In the Hospitals of Hell, Pain Never Dies

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

In the Hospitals of Hell, Pain Never Dies

A German doctor who saw firsthand the terrible suffering of North Koreans has begun to talk about the miseries he saw - starvation, economic collapse and political repression - and is talking to anyone willing to listen to a tale of horror.

Norbert Vollertsen, 43, went to North Korea in July 1999 as a member of a German medical group, Cap Anamur. What Dr. Vollertsen saw during his 18-month sojourn in the Stalinist state before being expelled on Dec. 30, 2000 is chronicled in "Michingot Eseo Sseun Ilgi" (Diary of a Mad Place), published last month by the magazine Monthly Chosun.

The book is no travel guide. Nor is it for the faint-hearted. In his journal entry on July 14, 1999, the first day he went to work at Sinwon Hospital, Haeju city, he describes an incredible scene: a 14-year-old girl, lying on a filthy operating table caked with old bloodstains, undergoing an appendectomy without anesthesia. All that he could do was "to hold the girl's hand tight, as if this might somehow lessen her pain," while the girl cried silently through the 30-minute-long operation, tears streaming down her cheeks, her body convulsing with fear and pain as the rusted scalpel cut through her abdomen.

Much of what Dr. Vollertsen recorded was made possible by his act of kindness toward a North Korean burn victim. Spotting a patient with burns over two-thirds of his body during a visit to Haeju City Hospital No. 2 in August 1999, the doctor donated skin from his own thigh, cut out with a razor blade. This earned him the "Friendship Medal, " given out by the North Korean government, one of the only two ever awarded to foreigners.

The medal was Dr. Vollertsen's pass to areas off-limits to foreigners. Outside Pyongyang, a city of privileged party elites and generals, he saw utter misery - stick-figure people walking great distances because there is no other way to get around, decrepit hospitals without medical supplies filled with hopeless faces and orphans much too small for their age.

Determined to expose the conditions in the secretive state, Dr. Vollertsen guided the foreign press corps that accompanied the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her visit to North Korea last October, showing them the back streets of Pyeongyang and the countryside. Through the journalists' dispatches, the world got to see a North Korea that its officials did not wish the outsiders to see, an event that angered the authorities.

A few weeks later, traveling through the countryside with his driver, an official guardian who trailed him everywhere, and a German nurse, Dr. Vollertsen spotted a man in his 20s, in a soldier's uniform, lying by the roadside, apparently left for dead. Upon examining the body, the nurse who had been a dissident activist in the former East Germany pointed out the wounds and said, "Norbert, you know what these are." The young man had been tortured.

"I knew instinctively that there was something sinister to the circumstances surrounding this young soldier's death," said Dr. Vollertsen during a recent interview with the IHT-JAI English Edition. The incident prompted him to send a "Statement of Humanitarian Principles" to the North Korean government, and the doctor, who had once been hailed as the friend of the people, was expelled from the country at the end of last year, an enemy of the state.

Instead of returning to Germany, Dr. Vollertsen took a ship from the Chinese port of Dandong to Incheon, South Korea. "The ship sailed southward along North Korea's western coast. It was pitch dark outside until we came upon Incheon, a spectacular show of lights after the darkness of North Korean shores," he recalled.

Not knowing anyone in Seoul, he called the Chosun Hotel when the ship docked at the South Korean port on Jan. 1. "It was the only number I had anywhere in Seoul, a number I had gotten from a journalist visiting Pyeongyang," Dr. Vollertsen explained. The posh, five-star hotel would be his home for the next few months, a world away from the deprivations north of the Demilitarized Zone.

The reason Dr. Vollertsen chose to stay on the peninsula is simple: He is keeping a promise he made to his North Korean coordinators back in October when they first threatened to expel him. "I told them, 'You know what I'll do. I'll go to Seoul and talk to international journalists.'" Since his arrival in Seoul, the doctor has given numerous interviews, visited North Korean refugees at the Chinese border, traveled to Bangkok to rescue a North Korean refugee and has testified on the North Korean situation before various groups in Japan, the United States and Europe.

A second book tracing mainly his activities at the Chinese border entitled "North Korea Report from the Border - Diary of a Mad Place II" was published last week in Japan while talks are under way to have the first book published in English in the United States. "It is my moral duty to speak out against the abuse of human rights in North Korea," Dr. Vollertsen said.

Dr. Vollertsen takes pains to emphasize that he is a humanitarian, and not interested in politics. He finds it amusing that people here have labeled him a right-wing conservative. "Only 10 months before, I was called a communist by my colleagues because I was always talking about the engagement policy to open up the country. Now, I am expelled and called a right-wing here," he said with a laugh. In Germany, he had a rebellious reputation for demonstrating against the German medical system.

Dr. Vollertsen, a firm believer in the power of the press, is critical of the Korean media for failing to pay attention to the dire human rights conditions in its northern neighbor. "The first interviews in Seoul ignored human rights violations and dealt mainly with the fact that I had donated skin for the skin graft."

After his experience in the North, Dr. Vollertsen does not think he will ever go back to being a private practitioner, which he was for 10 years in Goettingen, Germany. "The social situation of a person creates an illness. In the case of North Korea, it is extreme. Twenty-year-old women are lying down like 80-year-olds," he said. "It is a silent form of suicide," he added.

Divorced from his wife shortly before going to North Korea, Dr. Vollertsen has four sons in Germany, aged 5, 7, 11 and 13. "They initially had problems when their mother told them I was taking care of orphans in North Korea. But now they think I am healing the world," he said.

"I have a premonition that one day I'll stand at Kim Il-sung Square without the statue," Dr. Vollertsen said. Taking out a picture of an emaciated 11-year-old boy in blue-and-white striped hospital pajamas staring into a void, eerily reminiscent of the prisoners in Auschwitz, he said, "This is the image that haunts me."

by Kim Hoo-ran

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
s
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now