North Korea - the totalitarian state accused of putting disabled people in labour camps - makes Paralympic debut

 

He may be his country's only Paralympian and he may have come dead last in his event but Rim Ju-Song is still a hero.

Today he became the first athlete to compete in the Paralympics on behalf of North Korea – the insular totalitarian state that human rights groups have often accused of hiding away its disabled population in labour camps.

Rim was swimming in the S6 50m freestyle at the aquatics centre this morning, the first time the flag of the Democratic Peoples' Republic of North Korea has been seen at the Games. He finished dead last, a good ten seconds behind the rest of the pack but he made history with every stroke. When he left the pool he did so with a huge smile on his face.

The decision by North Korea – a country which takes the Olympic Games extremely seriously – to allow Rim to take part could signal a shift in how the state goes about treating disabled people.

Rim is insistent that he will be back for Rio in 2016. “I'm very honoured to be the first Paralympian,” he said. “I'm encouraged that many people cheered for me today. I want to be the gold medallist in the next Paralympic Games in Rio (2016)."

According to Rim's doctor Sung Chal-Kim, the 17-year-old swimmer lost his legs as a child in an accident on a building site.

"He was a naughty boy when he was small,” Sung said. “At the age of 6 he was playing in a construction area."

Sung is one of 17 DPRK officials who have accompanied their lone athlete for this summer's games and today he signalled North Korea's intention to field many more athletes come Rio.

"We are preparing athletes for table tennis, powerlifting, boccia, wheelchair racing and swimming, but unfortunately we have had some time constraints,” he said “That's why we only have one swimmer participating (at the London 2012 Paralympic Games). They are all preparing though and observing here.”

Rim was only able to compete after the British embassy in Pyongyang helped find funding for him to make the Games.

Sung, meanwhile, rejected the allegations that disabled people in North Korea are often hidden away in labour camps.

“There is a certain number of people with a disability,” he said. “It is quite a normal thing. I don't think it's true (the camps). I saw some media saying that, but I don't think it's true. People normally live in the villages and in the towns. Of course they participate in sport and art, it is quite normal in my country."

At the Stadium, meanwhile, a powerful symbol of reconciliation took part in the javelin throw. Kovan Hassan, 24, was the first Kurdish athlete to take part in the Paralympics on behalf of Iraq.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurdish population was heavily suppressed.

Speaking from the Olympic village, Hassan said, “Everyone is waiting for my success, but especially the disabled at home who support me the most and want me to come back with a medal.”

Professional sport, Hassan added, has come a long way since the days of Saddam. “Athletes were beaten and then expelled from the team for not being good enough,” he said. “A medal was considered the minimum, and those who failed to achieve this were penalised heavily.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor