- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

SEOUL North Korean children continue to starve "by the hundreds of thousands," according to a German doctor who had unprecedented access to closed areas of the country before being expelled this month.

The doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, spent 18 months in the North with the aid group German Emergency Doctors and earned unusual access to the countryside after being awarded North Korea's "friendship medal" for donating his own skin to a burn victim.

He said in an interview that he is haunted by fears that his nation's Nazi past is being repeated in the isolated communist state while the world looks the other way.

While working in North Korea, Dr. Vollertsen said, he helped supply medicine and equipment to 10 hospitals in far-flung corners of the nation areas rarely visited by Westerners, who are typically sequestered in the showcase capital, Pyongyang.

North Korea expelled the doctor earlier this month for taking visitors on unauthorized trips just a few miles outside the capital, giving them a glimpse of a grim reality that contrasts sharply with the sterile calm of Pyongyang.

They saw people laden with rug sacks who trudged along unused railroad tracks in and out of the capital to barter for food to take back to villages hundreds of miles away. Others listlessly scavenged harvested fields for leftover grains of rice.

Now in a downtown Seoul hotel room, where he hopes to raise money to send a train of food and medical supplies to the North, Dr. Vollertsen told of an even grimmer reality beyond the short jaunts outside the capital.

"Children are starving, dying by the hundreds of thousands," he said over the weekend. "There has been five years of food assistance, and they are still starving.

"Those people are committing genocide," he said, raising the specter of a grim triage in which North Korea's government deliberately lets some people die so there are fewer mouths to feed.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP), the main Western aid group operating in Pyongyang, has appealed for an additional 810,000 tons of grain this year after North Korea's worst harvest in three years.

WFP officials and those of other aid groups who continue to operate in Pyongyang including German Emergency Doctors, which has distanced itself from Dr. Vollertsen practice a language of diplomacy mandated by North Korea's sensitivity to criticism.

Dr. Vollertsen said he has only praise for those groups that continue to distribute food and medicine. But he said he now feels compelled to speak out about the horrors he saw prior to his expulsion from the North.

After holding a news conference in Seoul that garnered little interest, he traveled last week to the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

With reporters from a German magazine and a Seoul television station looking on, he feigned an attempt to cross into North Korea, only to be arrested by South Korean authorities, handcuffed, brought back to Seoul and released.

He admitted it was a publicity stunt: "If I had actually crossed the line, I probably would have been shot."

For now, reporters line up outside his hotel room seeking interviews.

Copies of a diary he kept during his stay in North Korea are set to go on sale, with proceeds earmarked for additional aid.

But he said his task is not only to help feed the North, but also to raise alarm over human rights abuses in one of the world's most repressive states.

He displayed a thin, green book containing North Korea's criminal code, which he said mandates a minimum seven years of hard labor for anyone who criticizes the nation's supreme leader, Kim Jong-il.

He said Mr. Kim, who just completed a trip to China to study market reforms that have brought huge gains in prosperity to North Korea's neighbor, should be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

"In one, two, five years from now, when North Korea is open to the outside world, I fear people will find piles of dead bodies like in Germany under Hitler, or the killing fields of Cambodia," he said. "People will ask, in shame, 'Why didn't we believe? Why didn't we do something to intervene?' "

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