- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

SEOUL He insists he is an ordinary guy, but his life lived half under, half above ground is like something from a movie. Norbert Vollertsen feels he is riding the winds of history on the Korean peninsula.
Two years ago, the mop-headed German physician was kicked out of North Korea after using 16 months of nearly unlimited access to hospitals and orphanages to provide a rare picture of mass hunger and brutal abuse in the closed regime. Today, he champions the cause of North Korean refugees, and chides the West for caring about the North's nuclear program but not the daily misery of its people.
To many officials he is a loose cannon, a misguided headline grabber who may be harming the people he means to help. Dr. Vollertsen says he is simply bringing attention to a human tragedy that is inconvenient for politicians.
All told, it has been a wild ride for a country doctor who says he can be as naive as he is radical. Four years ago, Dr. Vollertsen couldn't find North Korea on the map. Now, he says he is "working for the overthrow of the North Korean regime."
Last spring, Dr. Vollertsen, who has twice given testimony on Capitol Hill about repression in the North, scored a media coup when he helped stage a rush of 25 North Koreans into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing to dramatize the plight of unwanted Northern refugees in China. Coming soon, he says: "a big event on the Russian border of North Korea."
Working with a network of activists in the Asia-Pacific region, he says he takes no special-interest funding but lives off royalties from his "Diary of a Mad Place," which has sold out several times in Japan.
He won't use a cell phone and keeps quiet about his residence other than to say, "I live on the Internet. I move with the wind. I never plan what will happen next, but something always does. Tonight, I might be in Bangkok or Sydney."
He was in Washington early this week at a refugee meeting opened by Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, and closed by Lorne Craner, the State Department point man on human rights in Asia.
"We have a saying in Germany that the more enemies you have, the more courage you earn," Dr. Vollertsen said. "In my country, we let a Third Reich develop through silence. I'm not going to be part of that again."
The doctor offered the world an inside look at hunger and brutal abuse in the North, and he accused aid agencies of silence on human rights and of allowing food to be siphoned off for elite cadres.
In Japan, Dr. Vollertsen is a hero. But his stunts put him near the top of Pyongyang's public-enemy list. German intelligence has warned him of plots to silence him; he feels Chinese mafia or North Korean agents may be involved.
He is barred from China. In Beijing, where embassies now are ringed with barbed wire to keep out North Koreans, Dr. Vollertsen is so popular that officials won't talk about him. The Germans are unofficially critical, saying the physician's tactics put at risk some 300,000 refugees who live in China illegally.
The underlying disagreement is between those who say refugee relief must come slowly so the North doesn't collapse, versus those who feel suffering in the North is so bad that it must be challenged more directly.
"His methods and means are very strange to me. I don't know if these means are effective," said one South Korean official. Yet in Seoul, many refugee-aid workers, expatriates and others close to the issue scoff at the notion that Dr. Vollertsen is crazy.
"He is an easy target for the institutional diplomatic industry," one Beijing analyst said. "He gets on the nerves of everyone. But the thing is, he knows the truth about conditions in the North. Most of us do not know. We didn't get in."
Dr. Vollertsen said he was motivated by admiration of those with whom he worked in North Korea. He calls the nurses there "the toughest people I've ever known. They have no money, no bandages, no medicine, nothing but they do everything possible to take care of their patients. You don't find them complaining."
Last month, Dr. Vollertsen received the top honor of the North Korean defectors organization in Seoul. The prize was given by Hwang Jang Yop, for years the North's chief ideologist and the highest-ranking defector to leave Pyongyang. Mr. Hwang said a "grand escape" by refugees is the only way to bring down the North.
Ironically, Dr. Vollertsen and a colleague two years ago were the first Westerners to win North Korea's highest state award, the Friendship Medal. The medal came after Dr. Vollertsen donated a skin graft to a patient burned by molten iron. He became a celebrity in the North. The medal, and a driver's license, gave him access to remote villages, as well as the thickly carpeted dachas of well-heeled cadres in Pyongyang.
The doctor is not a stranger to unusual public attention. After 14 years as a general practitioner in the university setting of Goettingen, Dr. Vollertsen organized his patients to protest German health care. He made the news after a courtroom incident in which he threatened suicide by holding a gun with blanks to his head. He ran off, fell down a set of stairs, suffered a black eye, then showed up the next morning in his office, to his patients' incredulity.
Dr. Vollertsen recalls the event with some sheepishness. It was the kind of stunt associated with the far-left German "Green" milieu with which he grew up. But the stunt was more than his wife could abide. She left him and took their four boys.
"I am laughing when I am accused today of being a Bush right-winger, a fundamentalist, or being funded by the CIA," he said. "I have a very left-wing background."

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