Faith: Witness to genocide

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  March 6, 2002 at 7:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 6 (UPI) -- The mass extermination of Christians in North Korea has an ironic effect on some of this Stalinist country's henchmen, according to a German doctor who worked there for 18 months. They convert to their victim's religion.

"I have spoken with the former commandant of 10 concentration camps, who was so impressed by the strength of the inmates' faith that he fled the country and had himself baptized," Norbert Vollertsen told United Press International.

Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 as a physician for the German relief agency Kap Anamur, known in English as German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea.

"As a German, I feel a special obligation to bring this evil the attention of the public," insisted the 44-year old doctor, who in recent days briefed ranking State Department and National Security Council officials of his experiences.

Brought to the United States by the Hudson Institute's Project for International Religious Liberty, Vollertsen delivered a depressing message: What has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance of the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews: "Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns," he related. But as the church father Tertullian (ca. 160-225 AD) said at the dawn of Christianity: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly.

"I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South," he said. Before the division of Korea after World War II, there was a strong Christian presence in the North -- stronger than in the South.

There is another parallel between this situation and that of Nazi Germany: Then as now incredulity met the few appalling genocide accounts filtering out of these nations ruled by evil regimes.

After a series of interviews in Asia, this columnist reported almost identical facts about North Korea's mistreatment of its own people and was labeled an unreconstructed anti-communist by leftwing church leaders in Europe.

Now Vollertsen is confirming what defectors had said in the early 1980s -- that a small elite led a life of debauchery, while the rest of the people starved, had no medical attention, and were tortured and killed for the slightest criticism.

They described a fancy nightclub with a casino and prostitutes frequented by senior functionaries and military officers, led by Kim Jong-Il, then the heir apparent, now the ruler of the country.

Vollertsen has seen them and says he has pictures to prove their existence. He knows where the girls come from -- the small Chinese town, just north of the border.

Ironically, he says, North Korean girls are being sold for hard cash as sex slaves to rich Chinese businessmen in that same region.

"In Pyongyang, the brass lacks little," Vollertsen told this correspondent. "In hard currency stores, they can buy all kinds of delicacies, the finest French champagnes and the most advances medicines donated to North Korea by Western aid agencies.

"In the meantime, the ordinary people must do with no more than 800 calories per day," the 44-year old German continued. "They no longer have any fuel to heat their homes -- at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.

"Hospitals have no electricity, no running water, no sanitary installations, no sheets and mattresses for their beds, no medicine, no antibiotics, not even a stethoscope.

"I have held the hand of a 13-year old girls as the had her appendix removed without anesthetic. She was incredibly brave. There wasn't even a whimper out of her. There were just tears in her eyes."

Vollertsen described how eight children had died of weakness as he was trying to treat them.

According to Vollertsen, malnutrition had seriously diminished the children's immune system. "Their growth is stunted, their IQ abnormally low due to a lack of proteins," he explained.

"Fifteen-year old children look like eight-year olds."

He said he observed North Korean physicians administering "saline solutions" of sorts to their patients.

"They stuck a rusty and very ancient syringe into the vein. The needle was at the end of an old rubber tube, which in turn was attached to a dirty beer bottle containing water that wasn't sterilized, mixed with cooking salt."

UPI was unable to elicit a comment from the North Korean Mission at the United Nations in New York. "We have nobody, who can talk to the media," said an official, without giving his name.

Ironically, though, the Pyongyang regime had accorded Vollertsen honors rarely bestowed on foreigners, especially from Western countries.

When he learned that the entire staff of a hospital had donated skin to a burn victim, Vollertsen volunteered some of his own skin as well. A North Korean colleague took it off his thigh with a penknife.

"For this I was decorated with the Friend of the People medal. With it came a VIP pass and a North Korean driver's license that allowed me to travel around the country, without my usual minders, on my days off."

In a Japanese-made SUV imported from China, he drove 70,000 miles over much of North Korea, though he was not allowed to enter the country's remote north-east corner, where the concentration camps are located.

What goes on there he only knows from interviews he later conducted with refugees in China and South Korea. "When Christian women give birth their babies are immediately slain and fed to the concentration camp guards' dogs," he reported.

"Inmates are habitually worked to death. There is no food. The prisoners eat their own feces, grass, anything that crawls, the troughs of the sentries' pigs," Vollertsen quoted refugees as having said.

"Elderly people sometimes kill themselves so that the young can eat their flesh. I have heard of one case in a camp where a grandfather cut off his arm to feed it to his grandchild."

According to Vollertsen, Christians are singled out for the severest forms of punishment.

"Ownership of a Chinese-made radio is reason enough to be sent to a camp because with that radio one can receive Christian messages from China or South Korea. With North Korea radios, this is not possible. Like the radios in Nazi Germany, they are fixed to receive only local stations."

Why this hatred against Christianity? "The regime fears it as the devil fears holy water, as we say in Germany, because Christianity proves to be such a powerful force. The more you try to suppress it the more it grows," Vollertsen replied.

"The regime has built two churches in Pyongyang, one Catholic, one Protestant. I have driven past them every Sunday. There was never a service, and never was the snow shoveled from their doors. They were always locked.

"The same is true for the Buddhist temples in North Korea. I have never seen any monks or other worshipers there.

"The Pyongyang churches were just there to impress visiting delegations," the doctor went on. "Once a delegation of politicians from Germany came to visit. Its members were taken to one of the churches; I accompanied them.

"The dust of years had gathered on their pews. The man who presented himself as the congregation's president was clearly just a party hack who prior to the foreign dignitaries' arrival had removed the obligatory Kim Jong-Il button from his jacket."

Curiously, the North Korea Vollertsen experienced was in itself a divided country.

On the one hand, there was the secret Christian North Korea into which Bibles and radios were being smuggled "by the truckloads," as he described it.

"The border guards can be bribed," he explained this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there was the North Korea with two Potemkin-type churches, a country whose predominant characteristics are fearful eyes and an eerie silence.

"You don't hear a bird, because all birds have been killed and eaten -- along with the game. You don't hear the wind whistling through the trees because virtually all the trees have been chopped down for firewood.

"You don't hear the laughter or cries of children because malnutrition and disease have rendered them seemingly insensate," said Vollmerts.

Was President George W. Bush right in ranging North Korea with Iraq and Iran in an Axis of evil?

The German doctor laughed dryly: "How can one doubt it?"

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