Is North Korea Serious About Disability Awareness?

Following the debut appearance of a North Korean athlete at this Summer’s Paralympic games, the shadowy state has now held its first ever domestic competition for disabled sportspeople, with an amateur Ping-Pong tournament taking place in the capital city of Pyongyang earlier this month.

ith one of the world’s worst records on human rights, the insular totalitarian state has long drawn particularly severe criticism for the treatment of its disabled population, with harrowing tales of forced labour camps and infanticide periodically emerging from beyond its often impenetrable veil of secrecy. A 2006 UN report suggested that the physically and mentally handicapped were effectively banished from the nation’s showpiece capital city of Pyongyang and forbidden from having children.

While a number of North Korean defectors support these allegations, some observers now suggest that this apparent newfound interest in the capabilities of disabled athletes may signal a gradual change within North Korea, with the rights and abilities of the countries estimated 1.8 million handicapped citizens (some 7.5 per cent of the population) slowly coming to be recognised.

In a country with a history of treating the Olympics with the upmost seriousness, fielding a Paralympic athlete for the first time is undoubtedly a huge step. While sixteen year old double amputee Rim Ju Song reportedly learned to swim only weeks before his competition and finished a good ten seconds behind the rest of the pack in his heat, the very fact that he was able to compete at all is significant.

According to North Korean officials present at the Games, Rim’s appearance was no one off – the country apparently plans to significantly expand its team for the 2016 Rio competition with representation in table tennis, powerlifting, boccia, wheelchair racing and swimming.

While some suggest this newfound ambition in disabled sports suggests a potential step forward for North Korea, others remain less sure, pointing out that given the conditions endured by the vast majority of the country’s population, placing a small number of disabled individuals in the spotlight likely amounts to little more than tokenism.

by Sam Jones

image by Eric Lafforgue

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