Cover Story

View from the Axis

Critics deride the "axis of evil" rhetoric but eyewitnesses know better. In North Korea, evil only begins to describe the everyday horror of life under "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

When Norbert Vollertsen hears critics rip President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" remarks, he can't help rolling his eyes. North Koreans, he says, "are so happy about the president's speech-and they will tell you that he is absolutely right. For the first time in their lives they felt supported and encouraged. Defectors are willing now to come to the United States in order to testify because of this speech." The criticism of Mr. Bush-who called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world"-crescendoed with his trip to Asia late last month. South Koreans, hoping for détente with their communist neighbor, marched through the streets in protest as the president arrived in Seoul. Former President Jimmy Carter chimed in, saying Mr. Bush's State of the Union statement "was overly simplistic and counterproductive. It will take years before we can repair the damage done by that statement." Dr. Vollertsen, a 44-year-old German physician, wants officials to pay more attention to the damage done to North Koreans under the current regime than to the damage to foreign relations. He spent 18 months living at North Korea's axis, watching evil spin systematically around him. North Korea, he says, is a modern-day Nazi Germany. And its "Dear Leader," the 60-year-old President Kim Jong Il, is practicing genocide. From Dr. Vollertsen these are not empty charges. He has had access to witness North Korea's famine conditions in a way no other Westerners have. He traveled to North Korea in 1999 with the German relief agency Cap Anamur (known in English as German Emergency Doctors), working to rehabilitate the nation's hospitals. A month after his arrival, Dr. Vollertsen found himself treating a patient who was badly burned by molten iron. Dr. Vollertsen unhesitatingly offered his own skin for the grafting procedure. In front of government officials, a doctor stripped skin from his left thigh with a penknife. Impressed by his unselfish act, Mr. Kim's government awarded Dr. Vollertsen the prestigious Friendship Medal. They gave him a VIP passport and driver's license, allowing him to travel freely across the country without the usual government restrictions. These were gifts the government would one day regret. They allowed Dr. Vollertsen to discover and secretly videotape a nationwide famine. Bouncing across the countryside in a Jeep, Dr. Vollertsen encountered starving children who were nevertheless forced to engage in daily, two-hour songfests idolizing the "Dear Leader." He saw gangs of undernourished children working on a 10-lane highway project. He watched doctors perform an emergency appendectomy on a girl without anesthesia. He met adults who were desperately afraid, always under surveillance, dousing their depression with cheap alcohol. He found a staggering infant mortality rate and, among children who did survive, significant declines in height, weight, and IQ. "It's easier to brainwash unintellectual children," Dr. Vollertsen observes dryly. "The children not only look like children in German concentration camps, they are actually behaving like them," Dr. Vollertsen says. During an interview with WORLD in Washington, he spreads out photos of emaciated children wearing blue and white striped pajamas, staring vacantly at the camera. "This boy died the very next day," he says, pointing to one. "There is no medicine, no running water, no heating system, no food, no bandages-and this is the situation all over North Korea." Everywhere, that is, except in the glittering capital city of Pyongyang, where Dr. Vollertsen found casinos, nightclubs, luxury hotels, gourmet foods, and diplomatic shops. "Very fashionable, and all for the ruling class-the military and party members," he recalls. Hospitals there are-no surprise-state of the art. "President Bush is right. Kim is using food as a weapon against his own people, systematically starving them to death, mainly those who are in opposition to the government-Christians or any political opponents," Dr. Vollertsen says. As much access as the government provided Dr. Vollertsen, the worst atrocities were kept hidden in secretive prison camps. These he learned about more recently. After leaving North Korea, he spent time along its borders learning from defectors-torture victims who live like hunted animals on the border between North Korea and China. They described a nightmare world where guards electrocute prisoners for fun and throw women into sewage pools for stealing food. He heard stories of children who vomit when they accidentally dig up fresh mass graves and babies who are strangled moments after birth on concrete floors. He was told repeatedly of an island in the northeastern part of North Korea, in an area near Chongjin so highly restricted it does not appear on official maps, where prisoners are used as laboratory test material for anthrax and other bacteria, food poisoning, or medical experiments-how long they can stand freezing, or how long they can live underwater-"the cruelest experiments you can imagine," Dr. Vollertsen says. Mr. Bush's remarks and recent trip should revive a hardline approach to North Korea, even though experts long have known it is the most repressive nation in the world. Humanitarian relief experts say that more than 4 million people have died of starvation in North Korea since 1995-despite the country's receiving more food aid than any other nation in the world. Dr. Vollertsen's firsthand testimony was echoed last month in Tokyo at the third annual International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees. Three North Korean defectors, including a former bodyguard of President Kim Jong Il, told reporters and conferees that international food aid is not reaching the starving; instead, it is going to the government. They said millions of dollars worth of food aid is being stockpiled in mountain military complexes and used to feed soldiers and the ruling elite. The former bodyguard, Lee Young Kuk, said he watched the punishment of a political prison camp inmate accused of stealing salt. He was tied to a vehicle and dragged for 2H miles at high speeds and "became de-skinned." His body was tied to a stake "as an example," said Mr. Lee. He told reporters, "I have watched so many deaths in North Korea I almost lost the concept of human dignity." The conferees in Tokyo agreed to a concluding statement: "We believe that the North Korean regime is the paramount human-rights violator of our time." "When I see the combination of brainwashing, starvation, concentration camps, of rape, of medical experiments and mass executions, all those horrible stories and the testimony of all those defectors, then I must say that Kim is an upgraded version of Hitler's Nazi Germany," Dr. Vollertsen declares. "He's committing genocide." It was comments like these that earned Dr. Vollertsen's expulsion from North Korea in December of 2000. He now spends much of his time interviewing North Korean escapees and helping them travel an underground railroad that begins at the Chinese border, travels through Mongolia and Thailand, and ends in Seoul. Dr. Vollertsen now hopes to capitalize on the momentum of Mr. Bush's declaration with a congressional hearing in Washington. In recent weeks he has made the rounds, meeting with members of Congress and officials at the State Department, along with human-rights activists. One Washington activist, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Horowitz, was sufficiently moved by his presentation to invite Dr. Vollertsen to stay in his home during his Washington meetings. "In my 25 years working in Washington I've never seen anybody who has become a hero to so many people so quickly," Mr. Horowitz says. Dr. Vollertsen is convinced the United States "is the only place on earth" where officials will listen to what he knows about North Korea. He is bitter that "nobody cares" in his native Europe, despite vibrant images of its own Holocaust. "All the European politicians, they ask me, 'Do you have any evidence, do you have any torture victims in your backpacks?'" Dr. Vollertsen-the son of a soldier who fought for Hitler-is determined to speak out in view of his own history (see "Paying a debt to history"). He says he will continue the campaign despite anonymous midnight telephone calls warning him to keep quiet. "We Germans were accused of not caring when there were rumors about concentration camps, so I feel responsible to speak out," he says quietly. "Never again it should happen that there is silence when something like this is going on."

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