Normalization and Paralympic Performance

September 25th, 2012

Recently the Paralympic closing ceremony acted as a coda to the past seven weeks of athletic prowess, celebrating the end of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. London bid farewell to roughly 14,000 Olympic athletes and 1,100 Paralympic athletes from 205 teams, whose hard work and dedication once again provided viewers with the best form of human drama.

“Spirit in Motion” is the Paralympic motto, which ignites visions of the inspirational character of the Paralympic Movement, as well as the upmost elitism and strong-will of Paralympic athletes.

This year marked the first time in history that the DPRK has sent any athletes to the Paralympics, showing an interesting change in policy line, and a huge step forward from the rumored destroying and inhuman treatment of disabled citizens.

Despite this benchmark, some observers have criticized[1] Pyongyang officials for sending the DPRKs first and only paralympian to London unprepared and undertrained; a propaganda stunt rather than as an elite sportsman.

North Korean wild-card paralympian Rim Ju-song only learnt how to swim in April this year, after being informed by officials he was to attend the London 2012 qualifiers in Germany, competing as North Korea’s very first Paralympic athlete. Ju-song was left as a left arm and left leg amputee after a construction site accident at the age of six.

“He didn’t even know how to swim before he came to China this spring,” said Green Tree charity worker Pastor Kwak Soo-kwang about Rim. “We taught him how and then he made the Paralympic qualifier in Germany.[2]

However this small obstacle didn’t faze him, expressing that he was “very proud and honored to represent [his] country[3]”, and therefore doing his best training in Beijing.

Despite his courage, Rim placed last in the S6 50m freestyle, finishing ten seconds behind everyone else.

Regardless of Rim’s performance, the significance of his race and the implications of his presence in the world media were paramount.

Rim’s race, along with the acceptance of provisional membership for North Korea in the International Paralympic Committee, is a huge diplomatic step forward; especially considering the lack of disabled rights apparent in the DPRK. Stories and accounts from North Korean defectors rumor at the regimes appalling treatment of the disabled population, who number about 1.8 million, some 7.5 percent of the population, according to the Green Tree Charity Foundation.

In 2006, the UN released a report claiming that disabled people face “merciless discrimination” in North Korea, sent to camps away from Pyongyang and submitted to “subhuman conditions”[4].

The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea at the time of the report, Vitit Muntarbhorn, stated that the collective camps for the disabled where designated according to a persons physical deformity or disability[5]. Both those physical and mental disabilities where subject to miss treatment, those experiencing mental disabilities being detained in areas or camps known as ‘Ward 49[6]’.

Despite this bitter backdrop to North Koreas participation at the 2012 Paralympics, no one could fault the huge smile on Rim’s face as he emerged from the pool after the S6 50m freestyle.

The same 2006 UN report that referred to the ill treatment of the DPRK disabled also expressed concern over the vulnerability of women in North Korea.  The report concluded that many women in North Korea appeared at high risk of being subjected to trafficking and other forms of exploitation, such as prostitution, which is still the case today; especially in regard to female refugees.

However the success of North Korean female athletes in this years Olympic Games stand as a promising sign coming from the patriarchal social makeup of the DPRK. SinoNK analyst Benjamin R Young[7] foresees that North Korean women are by far the dominant force in DPRK international athletics; and their preeminence is in typically male-dominated sports.

The relative success of both Rim and North Korean female athletes in London 2012 hints as positive change for the DPRK in the international sphere.

Regardless of these small steps forward, many have urged that we consume this soft-power projection of the DPRK with a (rather large) grain of salt.

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, who is an amputee similar to Rim, says that while the country has indeed been supportive of Rims Paralympic performance, it is a miss representation of the life of the disabled back in North Korea.

“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.[8]” Ji does not expect much to come out of North Koreas participation in the Paralympics.

Mission worker Sue Kinsler was given permission by the North Korean government to wear the flags of both North and South, as well as the United States, during the Paralympic opening ceremony, marching with the North Korean delegation

“Maybe I can be a peacemaker between South and North with my unique background,” Kinsler told Telegraph Sport, “I have discovered many wonderful things with the North Koreans.” She further explained her positive projection for the future of the Koreas, expressing hoping that “South and North will be reunified one day and I want to be the bridge.”

Kinsler’s actions at the Paralympics, which were supported by Pyongyang, are a surprising and some-what amicable gesture towards by the DPRK to their Southern adversaries.

Rims participation in the 2012 Paralympics, the success of the North Korea female Olympians, and Kinsler’s actions help create a new line of positive international interaction for North Korea.  Thanks to London 2012, North Korea has made it into the international media sphere; and for once not connected to a security scare or act of government abuse.

Pyongyang has a repetitious hunger for violently shocking the international media into attention. We can only hope that the indications of soft-line politics and sports-diplomacy that are connected to the propaganda image of a ‘new, young North Korea’ hold some accuracy.

Sports diplomacy has provided an avenue for Pyongyang to promote women and the disabled; those on the fringes of an already disadvantaged North Korean society. If Pyongyang realizes this new avenue, it could be and used accordingly to increase political leverage and diplomatic power, a power that is normally sourced directly from fear, misgivings and security threats. 




[3] ibid



[6] ibid


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About the Author

Tasharni Jamieson