Lost amid headlines about regional tensions, economic restructuring attempts and internal power struggles are the needs of the most vulnerable in North Korea.
Given the general difficulties of daily life in the country, one could assume that its weakest members face even harsher conditions. At times this is true, but the real DPRK contains a few surprises.
There are three social categories we can look at to understand North Korea’s policy on welfare: the elderly, orphans and the disabled. The conditions of these groups are relatively well-documented (compared to that of the mentally ill, for instance), but it should be noted that demographic data on North Korea is hard to find.
Nevertheless, there are a few reliable publications, such as the Data Atlas on North Korea, by Daniel Schwekendiek and published in 2009, and the National Population Census compiled by the DPRK Central Bureau of Statistics in cooperation with UN agencies, also published in 2009. The numbers cited in this article, unless otherwise mentioned, are taken from these sources.
(ELDERLY) WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
Just how many children (including orphans), disabled and elderly live in North Korea? About 6.7 million people – more than one-quarter of the population – are either 60 or older or 9 or younger. Most senior citizens are female, as the Korean War (1950-53) reduced the population of males in that age group.
The percentage of orphans among the total population of children is difficult to determine with certainty, but can be placed in the range of 81 to 220 per 100,000 live births, depending on the sources used. Furthermore, the percentage of North Koreans with some form of disability (mainly physical, but also mental) is estimated in the National Census at around 1.7 million. The majority seem subject to a lesser degree of disability, while those reported as “complete” (as in completely blind, deaf or unable to walk) range from 30,000 to 50,000.
Altogether, these numbers mean that between a third and a quarter of the North Korean population may be in need of some form of assistance, or otherwise unable to work and fully support itself, although it should be mentioned that many in North Korea do work well beyond the age of 60. The estimate increases, of course, if we include those in their early teens (ages 10-14) in the total. This burden would be significant for any country with a reasonably healthy economy and some degree of social welfare. But what does it mean for the DPRK?
On the one hand, North Korea has always maintained a high degree of respect for the elderly, especially war veterans, and Kim Il Sung was particularly concerned with the issue of orphans. On the other, people with physical disabilities have been neglected by the government for quite some time, just as with the mentally ill; both were ousted from the capital during the 1970s and 1980s, at the peak of the personality cult.
How to integrate the disabled into society has proven difficult on both sides of the DMZ, and the economic malaise of North Korea over the past several decades has made things worse. However, in recent times things seem to have changed.
“The first person I ever saw on crutches was in Wonsan, back in the late 1990s,” cooperation expert Erich Weingartner of CanKor has said. “In those days you never saw any disabled in the streets of Pyongyang. More recently (my last trip was in November 2012), I saw numerous people with crutches, and in wheelchairs in Pyongyang. A huge difference from 10 years before, with visible signs of improvement. I think that the push to get a team into the Special Olympics has also had a dramatic effect on how the disabled are viewed in the DPRK.”
The government has indeed made an effort in recent years to promote awareness of disability. North Korea has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and in 2012 it sent a team of 24 athletes to the Paralympics in London.
Some analysts have speculated that the sudden interest of North Korean authorities for people with physical disabilities may be seen as a way to divert the focus of the international community from the numerous allegations of human rights violations to an issue that is less sensitive and easier to address. In a 2013 KINU report on the matter of disabilities and human rights in the DPRK, author Lee Kyu-chang said: “…it can be analyzed that measures to address the rights of the disabled can promote external human rights propaganda while imposing little pressure on maintaining the North Korean regime.”
Also, those suffering from mental illness and other non-physical conditions receive less attention from the state, and among the physically disabled there is a degree of preferential treatment.
“Mental illness is rarely discussed but disability is. Disabled war veterans are and always have been highly respected – officially and otherwise. They were prioritized for social support,” British Academic Hazel Smith has told NK News in an email interview.
North Korea’s efforts to provide care for its most vulnerable citizens are surprisingly well-documented in state media, with the Korea Education Fund, the Korea Federation of Disabled People and the Korea Elderly Fund all having their own websites. These sites contain a certain degree of North Korean propaganda, but the role of international donors and workers is openly acknowledged, as is the difficulty for certain groups and specific areas of the country.
In other words, North Korea seems aware of how the international aid system works, despite a certain degree of embarrassment felt anytime foreign aid is required.
To understand more about the health care system of North Korea and the humanitarian assistance, part two of this miniseries will present an interview with aid and cooperation expert Katherine Zellweger, while part three will introduce the controversial statements of former Italian diplomat and aid coordinator Massimo Urbani.
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