[NOTEBOOK]Dr. Vollertsen's freedom dream

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[NOTEBOOK]Dr. Vollertsen's freedom dream

After 25 North Koreans succeed in their attempt to flee to South Korea by invading the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, all foreign embassies there have gone on alert, anticipating more such asylum attempts from the large numbers of North Koreans hiding in China.

Some embassies, quick to sense that mass defections might take place, have already come up with manuals on how to deal with the kind of situation that developed at the Spanish Embassy. In those manuals are found negotiating tactics and important phone numbers, such as those for their own government offices concerned with such issues as well as those of the Chinese government, the Beijing Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Korean Embassy in Beijing.

North Korean defectors are a hot potato for any government that might have to deal with them, and the best way not to burn your hands with a hot potato is to get rid of it quickly. The Chinese government expelled the North Koreans to the Philippines within 27 hours of their rush through the Spanish Embassy gates. The Philippines government, which did not want them in the country, at first wanted to redirect them to Seoul as soon as they arrived in Manila.

One or two hot potatoes can be handled - or tossed to others. But when they appear en masse the problem is different. Thirteen years ago in Germany, that's just what happened.

In July 1989, East Germans who had gone on vacation to another "workers' paradise," Hungary, went to West Germany's embassy there and demanded to be sent to West Germany. The wave of East Germans continued, and finally the West German and Hungarian governments had to sit down and devise a solution to the outpouring of refugees. On August 25, West Germany's Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher met secretly with their Hungarian counterparts in Bonn. After four hours of negotiations, Hungary decided to allow the East Germans to go to West Germany while West Germany agreed to give Hungary a loan amounting to several hundred million U.S. dollars.

The month after that secret meeting, Hungary opened up its border with West Germany, allowing all East Germans in their country to cross to the Federal Republic. East Germany's government went berserk, but was impotent, as Hungary simply ignored the protests and said its action was a humanitarian gesture. The exodus of East Germans continued, and in September 1989 alone, 25,000 East Germans found their way to freedom. Two months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the next year Germany was united.

A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, took part in the planning of escape of the 25 North Koreans. He tells a story of his childhood: He constantly heard his father saying how he regretted the fact that he had fought for the Nazis, not knowing the atrocities they had committed against Jews. His father always said that he would never had joined the Nazi army had he known what they were doing.

Dr. Vollertsen said that he was shocked by the reality that he saw during his 15-month stay as a doctor in North Korea, the last Stalinist regime on earth. After he was banished from North Korea, he used his time and money to let other people know about the cold realities of the country. The reason that he is doing so, he says, is because he does not want to hear from his own children that he just stood by and did nothing, knowing fully well the miserable conditions people have to endure in North Korea.

Dr. Vollertsen has more plans to help suffering North Koreans; he said that he plans to bring even more people to freedom. He said that the collapse of North Korea, just like East Germany's collapse in 1989, would be his dream come true. Of course, China is no Hungary, and the Korean peninsula is far different than East and West Germany.

Press reports from China say that the Chinese and North Korean governments are cracking down on groups that support North Korean refugees. A tiny hole in a dike will sooner or later destroy the whole structure; water flows from higher ground to lower. This is a law of nature, and nobody can change it. Maybe Dr. Vollertsen's dream might become more than just a dream.


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The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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