From the Wall Street Journal. August 22, 2003
- Editorial Page -


Norbert Vollertsen

Invading North Korea

Weather permitting, an invasion of North Korea begins today. The objective? Bringing down what Undersecretary of State John Bolton recently called the "hellish nightmare" of Kim Jong Il's regime.

No soldiers will be involved in this invasion. The airlift will be provided by 20 large balloons launched from South Korea. The weapons they'll carry are 600 hand-held AM-FM radios. Their target is ordinary North Koreans who have no access to information about what is happening in their own country or the rest of the world. More balloon drops are planned, along with radios in bottles floated off the coast.

The "Give an Ear to a North Korean" campaign is being organized by Douglas Shin, a Korean-American minister, and Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician. "Silence is killing North Korea," they say in a statement issued from Seoul. In Kim's police state, radios must be registered with the authorities and are permanently tuned to government-run stations. The radios being dropped into the North would allow people to listen to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and broadcasts from South Korea.

Pastor Shin and Dr. Vollertsen have long been active in the underground railroad that helps North Koreans escape to freedom, mostly through China. Their network of supporters has helped escapees seek amnesty at foreign embassies in China and Southeast Asia. Earlier this year they attempted, but failed, to smuggle two boatloads of refugees from China to South Korea.

The radio project -- which is timed to coincide with next week's six-party talks on the North's nuclear program -- is one of several that activists are working on to encourage North Koreans to flee. Another involves stationing ships in international waters off the coast of North Korea to pick up those escaping by boat. Another calls for approaching high-level North Korean officials visiting Seoul to try to persuade them to defect.

Human rights aside, encouraging refugees is also a political strategy. Word of a safe harbor overseas would surely spread throughout the North, creating more internal pressure on the already troubled Kim regime. That's why Kansas Senator Sam Brownback has written a letter urging President Bush to declare such a safe harbor. He also supports, as do we, a plan under consideration by the Bush Administration to admit 30,000 North Korean refugees currently in China. The U.S. could also put more pressure on China to let the United Nations help the nearly 300,000 North Koreans who may already be hiding there.

Mr. Brownback proposes to expand the S-2 visa for aliens who provide assistance in the wars on terror and drugs. The number of "snitch visas" should be increased to 3,500 from the current 250 a year, he says, with eligibility extended to people offering information about rogue-state WMD programs. The mere chance that this would induce operatives in Pyongyang's WMD programs to defect is worth a try.

Alas, none of these sensible, creative efforts to help North Koreans are welcome in the one place in the world where you'd expect them to be greeted most warmly: South Korea. The government in Seoul -- led, ironically, by a president who was a human-rights lawyer -- seems more worried about the potential costs of resettling refugees in the South than it is about the plight of their brothers and sisters in the North.

No one wants to exercise the military option on North Korea. Every war game shows the West victorious, but at great cost in human life. How much better to adopt policies encouraging an outflow of refugees -- and the internal implosion of Kim's brutal regime.

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From the Wall Street Journal. February 5, 2003

Prisoner Nation

By NORBERT VOLLERTSEN

SEOUL, South Korea -- A human tragedy of hellish dimensions continues in North Korea.

For nearly a decade, an unknown number of North Koreans, possibly as many as 300,000, have defected to China. These brave men, women and children risk their lives to flee the mass starvation and brutal oppression brought upon them by Kim Jong Il's Stalinist regime. Sadly, Beijing's official policy has been, and remains, to arrest the refugees and forcibly return them to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture and in some cases execution.

Until recently, these refugees' stories and China's practice of refoulement, or forced return, went largely untold. Mercifully, this is beginning to change. Now, action by human-rights campaigners from around the world -- including my own small efforts -- helps some of these refugees to seek asylum, and to publicize their brutal treatment at the hands of Chinese and North Korean officials.

***


President Bush is right to call the regime in Pyongyang "evil." I know, because I have seen the evil with my own eyes. From July 1999 to December 2000, I traveled with the German medical aid group, Cap Anamur, and gained access to some of the country's most secretive regions. What I witnessed could best be described as unbelievable deprivation. As I wrote for this newspaper in April 2001, "In the hospitals one sees kids too small for their age, with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces. They wear blue-and-white striped pajamas, like the children in Hitler's Auschwitz."

While Western critics denounced President Bush's decision to include North Korea in the Axis of Evil, the long-suffering people of North Korea cheered it. I know: refugees have told me. They know how Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire" was an early and important step toward its collapse. Moreover, the Axis of Evil remark proved prescient after North Korea's confession that it had a large, covert nuclear-weapons program. More and more high-ranking defectors have told us that Kim Jong Il's government is in a desperate situation, much closer to collapse than the outside world knows. This, they say, is why he needs the fear of nuclear annihilation to win concessions from the West, prop up his regime, and subjugate his own people.

One must remember that the famine in North Korea is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. The North Korean dictator uses food as a weapon against his own people, keeping them weak and dependent on the state. From 1994 to 1998 (the most recent reliable data the outside world has), at least two million North Koreans perished from starvation and related diseases; nearly 50% of all North Korean children are malnourished to the point that it threatens their physical and mental health.

***


I worked in North Korea for 18 months until I was deported in late 2000, for publicly denouncing the regime for its human-rights abuses and failure to distribute the massive amounts of food aid to the people who needed it most. After leaving, I knew the only way I could help the people of North Korea was to tell the world what I had witnessed and work to free the 23 million people who remain prisoners in their own country.

In 2001, I interviewed several hundred North Korean defectors in Seoul, as well as near the Chinese-North Korean border, plus in several other locations where they are hiding. Many of them had spent years in concentration camps and spoke of mass executions, torture, rape, murder, baby-killing and other crimes against humanity. Most were imprisoned for "anti-state criminal acts."

During my interviews, I met many human-rights activists who had devoted their lives to helping the North Korean refugees. Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese journalist and organizer of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, based in Tokyo; Sang Hun Kim, a South Korean former U.N. official and human rights volunteer; Chun Ki Won, a South Korean Christian missionary; and many others. We realized from our experience in the field in China that the North Korean defectors had risked their lives fleeing starvation and oppression.

In China, most of the refugees live in utterly primitive circumstances. They have little food, no medicine, and lack proper shelter. Many live in the woods, sleep in makeshift huts, and cook in holes in the ground. Those in urban areas are sold like slaves to Chinese businessmen, and the young women are forced into prostitution.

My fellow activists and I have appealed to Beijing numerous times, asking them to change their policy toward the refugees; but to this day we have yet to receive a response. In late 2001, we agreed that helping North Korean defectors to enter a foreign embassy in Beijing would be an effective way to bring the issue to international attention. Encouraged by other international and South Korean aid workers, who were consulted in the weeks that followed, we arranged a plan of action and made several trips to China to go over the logistics.

Kim Hee Tae, a South Korean humanitarian aid worker operating in China, joined us on condition that the operation be carried out on humanitarian grounds. We agreed, and thus 25 North Korean defectors were interviewed and selected from a great many defectors, all anxious to leave China at any risk. On March 15, 2002, we launched our first operation, sending all 25 defectors into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing. Several similar operations followed.

Our plan was to conduct as many operations as possible, to keep the issue in the news, and ratchet up international pressure on Beijing. Then, a plan to send a group of refugees into the Peruvian Embassy last September was aborted when the Chinese authorities arrested the chosen refugees and the activist Kim Hee Tae in late August. Things then went from bad to worse. In early November, Mr. Kato was detained by the Chinese police, very severely interrogated, even tortured, and finally released because of increasing international pressure, mainly from the Japanese media. Because the police confiscated his notebook, our whole network suffered a huge setback.

Another strategy of ours was to create a flood of North Korean "boat people." We made extensive plans for vessels to carry refugees across the Yellow Sea from China to South Korea. Once again many activists and even a freelance photographer for the New York Times got arrested. Beijing treats the North Korean refugees -- and increasingly those who help them as well -- like common criminals. China continues to prop up Kim Jong Il's evil regime even as thousands sneak over the border to escape it.

***


Even worse, the South Korean government has largely turned a blind eye to the plight of their "brothers" to the north, and in many cases has actually hindered their escape. Our plans to cross the Yellow Sea were foiled in part by South Korean authorities who used surveillance, interception and minders to disrupt our plans. Read this again, for I wish to stress the shame of it: South Korean authorities worked actively to foil our attempts to bring North Korean refugees to freedom. But under South Korean law, North Korean refugees cannot be turned away. It is time for Seoul to live up to this promise.

And it's not just the officials. South Korean students spend their time and energy denouncing the presence of U.S. troops, instead of denouncing the evils of Kim Jong Il. What many foreigners fail to understand is that the student movement in Seoul is heavily influenced by North Korean propaganda, and quite possibly given logistical and financial support through spies from the North.

This is similar to the espionage and propaganda that was so pervasive in Europe during the Cold War. As a German who witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, I understand the destabilizing impact an exodus of refugees can have on totalitarian regimes. Despite arrests and beatings, my friends and I will continue our efforts to create a steady flow of refugees through Western embassies in China, by boat across the Yellow Sea, and at the North Korean-Russian border.

As a German, I also know about Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany, how badly it failed, and how disastrous were its consequences. The only way to truly help the North Korean people and to end Pyongyang's nuclear blackmail is to hasten the collapse of Kim Jong Il's murderous regime. As President Bush said of Iraq in his State of the Union address, so too should it be said of North Korea: the real enemy of the North Korean people is not surrounding them but ruling them.

Dr. Vollertsen, a physician from Germany, worked in hospitals in North Korea from July 1999 to December 2000. He is currently based in South Korea, from where he organizes rescue and asylum efforts for escaping North Koreans.

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opportunities for action:

Call South Korean Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Han, at (202) 939-5600 and let him know that you are upset and embarrassed that one of our allies would mistreat Dr. Vollertsen in this way. Make sure you mention Dr. Norbert Vollertsen by name.

Click here to e-mail the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Ask him to urge our South Korean allies to stand up for freedom and support the efforts of Norbert Vollertsen. Make sure to mention Dr. Vollertsen by name in your message.

Pray for Norbert & others (mostly Christians) who doubtless need some encouragement right now.

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