The Plight Of North Korea

Malnutrition, Deprivation Runs Rampant In The Country

North Korea is the most frightening member of President Bush's Axis of Evil, and since 60 Minutes first broadcast this report last February, North Korea has announced that it now has nuclear weapons, and plans to build more of them.

On Friday, a U.N. nuclear watchdog agency called North Korea the "most immediate and serious threat" to global nuclear control efforts.

Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.


Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a German family physician, spent a year and a half in North Korea as a member of a German group that provides medical aid to the country.

Vollertsen told 60 Minutes he was stunned by what he saw and was able to capture on videotape when he managed to travel around much of this secretive country.

“There are little children in Children Hospital. Eight years old, 6 years old, some of them 15 years old but looking like a 10-year-old because they are suffering from malnutrition,” says Vollertsen.

“But what shocked me mainly was how they are looking," he says. "How sad. There's no more emotional reaction in those eyes. They can't cry anymore. They can't laugh anymore.”

This German doctor also said he was struck by the stripes on their pajamas.

“It was nearly the same picture from Dachau, Auschwitz. We, Germans, were accused that we kept silent during Hitler's Nazi regime, that there was nobody who, who spoke out,” he says. “I saw those children and I gave a promise. That I will not keep silent. Silence is killing in North Korea.”

According to relief groups, 60 percent of the children in North Korea suffer from silence and malnutrition. Tuberculosis and other diseases are also spreading, but doctors are practically powerless to treat them.

“In North Korean hospitals, there is nothing. There is no running water, no heating system, there is no soap. There is no medicine,” says Vollertsen. “That's the reality in North Korea. And nobody knows about that.”

He said some hospitals have to use empty beer bottles for IV's. But many hospitals have simply shut down.

While driving his jeep around the country, Vollertsen said he saw hungry, malnourished people everywhere foraging for food: “And I saw little children at the roadside picking up all those little insects and whatever they can eat. Women who are looking for some leaves and special herbs.”

Sadly, no birds were chirping. “The people are killing whatever can run, whatever can fly,” says Vollersten.

Hazel Smith, who recently spent 13 months in North Korea for the U.N., monitoring food aid shipments, confirms his reports. She said it's not just hospitals, but the whole country that lacks the most basic necessities.

Here’s a sampling from her list: No clean running water. Lack of fuel to boil much water. No soap, no disinfectant, no toilet paper. No toothpaste. No sanitary napkins, but many women have stopped menstruating because of malnutrition.

“There is chronic malnutrition throughout the country now. Which means that children and adults don't grow very much,” says Smith.

However, you wouldn't know it by looking at the capital Pyongyang, which is in large part a Potemkin village, built for show. A towering triangle touted to be the world's tallest hotel has so many structural flaws that it has never opened for business. Wide boulevards feature decorative female traffic wardens directing imaginary traffic, with robot-like precision.

Everyone needs a government pass to get in - or out - of Pyongyang, where only those judged most loyal to the regime are allowed to live. But, except for top officials, life in Pyongyang is tough, too. Very little works there.

“Even if you're quite privileged, you're going to live in a cold apartment. Having access to water, to sanitation, to electricity is pretty difficult,” says Smith. “The worst thing about life in North Korea now is that people don't know whether they're going to have enough food to survive.”

They may not have food, but they have liquor.

“All the shops in Pyongyang empty. No food, no rice, nothing at all but thousands of bottles of sojo, very cheap, produced North Korean liquor,” says Vollersten. “It's real poison. It's toxic, but it will make you drunken immediately and that's the purpose, in order to make people happy.”

Happiness, however, is in short supply, for the economy collapsed in the '90s, when most factories had to shut down after Russia stopped sending North Korea free oil.

So what do all the people who used to work there do now?

“Some of them are dying because they don't have access to income or food. And North Korea is becoming a nation of petty traders because people have to get by,” adds Smith, who says black markets have sprung up where people barter whatever they can for their next meal.

Floods and mismanagement in the mid '90s caused the famine that has killed more than a million people. And many more would be dying without massive food aid from neighboring countries and the U.S.


But here's the paradox. Despite years of misery, even the U.S. Government admits the vast majority of North Koreans remain loyal to their leadership - proud of their government.

Why? Because they simply don't know any other way.

During their 50 years of communist rule, Kim Il Sung, and now his son Kim Jong Il, have sealed off North Koreans from the outside world. Their radios and TVs are specially made to receive only government stations.

The government publishes all newspapers and magazines. No foreign media. No internet. Only loudspeakers everywhere praising Kim Jong Il.

From the early childhood, young children are educated to love Kim Jong Il, says Vollertsen. “To worship him like a god. And that's the main point. It's more like a cult. He's using this brainwashing process, with steady propaganda from early in the morning up to the evening.”

Kim Jong Il is a purposefully mysterious figure, and has never given a public speech. But Harold Koh saw him up close two years ago when Koh, then a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, accompanied his boss Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang.

“He's probably about five foot, two inches tall, but he's extremely vain about his height. And he had a kind of bouffant hairdo so that his hair stood up another inch,” remembers Koh. “He wore very thick heels, and platform shoes, too, to pick him up an extra inch. So he looked a little bit like an aging rock singer.”

Koh, however, also told us Kim is cunning, ruthless and smart enough to try to use nuclear blackmail to force Mr. Bush to give more aid, food and fuel. Plus, he has pronounced Western tastes.

“He drinks hard scotch. He loves American videos. He talked about his three computers on which he surfed the Internet,” adds Koh. “Everything that he deprives to his people, access to the outside, are things that he himself personally craves.”

The constant indoctrination demands rigid conformity. Ideologically, everyone must be in lockstep - especially at those massive outdoor performances that honor their leader. Koh says he's appalled that Kim puts his money into a million-member military, and developing nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles when he can't provide basic necessities for his people.

Food goes first to the military and the elite. For everybody else, Kim force-feeds them propaganda.

“It's a country where there's essentially no freedom, no civil and political rights. People are spying on each other,” says Koh.

All North Koreans are aware that they don't have the freedom to say what they want and to do what they want,” says Smith. “And that they would be in trouble if they said the wrong thing.”

“They are full of fear,” adds Vollertsen. “I never saw so many people so afraid about anything - any soldier, any military post, any policeman.”


Their fear is understandable. U.S. officials also told 60 Minutes that North Korea has a dozen such slave-labor camps that together contain perhaps a million people - five percent of the country's population of 22 million.

Any sign of disloyalty can get you sent to slave labor, according to former inmates who say that if one member of a family is arrested, the whole family often has to go, too. Many inmates work 18-hour days in hazardous coalmines.

In some camps, one out of five prisoners die each year from exhaustion or starvation. Others die from being used as guinea pigs for chemical and biological weapons. And guards are encouraged to be brutal and utilize punishment cells.

“The punishment cells that have been described by refugees are very tiny cells which are too small for someone to stand up, but also too short for them to spread their legs out,” says Koh. “So people are in that sort of cramped position. And in those cells they're thrown after they've been beaten or subjected to other kinds of humiliating treatment and they, they're fed or not fed.”

But never fed much. “Human Rights Watch reports that the workers at the labor camp tried to catch rats in their shoes so they can roast them, and have an occasional piece of meat,” adds Koh.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, has heard similar reports from North Korean defectors who escaped into China. He traveled to China's North Korean border, and told 60 Minutes that tens of thousands of defectors are hiding in China to avoid being sent back to a North Korean prison camp.

“You have horrific, horrific stories,” says Brownback, citing public executions, people eating bugs and rats, the routine killing of babies born in prison – even women feeding their family a bit of food laced with rat poison to kill their children before they starve to death. “I’ve had eye-witness testimony.”

Brownback and Vollertsen believe that, just as in Nazi Germany, when the full scope of horror in North Korea is finally revealed, it will be far worse than the initial reports.

And Vollertsen vows to keep telling the world about these children until Kim Jong Il is toppled. But will people view him as a fanatic?

“We were accused, we, Germans, that we kept silent and now I'm called a fanatic because I'm so outspoken, because I'm traveling around the world and shouting, 'Here! Look at those children,'" says Vollertsen. “Because I want to save those children now. And that's why I'm a fanatic.”