North Korean Paralympians used for propaganda

Seol Song Ah  |  2018-01-29 11:44

North Korean Paralympians pose for the camera at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games
 in Rio de Janeiro. Image: Yonhap News

There is a renewed focus on the environment for people living with disabilities in North Korea. The country is in talks with South Korea over their participation in the March 9-18 Winter Paralympic Games, with observers questioning whether or not conditions for the disabled are improving.
Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Koreas state media has aired a program on television each December showcasing performances of the country's young people living with disabilities. The performances take place in Pyongyang at the Central Youth Hall and Mangyongdae Children's Palace – two locations known for their restricted access to the privileged elite. This is a departure from the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il-era policy of banishing people with disabilities out of Pyongyang, apparently due to the official stance that their presence "damaged the dignity of the nation."
Real improvements or propaganda?
The typical South Korean term used to refer to a person with a disability (jangaein) is not included in the "Joseon (North Korea) Dictionary" published in 1992 by the Social Science Publishing Company. Instead, there is the term "handicapped person (bulguja)," which is defined simply as "a person who does not have a fully-functioning body."
But the North has taken steps to at least appear to address the needs of the disabled. In 1998, the government established an organization to ostensibly help people with disabilities, called the "Joseon Disabled Person Aid Association" – using the term bulguja. But then in 2003, the North Korean authorities enacted laws "protecting" people with disabilities, and by 2013, the association's name was officially changed, replacing the word bulguja with jangaeja, using a different variation of the word person but otherwise adopting the South Korean term. These changes can be understood in the context of North Korea trying to improve its human rights image in the face of international condemnation.

The North Korean authorities likely passed these laws so they could show that people with disabilities were protected under the law. They then sent athletes to the 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympic Games, and even an art troupe comprising people with disabilities to perform in London.
But how much of this can be considered real progress and how much is propaganda?
A North Korean defector named Hwang Ji Ae (alias) who was injured in Kangwon Province during military service told Daily NK on January 23, "Even as a certified 'Glory Serviceman' (recognized for injury in the course of duty), I did not receive state distributions. Once, I complained to local party officials when my application to become a manager of a workplace made for people with disabilities was rejected because such people were not allowed in these positions."
"At that time in my life, in my 20s, I thought even love was a luxury. But then I escaped to the South in 2012, and since then I feel my disability has become more of a blessing than a curse," Hwang added.
Daily NK also spoke with a source in South Pyongan Province on January 22 who said, "Everywhere in the streets and markets, you can see many 'Glory Servicemen' on crutches. Only a select few of these 'Glory Servicemen' have received wheelchairs from foreign aid groups, and most have to purchase crutches in the market, or sometimes prosthetics from the Hamhung Prosthetic Factory."
"For others with congenital disabilities or serious work-related injuries leading to the loss of a limb or back pain for instance, wheelchairs have to be ordered through the market. These can cost $100-200 USD, and if an individual cannot afford one, they are basically prevented from leaving their home," she continued.
Soldiers injured during training or workers injured on the job do not receive any compensation from the authorities. All of these examples show that North Korea has failed to tangibly improve conditions for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities omitted from special distribution lists
Technically, North Koreans with disabilities are protected under the country's laws. Article 44, Chapter 6 of the law covering "protection for people with disabilities" states that "regional government offices and other relevant departments are in charge of investigating and establishing work positions for people with disabilities." However, people with disabilities are not included in welfare programs run by the government.

Another defector named Kim Eun Hyeon (alias) from North Pyongan Province added, "According to policy, the authorities should provide select families and individuals, including heroes of the revolution, the Cadres Fifth Section, and other national 'heroes' with luxury items such as clothes, meat, cooking oil, etc. But there has never been a person with disabilities included on these special distribution lists."
The source in South Pyongan Province also described a story of a person who was badly electrocuted in a factory accident in 2010, losing an arm and one of his eyes. "All he received in compensation was another position as janitor. He couldn't make a living anymore and was living a very difficult life, and he asked himself why he was so unlucky," the source said.
Pyongyang residents with disabilities only kept in capital to attract foreign donations
These days, under Kim Jong Un, people with disabilities are allegedly no longer being deported from the capital city Pyongyang.
Lee Hyung Un (alias), a defector who worked for the North's central party 'youth entrepreneurship department' in the 1990s, said, "Even though I was considered an important cadre in the central government, when we had a son who was born with a disability, we were so scared of being deported from the city that we kept his existence a secret for years. But when he got older, he went outside to play – outside of the elites-only apartment building where we were living – and in the end we were banished from the city."
The situation began to change when Kim Jong Un came to power. Instead of deporting people with disabilities, the regime realized their utility as propaganda tools. However, the regime continues to banish individuals with mental disabilities out of fear they might 'say inappropriate things out loud.'
A source in Pyongyang confirmed this and also said that the government has, "In an attempt to elicit foreign aid, established schools for disabled people all over town – including important areas like Mangyongdae."
A cultural center for people with disabilities established in the Kyogu district of central Pyongyang is also said to be more modernized than other parts of town. The center supposedly offers ping pong, swimming lessons, and other activities, and has become a central tool in the regime's foreign aid outreach program, maintained as a place for foreign aid groups to visit. In parallel, the regime promotes this exploitation as part of Kim Jong Uns 'love for the people.'
Paralympians come from elite families
For people with disabilities in North Korea, however, there is still the problem of class discrimination. Those who are lucky enough to attend special schools, where they can learn to sing or play instruments, are solely the children of the elite. Ordinary children with disabilities can never dream of being admitted to such schools.
The athletes participating in the upcoming Paralympics in Pyeongchang are expected to also be members of the elite class. While the North first sent such athletes to the 2012 London Games, almost no one inside North Korea is aware of this fact.
A source in China close to North Korean affairs recently told Daily NK that "Pyongyang residents will not be surprised at the news since they are already aware of the cultural center for people with disabilities in the city center, but residents in the provinces are reacting with disbelief, asking if 'people with disabilities are actually going to the Olympics.'"
"People with disabilities living in the provinces, abandoned by the government, have never even heard the words 'cultural center for people with disabilities,' let alone have access to such facilities," the China-based source added. "I don't know what positions the parents of these athletes hold, but nevertheless, they have are serving as propaganda vehicles for Kim Jong Un."

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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