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.”

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
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

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

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas