[VIEWPOINT]Activist’s uncomfortable messageI once knew a guy like Norbert Vollertsen, the German physician turned crusader for human rights in North Korea. The guy’s name was Philip Berrigan, and he couldn’t get it through his head that the world is a complicated place.
Father Berrigan ― a Roman Catholic priest who later left his order and married ― believed that people shouldn’t fight wars. Well, in principle we all believe that, but Father Berrigan took it to extremes. During the Vietnam War he tried to disrupt war-making by defacing military conscription records with blood, or burning them. Destroying government property was clearly illegal, and Father Berrigan went to prison. But he failed to learn his lesson. For the remaining 30-plus years of his life, again and again he would break onto a military base and do what he could to reduce U.S. war-making capacity ― by pounding on a jet fighter with a ballpeen hammer, for instance, destroying its delicate alloy skin. Back he would go to jail. There was no reasoning with the man, no convincing him that a country like America simply could not be pacifist in a dangerous world. About all that could be done was to vilify him with swearwords such as left-wing activist, and hope that others wouldn’t follow his example.
Dr. Vollertsen is the same kind of hardhead. He simply refuses to understand that North Korea is not the kind of country you monkey around with. In principle, we all grieve for the starving children of the North, but Dr. Vollertsen carries it to extremes. His way could provoke a war that would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” or trigger massive waves of refugees that could swamp the South Korean and northeastern Chinese economies.
No wonder he has earned the swearword “right-wing extremist.” It is a little hard to make the charge stick, because Dr. Vollertsen went to North Korea in 1999 as a different swearword, a “leftist do-gooder.” At that time he was with Cap Anamur, a bunch of utopians who think that sick and injured people should be healed wherever they are, even if we don’t approve of their governments.
What he saw in North Korea inspired him at first. The people were not communist devils, they were just ordinary folks trying to cope with overwhelming deprivation ― hospitals without electricity. Without running water. Without beds, heat, soap, disinfectant, anesthesia, antibiotics.
With beer bottles for intravenous drips. Without food even to feed the doctors. And for the most part, without patients. Rather than lie uncared-for on a cold floor, they died at home. Yet Dr. Vollertsen saw doctors, nurses, administrative staff who would not give up, who donated their own blood for transfusions. So when he treated a burn victim, Dr. Vollertsen gave the skin from his left thigh, peeled off with a pen knife, for a skin graft. “I was a sunshine politician,” the lanky, blond, ruddy-faced doctor told a luncheon gathering in Seoul last week.
For his sacrifice, Dr. Vollertsen was awarded the Friendship Medal of the North Korean people. He got a V.I.P. passport and a private driver’s license. That helped him get into areas normally off limits to foreigners. And what he saw ― the listless, abandoned children, the international humanitarian aid diverted to the black market ― turned him, he said, from a sunshine politician to a rainmaker. “My medical diagnosis,” he said, “is that this is a political problem. It is not natural disaster that has caused these calamities for North Korea. It is the policy of one man, Kim Jong-il. As a physician, I cannot help.” So he became a political activist.
And a huge embarrassment to South Korea. He was eventually expelled from North Korea, Dr. Vollertsen said, but never beaten up by the police there. That happened only in South Korea. when he tried to send tiny radios by balloon to bring information into North Korea, when he tried to protest at the University Games in Daegu last month. For a while he was getting 1,400 “hate” e-mails a day from South Koreans, Dr. Vollertsen said. Among the kinder swearwords was “fascist.” That is a real irony, the doctor said, because it is as a German that he feels the need to get involved. “I feel guilty that my father’s and grandfather’s generations failed to speak out against the concentration camps in Nazi Germany,” he said. “We must not make the same mistake twice.
“When the only people who care about human rights in North Korea are so-called ‘right-wing activists,’ what shall I do?” Dr. Vollertsen continued. “I’ve never been invited by left-wing students to talk to them. I would like to meet them.” I described to Korean friends the luncheon and the harrowing video footage of gaunt, dull-eyed children unable to brush the flies from their faces. “What I’d like to know,” a university student countered, “is where he gets his support ― who’s paying for this?”
There is a Chinese tale about people who do not look at the moon, but look at the finger pointing to the moon. It is the only defense the practical person can have against the uncomfortable messages brought to us by these swearword activists.
Nethertheless, let’s let Dr. Vollertsen answer the question: “I am neither a secretly financed CIA-agent nor a member of the Unification Church,” he writes by e-mail. “I published three books on North Korea with the Japanese publisher ‘Soshisha’. Additionally, I write articles for newspapers and give speeches so that I can donate money for the boat-people project and the balloon-sending.”
Now can we look at the North Korean moon?
* The writer, former editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a professor of mass communications at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University.
by Hal Piper
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