About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
A big annyeonghaseyo and hwanyeonghamnida, NK News readers! Welcome back to Ask a North Korean, where anyone can email their questions about life in North Korea to us and have them answered by our very own defector writers.
This week’s topic is about how disabled people are treated in the DPRK.
Despite officially being entitled to government assistance, it’s likely that life is harsh for disabled North Koreans in the same way as it is for the many able-bodied people in the country who are also living day to day.
Tae-il Shim, who left the DPRK in 2018, explains the reality of life for those with disabilities in North Korea.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
In North Korea, disabled people are either referred to as ‘bulguja’ (불구자) or ‘byongshin’ (병신, which literally means ‘ill body’ and is a derogatory term). More specifically, those who were born with a disability are called ‘byongshin,’ and ‘bulguja’ is used for those who became disabled later in life.
You are looked down on and subject to harsh treatment if you were born with a physical disability or have a mental illness. The handicapped are like rotten leaves, fluttering in the North Korean wilderness where the able-bodied also struggle for a living.
From what I know, each province has a so-called ‘hospital’ where people with mental illness are kept away from the world. In Ryanggang province (in the north of the country, bordering China), it’s the number 49 hospital in Sangchang-ri (상창리).
The hospital is a wooden building that has nothing but electronic clubs and rubber bats, used to subdue patients if they get violent.
No special education is provided for those with visual or aural disabilities. Neither would parents expect such treatment.
North Korea’s number 1 orthopedic hospital is in Hamhung city. Amputated limbs are treated here, and prosthetic arms and legs provided — for a high price.
There’s also a village for those with dwarfism in Yonhwa-ri, Ryanggang province. People who live there are prohibited from leaving the valley. They marry one another and live their entire lives there.
Society pays no attention to the disabled, let alone provide special care. Unfortunately, they are also treated poorly within their own families; some parents end up killing their own disabled children.
In North Korea, where the human rights of the non-disabled are also trampled on, disdain for the handicapped is just a fact of life
One day, a friend of mine asked me to visit his wife’s family’s home, telling me it was something important.
His father-in-law, a beekeeper, looked young and strong even in his 80s. Delighted to see his son-in-law and his friend, he brought in a basinful of honey, and his wife caught a chicken and boiled it in a cauldron.
We found ourselves drinking together, and when the alcohol kicked in my friend started to open up. He told me that his brother-in-law in the upper room had become a lunatic, and that I should go up and give him a sound thrashing because he sometimes throws fits and smashes everything in the house. His father-in-law chimed in and also pleaded for me to do this for him.
I was told how my friend’s brother-in-law ended up with a mental illness. He joined the military in the early 1980s, but, despite ten years of service, was unable to join the Workers’ Party.
Being a Party member is a great honor in North Korea. Returning home without membership, after ten years of serving in a faraway location, humiliated him a great deal.
He finally went insane when he was told that his then-to-be-wife was leaving him because of this.
It turned out that he was rejected by the Party because of his bad songbun (family background); his father had been a prisoner in South Korea during the Korean War.
They said he now sits alone, has totally lost his appetite, and beats up women in the neighborhood, including his own mother.
His family tried to send him once and for all to the number 49 hospital, but he refused to go. They were hoping that if I beat him it might at least soften him up.
While we were still talking about my friend’s brother-in-law, the door of the upper room opened. He came out, kicked over the table we were drinking at, and then sprang at his mother.
Both my friend and his father-in-law tried to stop him but were easily overpowered. For some reason, insane people seem to have enormous energy.
I was hesitant at first, not knowing what to do, but the situation was getting out of control. Without thinking, I threw a punch at him. He fell down flat on the floor, his mouth foaming and eyes rolled into the back of his head.
I suggested that we carry him back into his room and lay him down. My friend’s parents, however, insisted that we tie him up and send him to the number 49 hospital while he’s unconscious. It took a long time to dissuade them, but I eventually managed to convince them.
Nothing happened, at least on that day.
Time passed. After serving my ten-year-long prison sentence (I was convicted of assisting various people to cross the northern border into China — you can read about it here), I returned to my hometown. I was once again invited by my friend to his parents-in-law’s home.
The two were now in their 90s and in good shape, but their son wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I was later told that he had passed away a few years after our encounter.
I felt sorry. In retrospect, I am still unsure if I did the right thing on that day. Was it me who was at fault, or my friend’s parents-in-law?
Is it also possible that the North Korean government was at fault? Wasn’t his mental illness a tragic ramification of the government’s class discrimination?
In South Korea, I see the handicapped receive due governmental support and live their lives the way they want to live them.
In North Korea, where the human rights of the non-disabled are also trampled on, disdain for the handicapped is just a fact of life.
I wouldn’t even go as far as to expect that disabled people will ever receive welfare benefits from the North Korean government. I just hope that they stop being cast aside by society. They too were put here on this earth by God.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell