Healing the Blind in North Korea

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series: Inspired Intelligence with Michele Rigby Assad

It was an audacious double operation. Conduct 1000 surgeries on North Korean citizens in an attempt to restore eyesight to the blind, while filming illegally under the watchful eyes of the North Korean minders.

If they had been caught, the best-case scenario would be for members of the humanitarian mission to get kicked out of the Hermit Kingdom.  The worst-case scenario was to join American citizen Kenneth Bea and tens of thousands of poor North Koreans in a jail cell or prison camp.

The government shockingly approved the use of a camera crew to capture footage from the eye operations, but almost everything else the crew obtained with their secret cameras was not permitted.  Even though I spent ten years as a CIA operative, watching the footage had me on the edge of my seat.  I’ve carried out under-cover operations before, but I would not have the guts to do it in North Korea where no human being has political clout or leverage to rescue you if you get busted.  Of all places in the world, North Korea has distinguished itself as the worst, most inhospitable environment for human beings.  The level of brainwashing there is hard to comprehend.


Tagging along with world-renowned Nepalese eye surgeon Dr. Sanduk Ruit, journalist Lisa Ling and her camera crew went undercover for National Geographic to seek insight into a place few Westerners have ever laid eyes on.  It was a brave operation in which the crew acquired rare footage after their North Korean minders told them to turn the cameras off.

Dr. Ruit and his medical team had to carry in all the supplies needed for the procedures.  The hospitals there are bare and lacking in the basics–no antibiotics or other necessities.  While showing the special equipment to the attending North Korean physicians, Dr. Ruit made a point of showing them the labels on the special equipment they brought in that indicated the machines were “Made in the USA“.  In most places in the world, that would make everyone happy because they know that our equipment is some of the best in the world.  But in North Korea, that was pushing the envelope.  I cringed.  You could feel the tension in that room.  I thought the group was going to get kicked out of the country right there and then.  But for whatever reason, the minders allowed the filming to continue.

Each and every patient that was permitted to get the cataract surgery was specially chosen by the regime to reward good behavior and loyalty from its top leadership.  These people should have never been blind, but the lack of proper nutrition leads to the development of cataracts even amongst young people.  It’s mind-blowing when you consider the extent to which such poor nutrition has even affected the most privileged families of that closed society.

Dishonoring the Great Leader

During the filming, one of the photographers laid down on the ground to get a full-length picture of a giant statue of the Kim Il-sung.  He thought he was following procedure, which states that only full length pictures of the North Korean dynastic leaders are permitted, cutting of the legs or torso in a photograph is essentially akin to spitting in the Great Leader’s face.  The angry minders immediately ran after the photographer yelling at him to get off of the ground, saying that he had greatly dishonored the Leader and that he was going home on the next flight.  Too many rules—I guess the camera crew had never been told not to lay on the ground.  Thankfully, the minder didn’t follow through on his threat and the photographer was allowed to stay.  This was fortunate because what they caught the next the next day on film was some the most insightful footage I have ever seen on North Korea (below).  Kudos to the team for capturing the tortured psychology of “average” North Koreans in a place that Lisa Ling rightly calls “an intelligence black hole.”


Praises and Prostrations

Twenty-four hours after the medical procedures to remove the cataracts, the bandages were ready to come off.  The doctor and his team were anxious to see the results of their hard work.  With the cameras rolling, the patches were taken off the patients, one at a time.  It was incredible to witness each and every person realizing they had the miracle of sight once again.  Some had been blind for up to 20 years.  We sat there anxiously watching the program expecting to see overwhelming gratitude to the doctor and his team for what they had done.  Instead, we saw men and women immediately rushing forward to the portraits of the Great Leader mounted on the wall, jumping up and down, putting their hands in the air, crying and saying, “Praise you Great Leader!!!!  Praise your name!!!!  Thank you Great Leader!!!  Praise you!  Praise you!”  One woman said, “I will work harder for you than ever in the salt mines!!!! Without you I would be nothing!”

They cried out to the image of Kim Jong-un as if he were God Almighty.  They bowed to him, they got down on the ground to prostrate themselves in a way I have only ever seen done in church when we are in deep worship of God.  It looked a little like footage of a great revival and some cult of a personality pastor.  Each person seemed to try to outdo the patient before them in their effusive praise of the Great Leader.  They treated him as if he personally breathed the oxygen into their lungs and kept them alive on this earth.  The adoration for the Great Leader reminded me of the New Testament crowds around Jesus thanking Him for healing them. Which is weird when it’s not Jesus they’re adoring:  it’s Kim Jong-un.  Who wasn’t even in the room.  Or anywhere near the room.  And even weirder, knowing that he is the guy responsible for their calamities: diseases, starvation, and human rights abuses beyond imagination.  eewwwww.

I wondered whether it was brainwashing, fear, or a combination of both elements which produced such behavior.  I highly recommend that you view National Geographic’s incredible footage on this one-of-a-kind foray into creepy North Korea.  Kudos to Dr. Ruit, Lisa Ling, both of their crews and National Geographic for making this possible.  They successfully executed operations that were both courageous for the crew and life-changing for the patients.  Here’s to praying that some day these people can tell Dr. Ruit how much they appreciate his efforts instead of worrying about how hard they will have to work in the salt mine to make up for the great favor from the not-so-great leader, who thinks he’s God.

“Inside North Korea” is available on Apple iTunes TV, National Geographic, Amazon, as well as YouTube.

Available on Amazon: National Geographic – Inside North Korea




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Michele Rigby Assad

After obtaining a masters degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Michele applied—along with hundreds of others from the university–to work for the CIA. After a long and grueling hiring process and a year of intensive training, she became an intelligence officer for the National Clandestine Service, the covert (operational) arm of the Agency. Serving for a decade as a counterterrorism officer, Michele worked in all of the awful places you hope you’ll never visit, including Iraq during the height of the war. To date, Michele has traveled to 45 countries, lived in six of those, and has a lot of crazy stories to tell about life overseas.

While working for the CIA, Michele initially decried the traits that made her different from senior male officers, but later realized that these traits were what made her a great intelligence officer (empathy, intuition, strong interpersonal skills). Now she’s on a mission to show women that they have the elements to be a Femme Fatale—the incredibly intelligent and operationally astute woman that gets stuff done.

After years of service to her country, Michele has left the undercover life behind and now works as an international management consultant focused on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She has a more “normal” life now and a lot more time to do the things she loves: writing, cooking, traveling for pleasure, walking on the beach—and most of all, inspiring others!

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