North Korea once considered Norbert Vollertsen to be a close friend. But the same government that made him the first foreign recipient of its "Friendship Medal" expelled the aid worker for being too friendly with journalists and critical of the North's lack of freedom and human rights abuses.
During his 18-month tour with Komitee Cap Anamur (German Emergency Doctors), Dr. Vollertsen says he witnessed a ruined society, divided into the prosperous capital city of Pyongyang and the "stone age" countryside. He angered the government by showing the evidence of his accusations to reporters during former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit in October, and Dec. 30 he was deported. Now Vollertsen is trying to persuade fellow aid workers to speak up too.
"To be allowed to stay, we shut our eyes," says Vollertsen, who sits on the edge of his seat in a Seoul hotel room, hardly able to contain his enthusiasm to tell the world about what he's seen. Aid groups have long suspected that aid is diverted to the Army and the elites. But most groups have declined to criticize, reasoning that if they are expelled, they won't be able to help anybody.
"They are right in a way," says Vollertsen. "But I think now the time has come to change." The North has become more dependent on aid, and since the June inter-Korean summit the secretive regime is more interested in engaging the world, he adds.
Vollertsen says now is the time to start pressuring North Korea in a way that supports open-minded moderates and encourages reciprocal relationships.
But the doctor has always been rebellious, in the mold of "Patch Adams types," he says. In Germany, he quarreled with officials when policies seemed to encourage the peddling of costly treatments. He chose North Korea for work because "I couldn't find a single book about the place."
The Friendship Medal, which he won for donating his own skin graft for a burn victim, allowed Vollertsen the unusual privilege of traveling without a minder. When he flashed the award at checkpoints, police saluted and waved him on.
On his travels, he frequently saw hordes of children smashing rocks at the roadside to prepare a foundation for a 10-lane highway near Pyongyang. "There are two different countries. The countryside with slaves working for the capital city, and the capital with the powerman who is dictating what the slaves have to do," says Vollertsen.
When Dr. Albright visited last year, Vollertsen broke the rules and led a group of foreign journalists around a decrepit hospital. Such tactics are at odds with the sensitive approach pursued by major aid groups, such as the UN World Food Program.
"A confrontational attitude is counterproductive," says David Morton, the WFP's representative in the North's capital of Pyongyang. Behind the scenes, the WFP has long protested restrictions on the monitoring of food aid, says Mr. Morton. In 1998 and 2000, it withheld millions of dollars in aid. Moreover, he says, conditions among children have improved on the east coast, where the WFP works. But Vollertsen, who worked on the west coast, wouldn't have that knowledge, says Morton.
The North Koreans wanted to expel Vollertsen in October. But he said that he would go to the foreign press and tell them what North Korea is really like. "Half an hour later, they called my office, apologized for their tone and behavior, and said I could stay another year," says Vollertsen.
A few weeks later Vollertsen came across the body of a soldier, showing obvious signs of torture, lying dead on the side of a road. The incident prompted Vollertsen to deliver a statement on human rights to the government, which led to his expulsion.
Last week, Vollertsen was arrested by South Korea for trying to cross back into the North while he was touring the diplomatic border village of Panmunjom. Vollertsen said he did it to draw attention to North Korea's lack of freedom and human rights. "In the future, I don't want anyone to ask me, 'Why didn't you act?'" he says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society