December 1, 2010 | National Post

The Medieval Medical Horrors of North Korea, A Real-life Mordor

Five decades after Joseph Stalin’s death, there is only one place on earth where his dream of exterminating the individual human spirit in the name of communism survives in its purest form: North Korea.

This is a place where God himself has been eradicated as a form of “superstition.” Instead, North Koreans are taught to (quite literally) worship the regime. According to state propaganda, the prescribed first words for a baby are not “mama” or “dada,” but rather “Thank you, Father Kim Il-Sung.”

North Korea is a giant prison. Worse than a prison, in fact, because prisoners in other countries don’t have to forage for wild grass, or catch rats, to stay alive. But to Westerners, who aren’t permitted to see this real-life Mordor with their own eyes, all of its ancient Stalinist horror strikes us in surreal hues. North Korea seems less an actual country than a sort of giant theme park dedicated to human evil — a time-locked homage to an obsolete totalitarian death cult that was extinguished in every other corner of the world decades ago.

The reality of North Korea’s horrors only hit home for me after I was able to sit down at a Toronto restaurant with one of the few Westerners ever permitted to roam the country without an official government minder.

Norbert Vollertsen, a blond middle-aged German doctor, first traveled to North Korea in 1999, as part of his charity work with an international NGO. Taking shifts in a Pyongyang emergency room, he was horrified by the scenes around him. Even patients with easily treatable diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis lay untreated on gurneys. Meanwhile, the medication that had been sent from Germany to save their lives was on sale for American dollars at a special Pyongyang store reserved for foreign diplomats.

One day, Vollertsen saw a line-up in front of his hospital. He learned that a tractor-factory worker had been severely burned by molten metal, and the people queuing up were there to donate pieces of their own skin so that the man could be saved. Such scenes, Vollertsen learned, were common in North Korea: Some of the hospital nurses had gone through this procedure so many times that their whole bodies were covered with scars. Vollertsen made the fateful decision to join the line-up, as a gesture of solidarity with the patients he was treating.

At first, his hosts were skeptical: Some worried that this German’s skin might be affected with exotic Western germs. But they took his skin anyway, and word spread about his unusual gesture.

A week later, Vollertsen was asked to make another skin donation. But this time, when he showed up at the hospital, North Korean TV cameras filmed the whole thing. The event was broadcast on the country’s (only) newscast, and Vollertsen was celebrated as a national hero — the German who loved North Korea so much he was willing to give his very flesh. The regime even awarded him the “North Korean Friendship medal” and — more importantly — a driver’s licence that permitted him to roam the North Korean countryside unimpeded. No Western journalist has ever had such access.

Nothing Vollertsen had seen in Pyongyang prepared him for the even more piteous scenes he witnessed in the rural provinces. All around were desolate landscapes — the forests having been chopped down for firewood.

Starvation was rampant: Most peasants survived on bags of donated rice from the West (which the North Korean government claimed to be a form of “tribute” delivered from fearful Western powers). “I know about hunger in Africa and in other poor Asian nations — I have seen it,” Vollertsen told me. “But in North Korea, the situation is more severe, because the people are afflicted not only with hunger, but by brutal cold weather. In Africa, the warm temperatures can sustain people to a certain extent. But people will die quickly in the cold unless they have enough calories. After a night of minus-25 degrees, they will simply not wake up.”

The patients Vollertsen treated in children’s clinics were scarcely more animated than corpses. He recalled to me one particularly haunting specimen — an emaciated 12-year-old whose striped pajamas, reminiscent of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, struck a grim historical chord with Vollertsen. “He looked straight into my eyes,” the German doctor remembers, “so full of sorrow and despair. No future. No hope. Nothing. It reminded me of the photos of the people you see at the Washington Holocaust museum.”

The next day, the child died. But before he did, Vollertsen snapped his photo — along with shots of dozens of other children. Ordinarily, such usage of cameras is banned in North Korea. But Vollertsen told his minders that the photos would be useful for soliciting donations from Germany.

The amazing thing, Vollertsen notes, is that all of the horrific images he captured came from North Korean hospitals — where authorities wanted to save people. He couldn’t conceive how awful life was for the 150,000 political prisoners living in the country’s six internment camps.

It was around this time that something snapped in Vollertsen’s mind. He no longer wanted to provide mere palliative care to North Korea’s walking dead. He wanted to awaken the world to the massive scale of the country’s horors. “As a German who always had felt guilty about the Nazi past, that was the moment when I realized I couldn’t remain silent about what I was seeing,” he told me. “That was when I began my protest.”

Using his privileged access, Vollertsen secretly chauffeured visiting foreigners to sites beyond Pyongyang’s Potemkin village. The result was an October 25, 2000 Washington Post scoop in which North Korean destitution was laid bare. Shortly thereafter, Vollertsen was expelled, and moved to a new life in South Korea as a human-rights activist. (The regime in Pyongyang now calls him a mentally unstable Western agitator.)

Since 2000, Vollertsen has written books, testified to Congress in Washington, treated sick North Korean refugees in China, and spoken to any journalist who would listen. Yet despite his amazing eyewitness reports, he’s often had trouble attracting interest, even from fellow Western activists.

“When I talk to people, often all they want to discuss is how horrible things are in Guantanamo, or Gaza. They’re focused on Israel and the United States. Sometimes, they even accuse me of working for the CIA, or being too ‘pro-Western.’ ” It’s a phenomenon he finds maddening.

Even in South Korea, he tells me, it is hard to arouse interest in the horrors unfolding just across the border — especially in the case of young adults, who have no memory of the Korean War. “This is something I saw in Germany when I was growing up: Young people felt a sense of kinship with the East German communists to piss off their parents,” he tells me. “Exactly the same thing is happening in South Korea. Young South Koreans know nothing about the reality in the north, and they are effectively pro-Pyongyang.”

This insight helps explain why it takes a North Korean artillery attack or nuclear test for the country even to make it onto the front page. We are so accustomed to our ritualized bickering over the same set of relatively small-scale human-rights issues that we ignore the existence of what is in effect one giant concentration camp parked just a half-hour drive from Seoul, where millions of people have died of starvation over the last generation, and hundreds of thousands more have died in gulags. What a travesty, for instance, that a man like George Galloway, pimping for the “human rights” of the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas, attracts big crowds on university campuses, while someone like Vollertsen is dismissed as an American lackey.

What keeps a man like this going amid such human-rights hypocrisy? “I’m still haunted by the faces of the children I saw,” he tells me. “Some day, I’ll go back. That is my goal: I will be a doctor in North Korea again.”

– Jonathan Kay is a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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