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North Korea makes Paralympics debut. Does it signal a shift?

North Korea is participating for the first time in the Paralympic Games, a possible shift for a county were disabled people have faced enforced isolation and abuse.

North Korea will for the first time participate in the Paralympics, which start today. But allegations of human rights abuses at home cast a shadow over the competition.

Rim Ju-song, a 16-year-old double amputee, is the nation’s only athlete in the Paralympic Games. He lost most of his left arm and leg in a construction accident as a child. He only learned how to swim earlier this year and will now compete in the 50-meter freestyle event as a wildcard entry, according to reports.

North Korea has one of the world’s worst human rights records. And activists accuse it of particularly inhumane treatment of the disabled, who number about 1.8 million — some 7.5 percent of the population, according to the Green Tree Charity Foundation inSouth Korea. While some see Ju-song’s competition as a potential step forward for North Korea, others aren’t so sure. 

“Those with disabilities are sent away from the capital city and particularly those with mental disability are detained in areas or camps known as ‘Ward 49’ with harsh and subhuman conditions,” wrote Vitit Muntarbhorn, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea in a 2006 report.

RELATED: Just how isolated is North Korea?

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North Korean refugees here in South Korea also allege government-sanctioned abuses.

“We hear rumors that doctors or parents kill their disabled children rather than move out ofPyongyang,” says Lee Seok-young, director of Free North Korea Radio, a broadcaster staffed by defectors in Seoul.  “The government even forces people with dwarfism to live in a certain part of the country so they and their offspring don’t reproduce with others.”

Mr. Lee acknowledges there is scant evidence to prove those allegations, but bases his conclusion on the testimonies of other defectors, like Ji Seong-ho.

‘An embarrassment’

“The government looks at us as an embarrassment to the nation,” says Mr. Ji, who as a teenager lost his left hand and foot after falling off a moving train in North Korea.  Six years ago, using a pair a makeshift crutches, Ji crossed the Tumen River into China and traveled all the way toSoutheast Asia where he was able to board a flight to South Korea.  He now heads his own human rights organization in Seoul. 

Several years before his defection, North Korean police arrested Ji for illegally crossing the border into China to get food for his family.

“For one week, they beat me more than the others I had crossed the border with,” he says. “They told me that a person with only one leg should not leave his home.  They didn’t want the outside world to see that North Korea has disabled people.”

Ji says he is surprised to see North Korea competing in this year’s Paralympic Games. But he does not think this signals an improvement for the lives of the disabled back in his homeland. “Considering how poor conditions are for almost all North Koreans, the disabled live even worse than that.” he says. “This one act won’t make any difference for them.”

‘We had to start from scratch’

But Kwak Soo-kwang sees it differently. The South Korean pastor heads Green Tree, an international charity that has been working with the North since 2010 and sends food and supplies to North Korea’s disabled. It also helped North Korea develop its disabled athletics program. Green Tree financially supported Paralympian Ju-song’s training in Beijing and took him to Berlinto compete in the games’ qualification matches in July. 

Observers point to recent steps by the North:  It passed a law in 2003 that promised free medical care and special education. In 2009 Pyongyang assured the United Nations that its disabled were receiving proper care and schooling. And North Korea gained provisional membership in the International Paralympic Committee earlier this year.

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“We had to start from scratch,” Mr. Kwak says. “We had to bring in wheelchairs and exercise equipment from South Korea and China to help train the athletes.”

Kwak says, though, that he has seen no evidence to support many of the human rights abuse allegations, but adds that disabled North Koreans have difficulty fitting into society.  Most of their troubles, he says, come from a social stigma, not the government.

“Families are ashamed of their disabled children and don’t even let them go outside. I do think the Paralympics will help improve the image of the disabled. It will change people’s minds.”

Kwak says his group would like to do more to help disabled North Koreans, but cannot due to poor inter-Korean relations.  

Still, Ji, the defector, is skeptical. He says Ju-song doesn’t truly represent disabled North Koreans like himself.

“When I think of the other disabled people I saw back in North Korea, the ones who’ve starved to death, the ones that had no help from the government, it’s really heartbreaking for me.”