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The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics and North Korea’s Record on People with Disabilities

By Robert King

The Olympic torch flickered out a week ago bringing the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics to a close after a spectacular techno light show featuring traditional Korean folk performers combined with the best of K-pop. The pentagonal stadium, however, will be dark for only a few days before the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 9.

The Paralympic Games are an international multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities, which grew out of a modest gathering of disabled British World War II veterans in 1948. It has become a major international sports event, and since the 1960s the Paralympic Games have paralleled the Olympic Games in venue, timing, and international participation. Since 1976, the Winter Olympics have been followed by Paralympic games. The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympic Games are the first winter Paralympics hosted by the Republic of Korea.

The participation of North Korean athletes in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics is the first time disabled athletes from the North have been involved in the Winter Paralympics. North Korean Paralympic athletes participated in summer games in London in 2012 and in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

On February 27 the South Korean Ministry of Unification announced the North will send a 20-member team with six athletes and four officials from the North’s Paralympic Committee. Only two of the athletes will participate in the games, however, both in Para-Nordic skiing events.

The two DPRK skiers who will participate in the games are novices, one of the young men only began skiing in December of 2017. To qualify for the PyeongChang Paralympics, however, both participated in Para-Nordic Skiing World Cup event at Oberreid, Germany, earlier this year. Both, however, have high hopes of winning medals in PyeongChang.

Based on inter-Korean talks in January regarding North Korean participation in the just-ended PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the upcoming Paralympics, it was originally expected that there would be a 150-member delegation from the North for the Paralympics. The Ministry of Unification, however, suggested that the lack of musicians and cheerleaders for the Paralympics was because “North Korea seems to think that it has already partly contributed to an improvement of inter-Korean ties by sending an art troupe and a cheering squad to the PyeongChang Olympics.”  Apparently greater effort for the Paralympics is unnecessary—a clear signal that North Korean participation was principally political.

The involvement of the DPRK in the Paralympics highlights the issue of treatment of the disabled in the North. In the past there were reports in 2006-2008 that persons with disabilities were banned from living in the capital city Pyongyang, and the only persons with disabilities who were treated with respect were veterans whose disabilities were attributed to American brutality in the Korean War. Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the first UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK, also reported this to the UN Human Rights Council.

Two elements were probably important in encouraging North Korean leaders to improve the treatment of people with disabilities.

First, the criticism of the North’s human rights in the United Nations.  In 2009 the DPRK officials participated in their first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the UN Human Rights Council at a plenary session in Geneva. A high-level delegation, including a number of officials from Pyongyang, maintained in the country’s report and public statements at the UN that the country’s human rights were excellent and had no deficiencies. The 167 recommendations made by other Member Countries of the UN to North Korea in the context of the UPR process, however, suggested serious issues in a number of areas. Representatives from many member countries called for attention to specific human rights deficiencies. Among the problems on which the United States and a few other countries urged improvement was in the area of persons with disabilities.  North Korea has been sensitive to this criticism from UN member countries.

The United States raised this issue based on the belief that this was an area that was less sensitive to the North Korean leadership. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and such rights were a threat because they could undermine authoritarian rule. Humane treatment of persons with disabilities, however, was simply a humanitarian concern that would pose no threat to the existing regime.

Second, elite families include individuals with disabilities, and these leaders likely pressed for government programs to help family members. It is clear, for example, that those individuals who are participating in the Paralympics are from elite families. The skiers who qualified for the PyeongChang Paralympics are from Pyongyang—and only the elite are permitted to live in the capital city. Furthermore, foreign travel is a privilege to reward the worthy elite.  Travel to Germany for the qualifying Para-Nordic Skiing competition and to South Korea for the Paralympics are a reward extended only to families of the favored elite.

Because of this desire to reduce the criticism of its human rights record in the United Nations, the North Korean leadership has taken steps to improve conditions for persons with disabilities.  As the North Koreans approached their second Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council, the DPRK signed the Convention on People with Disabilities (an international agreement created and negotiated through the United Nations).  This was announced by DPRK delegates in their 2014 second UPR report.

One of the most dramatic indications of the North Korean progress on disability rights was the country’s willingness to host the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities in May 2017. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, a Costa Rican diplomat, has been the Special Rapporteur since the position was created in 2014.  She was the first UN human rights official permitted to visit Pyongyang.  All UN Special Rapporteurs on DPRK human rights issues and the Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights have made repeated efforts to visit and all have been denied by Pyongyang. Ms. Devandas-Aguilar reported favorably on the results of her visit, though she expressed regret that she was denied access to some ministries relevant to her visit, and she recommended needed improvements in disability rights practices.

North Korea has made progress on dealing with its citizens with disabilities, and these positive steps have been reported on in some detail by Kati Zellweger in a 2014 report for the Shornstein Research Center at Stanford University. John Feffer has also summarized and gave a more recent report on North Korean efforts on disabilities in a 2017 blog posting for 38 North. Both reports praise the progress that has been made, but both also acknowledge and discuss the limitations and the needs for additional effort.

The participation of a few North Korean Paralympians in the PyeongChang Paralympics is a positive step forward in the recognition and implementation rights of disabled DPRK citizens.  At the same time, however, North Korean participation is motivated much more by the political effort to improve Pyongyang’s political relationship with South Korea. The goal is to gain South Korean assistance to undermine and evade international sanctions on the North imposed because of its hostile and threatening nuclear and missile programs, and also an effort to create division between South Korea and the United States.

North Korea’s progress on rights for people with disabilities should be acknowledged and welcomed, but—despite these positive steps in this one area—its human rights record still remains one of the worst in the world.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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