How North Korea’s First Paralympian Made it to London

September 4th, 2012

Mr. Robert Glover, OBE, is the executive director Care for Children, which he founded in 1998 in Shanghai, China. Since then, Care for Children has gained the support of the Chinese government, helped around 250,000 orphans find families, and recently expanded into Thailand.  Now it has become involved with North Korea at the London Olympics.

NK News visited Mr. Glover in his office in Norwich, UK, to discuss his charity which remarkably has made agreements with the North Korean government to take the project there. Care for Children has also paid for the first, and only, North Korean paralympian, a swimmer named Rim Ju Song, to come to the UK to compete.

NK News: How did Care for Children learn about Ri Ju Song, North Korea’s first paralympian?

Glover: The way we learnt was through the discussions we had in Beijing where they initially talked about 4 athletes and it was one of those spur of the moments things where I said “Let’s do it! We’re going to do it!” and my staff were looking at me with wides eyes, like what are you doing? And so I committed to it, and raising the money, amazingly we have just been overwhelmed by the support, mainly from British and American funders who have supported this to happen. So initially there were 4, and then after qualifications we were told that only one had qualified. And I thought “wow, this is even more edgy now”, we have one North Korean coming with all these Chinese and South Koreans and all these other people are coming, and wow, what a great story! I think that became even more compelling in the sense of being able to support him. We are very grateful to those who have got behind us and seen the vision and the strategic nature of this.

NK News: Have you found the DPRK to be particularly cooperative in the process?

Glover: All the meetings, certainly with the group of people we’ve been working with, have been outstanding, they really do want to make a difference, and build bridges. And that’s what it’s all about; it’s about building bridges to some of those aspects that we need to emphasize, understand and support. We all know that eastern and western cultures are so different; living in China for 15 years I have a totally different perspective on how Chinese people think and do things, and I think sometimes when we come with our western attitude and western values, we just come straight up against a wall because we don’t understand the thinking.  So bridges are important, and I think this is a huge bridge in being able to see North Korea represented at the paralympics for the first time ever.

NK News: What do you know about the situation for disabled people within North Korea?

Glover: Well, very little. While we were there we met a group of young people, full of energy, and full of life, just like anywhere else in the world, and they were deaf and dumb, and they put on a show for us, and just tremendous energy and you could see the pride in the fact of what they were doing and preforming. So that is my limited introduction to disabilities in the country. Obviously in the orphanages we did see children with disabilities, and I in fact took a physiotherapist with me; he was able to do some teaching around how to care for some of those children. I think most of their care is institutionalized and really, at Care for Children, we believe in families, in children being raised in families, it’s a holistic way to care for children. So when people say “I give clean water, or I give an education, or I give safety or security or whatever”, when you place a child in a family, you give them the lot, because if you get a good family, a mother and father will give them all of those things, food, water, nurture, stimulation, education, and so we believe it’s the best way we can help. And that’s what we’re trying to do in the long term is help North Korea develop a family placement system to help those children be raised in families instead of institutions. I think this is a great relationship builder to go to the next stage.

Glover with Rim Ju Song

NK News: The approach of placing the orphans in the families, do you think this is more amenable to North Korea’s own policy or do you think there are a lot of differences?

Glover: Obviously every country will be different. We’ve just started a project in Thailand and that’s a totally different set of issues and challenges. China was smooth in the fact they wanted to go there so they were able to learn and develop it very quickly. What I’ve seen in North Korea is that the staff are very eager and very open to the opportunity to develop family placement, and I know that they have sent some of their staff to Norway and Finland to look at some of their family placement systems. So far what we’re seeing, and we’ve still got more research to do on in order to get more understanding, is that we do feel that there is the opportunity to develop something  in north Korea

NK News: Are you going to be placing people within North Korea permanently to monitor the situation?

Glover: Well the whole idea is, as we work with an orphanage, say there’s 500 children in an orphanage and they want to place initially 100 out into families, we would then work with 5 of their staff to become family placement workers. What we want to be is strategic, we want to be able to roll the programme across the country. we want to to be developmental, so we’re training grassroots, but have the strategic support of the central government, and the other thing is sustainable. These are not our children so we want them to be the responsibility of the North Korean or the Chinese or Thai or whatever government. We want to train their staff to be able to be responsible for the recruitment of the families, the training of the families, and the matching, attachment and bonding, the support, the aftercare of that family. That’s the way it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done in house. So really our role is to go in and empower them and train them and make them work. and if they work, we’ve done our job.

NK News: Have you worked at all with the table tennis player Li Pun Hui who raises awareness within North Korea about disability?

Glover: I think I met her in Pyongyang. I think she came along to one of the meetings. I think that she came in and was a big star in North Korea and won a lot of respect and was able to give back to a lot of disabled young people.

NK News: What do you think the success of the North Korean athletes in the Olympics, and hopefully the Paralympics, can tell us about the country?

Glover: I think for me it’s all about competing, and the Paralympics is all about inclusion, inclusion of those with disabilities, and it’s ironic that we should include them as a country, as we want to bring them in, and as I said before, I think sport, the Olympics and Paralympics, are a great way to break down whatever disagreements and things. It’s a great opportunity to bring people together, for dialogue and for people to compete together. I’m not sure, I think they won 4 medals in the Olympics,that’s good. People can start to understand with dialogue and understand instead of this tough stance of always worrying about the other side, like I said I’m not into politics but sport is a wonderful medium in bringing people together and helping to empathize and understand about who and what we all are.

NK News: If this venture with the paralympian proves successful, do you hope to expand into this kind of thing in the future?

Glover: Not at all. Paralympics was a one off, it was something that was a spur of the moment that everyone got really worried about, but it’s worked and people have got behind us. Second biggest donation came from the USA, and we raised the money relatively easily. There’s still some costs, so if anyone else is wanting to donate, they’re welcome to do that. So, our focus is placing orphans from institutions into families. So if we go forward with North Korea, that’s what we would be aiming to do.

NK News: The UK and the DPRK established diplomatic relations in 2001. How do you think the London Olympics and Paralympics will contribute to the relationship between the two countries?

Glover: I think it will be huge, in the sense we are very careful not to get involved in politics, we are there for the children, and in this case we are there for this young man who is going to compete, but by bringing the delegation to London, it’s just… Sports, Olympics, paralympics, break down all those reasons why we shouldn’t get together , I think it’s a great opportunity to see good come from this, to get more understanding of each other and empathy of each other. I know they are having a wonderful time in London, unfortunately I haven’t been able to see them yet, but we have a dinner on Monday night at the Oxford and Cambridge club in Pall Mall and we got representatives from the House of Commons and House of Lords there to welcome them. So I think that will be wonderful. Then he will need to get an early night as he’s swimming the next day.

NK News: Finally, sum up your charity in one sentence!

Glover: We have a vision for a million children in families, that otherwise would have been living in institutions.

Find out about the Care for Children charity at their website:


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About the Author

Nicolle Loughlin

Nicolle Loughlin first became interested in North Korea whilst studying Chinese history at college which brought her attention to the Korean War. She subsequently spent her time reading and learning about anything she could find related to North Korea. Nicolle Loughlin lives in the UK and is undertaking her final year of university studying English Literature and Mandarin Chinese. Nicolle has particular interests in North Korea's foreign relations and literature about North Korea. Next year, Nicolle intends to begin a masters degree in Asia studies or international relations in order to further and appropriate her knowledge and interests.