Disability News

North Korea is set to make its first ever appearance at the Winter Paralympics - and the two novice skiers who will represent it are hoping to win medals.

Ma You-chul and Kim Jung-hyun are pioneers of winter disability sports in North Korea.

This week the North said it would take part in the Pyeongchang Paralympics in South Korea in March following recent talks between the two sides.

27-year-old Ma You-chul, North Korean Paralympic skier
Image caption27-year-old Ma You-chul

Strapped into a sit-ski, his poles dug into hard snow, Ma You-chul looks professional - but he is surprisingly new to the sport.

He only learned to ski in December. Before that, he played table tennis for his country.

"Sport really helps. When you become physically disabled, the most difficult thing is not being able to move freely," he told the BBC when we caught up with him at the World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Oberried, Germany.

Ma You-chul, who was born in Pyongyang, says his ankle was severed from his leg in a car accident when he was five.

North Korean Paralympic skiers


Image captionThe North Korean skiers are aiming for medals

He is one of two North Korean athletes - both students - taking part at Oberried.

The World Cup gives them a chance to be registered on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) database for wild card selections for Pyeongchang.

As a table tennis player, he took part in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, and he won silver for North Korea at the Asian Youth Para Games in 2013.

Ma You-chul and Lee Chul-sung won silver medal at the 2013 Asian gamesImage copyrightKINSLER FOUNDATION
Image captionMa You-chul (left) and Lee Chul-sung won silver at the 2013 Asian Youth Para Games

"Sports enables you to train and push limits. It is good because it helps you to overcome challenges, become physically fit and grow in confidence and courage in life."

'I want to win gold'

For Kim Jung-hyun, the World Cup in Germany was his first ever international competition.

"As a child, my dream was to be an athlete. But when I got into an accident, I thought I would never be able to achieve my dream," he said.

Ma Yoo Chul and Kim Jung Hyun
Image captionMa You-chul and Kim Jung Hyun

"I want to win the gold medal and meet my country's expectation."

Ma You-chul wants other disabled people to be able to take part in sport.

"After studying physical education, I want to help them. I want to help them join sports, overcome themselves, and fulfil their full potential."

'Perceptions changing'

North Korea has long been accused of mistreating its disabled people but has measures aimed at improving their lot.

In May 2017, United Nations Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar gave a more upbeat assessment after a visit.

She said the government had undertaken a number of initiatives with the potential to "significantly improve" the lives of those with disabilities in the country, particularly in the sports and the arts.

Jang Gook-hyun, a senior official at the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), told the BBC that the perception of disabled people in the country was changing.

"In the past, a disabled person was merely a subject of protection. Someone who needs help.

"But now, people encourage them and give them confidence. When a disabled person says he wants to ski, they give an encouraging pat on the back and say 'we believe in you.'"

Sue Kinsler, the head of US-based NGO the Kinsler Foundation, has been supporting disabled athletes in North Korea since 2005.

Sue Kinsler
Image captionSue Kinsler, who supports North Korean disabled athletes

"My daughter became intellectually disabled after suffering from fever when she was little. That's why I started to help other disabled people," she said.

"I got access to a completely different world through her. She became my window to isolated and suffering people."

Sue Kinsler has been supporting disabled people for nearly 40 years. However, she said she still frequently faces prejudice.

"I'm someone who assists orphans and disabled... but I'm constantly branded as a 'commie' by others just because I work with North Koreans."

International sanctions on the North have been tightened recently in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Jang Gook-hyun says it is important for his country to find a way to help disabled people and the elderly who are affected by sanctions.

"It's been negatively impacting them. Our communication with all the non-profit and civic organisations has been completely shut down."

Last October, another UN Special Rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said key equipment like medical supplies and wheelchairs could be hit by sanctions.

From BBC