toward its collapse. Moreover, the Axis of Evil remark proved prescient after North Korea’s confession that it had a large, covert nuclear-weapons program. More and more high-ranking defectors have told us that Kim Jong II’s government is in a desperate situation, much closer to collapse than the outside world knows. This, they say, is why he needs the fear of nuclear annihilation to win concessions from the West, prop up his regime, and subjugate his own people.
One must remember that the famine in North Korea is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. The North Korean dictator uses food as a weapon against his own people, keeping them weak and dependent on the state. From 1994 to 1998 (the most recent reliable data the outside world has), at least two million North Koreans perished from starvation and related diseases. Nearly 50% of all North Korean children are malnourished to the point that it threatens their physical and mental health.I worked in North Korea for 18 months until I was deported in late 2000, for publicly denouncing the regime for its human-rights abuses and failure to distribute the massive amounts of food aid to the people who needed it most. After leaving, I knew the only way I could help the people of North Korea was to tell the world what I had witnessed and work to free the 23 million people who remain prisoners in their own country.
In 2001, I interviewed several hundred North Korean defectors in Seoul, as well as near the Chinese-North Korean border, plus in several other locations where they were hiding. Many of them had spent years in concentration camps and spoke of mass executions, torture, rape, murder, baby killing and other crimes against humanity. Most were imprisoned for “anti-state criminal acts.”
During my interviews, I met with many human-rights activists who had devoted their lives to helping the North Korean refugees. Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese journalist and organizer of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, based in Tokyo; San Hun Kim, a South Korean former UN official and human rights volunteer; Chun Ki Won, a South Korean Christian missionary; and many others. We realized from our experience in the field in China that the North Korean defectors had risked their lives fleeing starvation and oppression.
In China, most of the refugees live in utterly primitive circumstances. They have little food, no medicine, and lack proper shelter. Many live in the woods, sleep in makeshift huts, and cook in holes in the ground. Those in urban areas are sold like slaves to Chinese businessman, and the young women are forced into prostitution. Continued