North Korea makes Paralympics debut with teenage swimmer


Performers take part in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London Wednesday. (Photo by Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters.)

North Korea will participate in the Paralympics for the first time this year, but allegations of human rights abuses at home cast a shadow over the competition.

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Rim Ju-song, a 16-year-old double amputee, is North Korea's only athlete in the 2012 Paralympics. He's slated to compete in the 50-meter freestyle swim as a wildcard entry.

Pastor Kwak Soo-kwang says Ju-song has come a long way since losing his left arm and foot in a construction accident when he was a child. The pastor's charity, Green Tree, works on behalf of the disabled in North Korea and helps support the athletes training in Beijing.

"He didn't even know how to swim before he came to China this spring," Kwak said about Ju-song. "We taught him how and then he made the Paralympic qualifier in Germany."

Kwak says Green Tree helped start North Korea's disabled sports program from the ground up. They brought in wheelchairs and exercise equipment for the athletes.

He says the country has been supportive of its Paralympic team. But that's not the North Korea that Ji Seong-ho remembers. Ji is a 30-year-old defector who, like Ju-song, had both his left hand and foot amputated.

"I was pleasantly surprised to hear they joined the games, but I really don't expect much to come out of it," Ji said. "People who aren't even disabled in North Korea still have so many problems. It's not going to really benefit the disabled over all."

Ji defected in 2006 and might be the only North Korean refugee to make the difficult journey to Seoul with such serious physical limitations. He now wears prosthetic limbs. 

Before he came to South Korea, Jing crossed back and forth between North Korea and China in search of food. But one time, he was caught by border guards.

"They tortured me even worse than other escapees because they said I brought shame into North Korea," he said. "The government doesn't want the outside world to see disabled people begging for food. So the police really beat me and told me that a person with only one foot should not leave home."

Jing's allegations are just some of the concerns that human rights groups have about North Korea's treatment of the disabled. The United Nations said in a 2006 report that the government locked up physically and mentally disabled residents and kicked them out of the capital, Pyongyang.

Lee Seok-young, the director of Free North Korea Radio, says he's heard even worse stories about what happens to people with disabilities.

"The government forbids disabled children to live in Pyongyang," he said. "I've heard that some families kill their children rather than sending them outside of the capital."

Lee says given it's human rights record, North Korea should not have been permitted to compete in the Paralympics.

But Pastor Kwak says he hasn't seen any evidence that the allegations of abuse are true. He says conditions for the disabled in North Korea are improving and that the athletics program is proof of that, but that there's still a stigma that needs to be overcome.

"Families are ashamed," he said. "They want to hide their children and they don't get them go outside. Frankly, it wasn't much different here in South Korea that long ago either."

Ji, the disabled defector, says that's nonsense. He says life in the south is like heaven compared to what he went through back home. His biggest challenges now are learning how to type on a keyboard and passing his driver's license test.

As far as Ji's concerned, the North Korean government is simply using the young Paralympic swimmer as a propaganda tool.