In Beijing, it was handshakes and smiles all around as negotiators from six nations sat down on Aug. 27 to talk about the future of North Korea. The so-called six-party talks are seen as a chance to defuse nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring the pariah government of Kim Jong Il into the international mainstream.
They sat side-by-side at the huge hexagonal bargaining table, but negotiators for the United States and North Korea were miles apart in their positions. The Bush administration is demanding a stop to the north's nuclear-weapons program, while Pyongyang insists it won't disarm until Washington agrees to a nonaggression treaty. China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea all hoped to bring the two sides closer together, while at the same time looking out for unique interests of their own. (Japan, for instance, irked the North Korean delegation by demanding the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang during the Cold War.)
With so many national interests at stake, human-rights activists worried that the people of North Korea, starved and oppressed by their own rulers, would get lost in the shuffle. "We will create a seventh party for these talks," vowed Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor-turned-activist. "We cannot allow the North Korean people and the refugees to be forgotten."
At a time of diplomatic smooth-talking, however, Dr. Vollertsen's media-savvy reminders of North Korean abuses are not going over well in the South. On Aug. 22, South Korean riot police physically restrained Dr. Vollertsen when he attempted to send 600 transistor radios into the North Korean countryside via helium balloons launched from the demilitarized zone.
Two days later, in the city of Daegu, another squad of riot police failed to restrain a North Korean mob from attacking protesters at the World University Games. Dr. Vollertsen, still on crutches from his earlier brush with the law, was knocked to the ground and kicked in the head by angry North Koreans who accused him of defaming their leader. After the head of the North Korean team complained about the protest, the local government in Daegu issued an official apology. Dr. Vollertsen says it was a sign of just how far the South Koreans will go to placate the North. "It's quite funny that the North Koreans who are aggressive and attacking someone else, they'll get an apology. Nobody apologized that we were beaten."
Just before leaving Seoul for Bangkok, the site of his next protest, Dr. Vollertsen told WORLD he was not opposed to the idea of international talks. "I'm a family physician. When I want to educate people, I have to talk to them. So I believe in communication. I think the six-party talks are a fantastic idea." But while South Korean officials are calling themselves "sunshine politicians" to emphasize their friendly stance toward the North, Dr. Vollertsen has adopted an opposite nickname:
"I call myself the rainmaker. I like controversial approaches, and I learned the North Koreans cannot deal with this because they are not accustomed to dissent and democracy."
With all the world watching the talks in Beijing, Dr. Vollertsen promised he'd be making plenty of rain in the coming days. Among other tactics, he and his colleagues planned to flood Western embassies throughout Southeast Asia with North Korean refugees demanding the ouster of the dictator-something Dr. Vollertsen sees as increasingly likely.
"I'm quite confident something will happen with North Korea very soon," he said. "The pressure on them is immense. They are cornered and fighting for survival with all means. I know the tipping point is reached and I think it's the end of Kim Jong Il."