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?
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy