POSTED February 27, 2007
Inside North Korea
I have traveled to many places on many continents, but I never felt my personal freedom limited as much as it was during our time in North Korea. North Korea is usually off-limits to foreigners—especially to Americans. In order to film the work of Dr. Ruit, a Nepalese eye surgeon, the only way that I could enter the secretive state was to go undercover posing as part of his medical team. Ruit's goal is to heal patients in poor countries who have gone blind from cataracts. My cameraman and I hoped that we would also get glimpses of real life in North Korea. It turned out to be one of the hardest assignments I had. The government sent us six (!) minders who accompanied us all the way from Katmandu, Nepal to North Korea and back. In Pyongyang they took away our passports and cell phones. There wasn't a moment when we could wander off and walk around unobserved. I had to stay within eyesight of the hotel, so I jogged in circles around the compound. This is what prison must feel like. The only North Korean citizens we were officially allowed to film were Dr. Ruit's patients. The number of people who came to see him was overwhelming. In the developed world cataracts hardly ever cause blindness, and mostly elderly people are affected. Here, children and old people alike had lived in the dark for years. All were hoping for a miracle. We witnessed Dr. Ruit and his team operate on more than one thousand people in only six days. It was an act of unbelievable stamina, and proved Dr. Ruit's deep-rooted humanity. Then the crucial day arrived. A thousand fearful and expectant patients with their eyes bandaged were gathered in one room. What would happen when the bandages come off? Nobody knew and everybody, including us, held their breaths. Dr. Ruit went up to every single person, talked to each one soothingly – and slowly took off the bandage. One by one, we witnessed the miracle happening. Old women saw their grandchildren and children their parents for the first time after years in the dark. But what was so remarkable was that immediately after regaining their sight, rather than thanking the doctor, people started crying and bowing and giving thanks in front of pictures of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung as hundreds clapped and cheered in unison. I never saw such an extreme personality cult before.