One man's quirky fight for suffering N. Koreans
SEOUL — He insists he is an ordinary guy. But his life - lived half under,
half above ground - is like something from a movie. And Norbert Vollertsen feels he is riding the winds of history on the Korean peninsula.
Two years ago, the mop-headed German physician was kicked out of North Korea after using 16 months of nearly unlimited access to hospitals and orphanages to provide a rare picture of mass hunger and brutal abuse in the closed regime. Today, he champions the cause of North Korean refugees, and chides the West for caring about the North's nuclear program but not the daily misery of its people.
To many officials he is a loose cannon, a misguided headline grabber who may be harming the people he means to help. Dr. Vollertsen says he is simply bringing attention to a human tragedy that is inconvenient for politicians.
All told, it has been a wild ride for a country doctor who admits he can be as naïve as he is radical. Four years ago, Vollertsen couldn't find North Korea on the map; now, he says he is "working for the overthrow of the North Korean regime."
Last spring, Vollertsen, who has twice given testimony on Capitol Hill about repression in the North, scored a media coup when he helped stage a rush of 25 North Koreans into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, to dramatize the plight of unwanted Northern escapees in China. Coming soon, he says: "a big event on the Russian border of North Korea."
Working with a network of activists in the Asia-Pacific region, he says he takes no special interest funding, but lives off royalties from his recent "Diary of a Mad Place," which has sold out several times in Japan.
He won't use a cellphone, and keeps quiet about his residence other than to say, "I live on the Internet. I move with the wind. I never plan what will happen next, but something always does. Tonight, I might be in Bangkok or Sydney."
Actually, he was in Washington D.C. yesterday at a refugee meeting opened by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), and closed by Lorne Craner, the US State Department point man on human rights in Asia.
"We have a saying in Germany that the more enemies you have, the more courage you earn," Vollertsen says. "In my country, we let a Third Reich develop through silence. I'm not going to be part of that again."
Not only did Vollertsen literally offer the world an inside look at hunger and brutal abuse in the North, he accused aid agencies of silence on human rights and of allowing food to be siphoned off for elite cadres.
In Japan, Vollertsen is a hero. But his stunts put him near the top of Pyongyang's local public-enemy list. German intelligence has warned him of plots to silence him; he feels Chinese mafia or North Korean agents may be involved.
He is barred from China. In Beijing, where embassies are now all ringed with barbed wire to keep North Koreans out, Vollertsen is so hot that officials won't talk about him. The Germans are unofficially critical, saying Vollertsen's tactics put at risk some 300,000 escapees who live in China illegally.
The underlying disagreement is between those who say refugee relief must come slowly so the North doesn't collapse versus those who feel suffering in the North is so bad that it must be challenged more directly. "His methods and means are very strange to me. I don't know if these means are effective," one South Korean official says.
Yet in Seoul, many local refugee-aid workers, expatriates, and others close to the issue scoff at the image sometimes put forward that Vollertsen is "crazy."
"He is an easy target for the institutional diplomatic industry," one Beijing analyst says. "He gets on the nerves of everyone. But the thing is, he knows the truth about conditions in the North. Most of us do not know. We didn't get in."
Vollertsen says he's motivated by admiration of those he worked with in North Korea. He remembers nurses, "the toughest people I've ever known. They have no money, no bandages, no medicine, nothing - but they do everything possible to take care of their patients. You don't find them complaining."
Last month, Vollertsen received the top honor by the North Korean defectors' organization in Seoul; the prize was given by Hwang Jang Yop, for years the North's chief ideologist and the highest-ranking defector to leave Pyongyang. Mr. Yop said a "grand escape" by refugees is the only way to bring down the North.
Ironically, two years ago, Vollertsen and a colleague were the first Westerners to win North Korea's highest state award, the Friendship Medal. The medal came after Vollertsen donated a skin graft to a patient burned by molten iron. He became a celebrity in the North. The medal, and a driver's license, gave him access to remote villages, as well as the thickly carpeted dachas of well-heeled cadres in Pyongyang.
The doctor is not a stranger to unusual public attention. After 14 years as a general practitioner in the university setting of Goettingen, Vollertsen organized his patients to protest German healthcare. He made the news after a courtroom incident where he threatened suicide by holding a gun with blanks to his head. He ran off, fell down a set of stairs, got a black eye - then showed up the next morning in his office, to his patients' incredulity.
Vollertsen recalls the event with some sheepishness. It was the kind of stunt associated with the far-left German "Green" milieu he grew up with. But the stunt was more than his wife could abide, and she left him, taking their four boys.
"I am laughing when I am accused today of being a Bush right-winger, a fundamentalist, or being funded by the CIA," he says. "I have a very left-wing background."
Just after his divorce in 1999, fellow doctors suggested Vollertsen join Komitee Cap Anamur as a medical volunteer. The group originated from the Vietnamese boat lift of 1979 (Cap Anamur was the name of the first boat to reach Germany.) Vollertsen had a choice: go to Sudan or North Korea. He chose the North, because he knew nothing about it, and arrived in July with a second doctor, a technician, a nurse - and responsibility for 10 hospitals, a handful of kindergartens, and 12 orphanages.
One aid worker in Beijing criticizes Vollertsen for the skin-graft donation, saying it crossed the line of medical ethics. Vollertsen's version goes like this: He was visiting a hospital in a Haeju, when he found a room that no one ever entered or left. Curious, he waited till no one was looking, opened the door, and found the burn patient in terrible pain, getting no special help. He was shocked. He was told the only treatment was a skin graft. In the West, artificial grafts are used. But in this hospital, there was nothing like that. So he and several nurses agreed to donate.
The event also got Vollertsen wondering: "If these were the conditions in ordinary hospitals, what was it like in forced labor camps?"
A year later, South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North brought former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - and Western reporters - to Pyongyang.
Vollertsen rode journalists around to see "the Pyongyang they don't show you." He brazenly drove right up to the hotel where journalists were staying, then did it again the next day. Soon, his interpreter-secret police escort disappeared, he was banned from travel, his car tires were slashed. Finally, he received the official heave-ho.
Vollertsen hopes South Korean elections, scheduled for Dec. 19, will bring changes to the country's Sunshine Policy. He feels South Korea gives too many carrots to Kim Jong Il, and holds too few sticks. "If all you have is sunshine, well that's a desert," he says wryly. "In nature, you need both sun and rain; I am a rainmaker. We work together."