Disability Rights in North Korea: Turning Over a New Leaf


 Swimmer Rim Ju Song became DPRK’s first Paralympian upon his participation in the 50m freestyle heat.

Photo: Telegraph.co.uk


The new decade marked mostly positive changes in the DPRK’s policy towards the disabled, showing a remarkable shift from the ostracization and cruelty many claimed they have been subject to. Whether such developments reflect a substantial change in the paradigm on broader human rights remains to be foreseen.


In the minds of many hopefuls, and skeptics alike, North Korea might have possibly achieved a milestone as it sent its first Paralympian to the London Olympics in the form of Rim Ju Song, a construction-worker-turned-swimmer [1].


The “Catch-22”: He couldn’t really swim, let alone master the minimum of two strokes required to compete. Despite finishing last in the heats, he has emerged as a pioneer. His stardom is set to inspire disabled people across North Korea and beyond.


Rim’s anecdote, however, serves as an anti-thesis to the commonly acknowledged perception of the North’s human rights practices. An oft-cited report by Vitit Muntharbhorn, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, paints an unflattering spectacle of the North’s perpetual human rights violations, as well the services offered to persons with disabilities [2]. Accounts from refugees reveal that those with disabilities are deported to the outskirts of the city, and detained in “Ward 49,” a throwback to the gulags from the Stalinist era. In addition, in a system of selective breeding, the disabled and those with genetic mutation are denied their reproductive rights, with disabled newborns being killed as per some recent accounts.


For a country where the disabled make up approximately 7.5 percent of the total population, such discrimination is tantamount to and deserving of the attention it has received thus far. A recent feature on Yonhap by Jason Strother further serves as a testament to the experiences of the disabled in the Northern counterpart [3]. Consequently, an overview of North Korean refugee statistics suggests that very few with disabilities make it to the South. While these accounts are not derivative by any means, one may still conjecture how the 17-year amputee Rim’s narrative matches with what we know of the North. This is also where I adopt the idealist’s route.


Indeed, Rim’s story is a deviation and may not be representative of his countrymen’s experiences, given that those with disabilities are essentially perceived as a societal and national burden, which, however, might be true of any community. Recent developments in North Korea delineate significant progress in terms of advancing disability rights. In 2003, the country passed the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disability, a legislation promising free medical care and special education, and in 2009 assured the United Nations that its disabled were receiving proper care and schooling [4]. Rehabilitation centers for the disabled have been constructed in the North amidst the hullabaloo surrounding peninsular politics, and the North Korean Federation for the Disabled have been becoming increasingly inclined to accept technical assistance for paraplegics, polio patients, traffic accident victims and wounded former soldiers [5]. As of 2011, it has been celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and has signed it first MoU with the World Federation of the Deaf with the view of ameliorating the living conditions and promoting equal opportunities for the deaf in arenas of education, culture, arts and sports [7] [8].


In a case of unprecedented collaboration, the Federation has also joined forces with the Green Tree Foundation from South Korea, which sends food and supplies across the border to the disabled, and sports equipment to those at the Taeddonggang Cultural Center for the Disabled as well [9]. Most recently, the Federation organized a table tennis tournament for those with disabilities, delineating a significant progress towards ameliorating its human rights record [10].


Granted, expecting overnight changes in human rights regime may be a bit of a stretch. However, cooperation between the two Koreas in terms of ensuring disability rights in DPRK is underway, regardless of whether Paralympics may indeed be the endgame for North Korea. Much has been said about unification producing a mightier Korean Olympic squad. Rather, dialogues towards standardizing human rights practices between the two nations need to be promoted in view of paving the path for a more sustainable means of unification.



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