The Race to the Starting Line
NO SMALL TALK WITH THE NORTH KOREAN DELEGATION
NO USAGE OF NATION-SPECIFIC WORDS LIKE KIM JONG UN OR NORTH KOREA
NO EXCHANGE OF ANY SOUVENIRS OR GIFTS
These were a few of the rules in the packet for volunteers at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Games. Korean citizens were forbidden from having any contact with North Korean athletes, which is why when an athlete in a wheelchair and a staff member—both with the North Korean flag on their uniforms—entered the doors of the hospital, no one dared to welcome them.
I glanced down at his name tag that read, “Kim Jong Hyun.” Tracing my eyes back up to his face, our eyes met briefly before we tore our gazes away from each other. The staff member behind him scanned the room for a helping hand, but everyone pretended to be otherwise occupied. As the youngest volunteer there, I too conformed to the silence that rippled through the lobby.
But then I realized that as a dual citizen of South Korea and the United States, technically I could pass as a non-Korean and interact with the athlete without facing any legal consequences. Before I could question myself too much, I blurted,
Just like that, my customer service persona took over. I had been interacting with countless athletes every day for a week, so it had become second nature to me.
“So, what event are you competing in…?”
He smiled at me and eagerly answered the question. Without going into too much detail, he mentioned that he went through a “long journey” to be able to compete at the Pyeongchang Games. At the time, those words didn’t hold much significance. Every athlete would have to undergo a long journey to be there, right?
That evening, however, the gravity of the situation set in. I couldn’t believe that, despite the political and social divides between North Korea and my home of South Korea, I was able to make a connection, albeit small, to someone from the North, a world completely different from mine.
In Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, the government actively suppresses one of the most vulnerable minority groups: individuals with disabilities. Babies who are born with disabilities are either starved or put face down to suffocate and disappear within minutes of their birth. Such inhumane practices are perpetuated by the belief that those who are born disabled have committed a large sin in their previous life. Those who are lucky enough to survive—usually because of their family’s wealth or the unnoticeable nature of their disability at the time of their birth—still face a life full of oppression. Defectors have provided information about a “Hospital 83” said to be located on an isolated island off the coast of the Hamgyong Province, where disabled children were being used for medical tests such as dissection of body parts and of biological and chemical weapons While the story sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel rather than reality, the overlapping truths of the reports by several different defectors heighten the legitimacy of such claims.
To further ostracize disabled individuals from mainstream North Korean society, the regime does not provide equipment such as wheelchairs and crutches nor accessible structures in buildings and streets. Of course, this poses an even greater obstacle for those trying to succeed in athletics. All 526 events for the Summer Paralympics and 72 events for the Winter Paralympics require some type of prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, or other aiding equipment for athletes to perform at a proficient level. However, because of the lack of technology in North Korea, as well as the regime’s strict import regulations, many athletes do not have access to the necessary physical aids to pursue such athletic endeavors. Sue Kinsler, whose NGO has helped disabled athletes compete in sporting events stated that they “can’t send wheelchairs, crutches or canes [to North Korea] because they all have metal in them. ” Moreover, the country does not have manufacturers to create prosthetics that are specifically for athletic usage. Thus, disabled North Korean athletes are fighting an uphill battle if they want to participate in the Paralympics.
Since Pyeongchang 2018 was the country’s first-ever participation in the Winter Paralympic Games, with only two appearances in the Summer Paralympics before, it is easy to become hopeful that North Korea is on the road to improve the treatment of those with disabilities. However, it’s impossible to tell, as it is difficult to regard everything that the country publicly shows to be true. A source from the North Hamgyong province has stated that the “government uses images of the disabled to show how well it cares for them, even when the disabled themselves are crying out for help.” Another anonymous source from a resident expressed that “propaganda media has released photos of disabled athletes winning medals in shooting and table tennis at a sporting event for the disabled but that residents, including the disabled, are angry that the government would create such false propaganda. Falsehoods abound, and many researchers contend that it is difficult to verify the country’s true intentions for partaking in the Games. Only when there are noticeable improvements to the current dismal conditions can we label their participation in the Games as a legitimate step in a progressive direction instead of a means to improve the country’s image abroad.
Later that week, I attended the Men’s Nordic Skiing Event that Kim Jong Hyon told me he would compete in. Seated near the finish line, I recognized him the moment he whizzed past me, his fist raised above his head in happiness. Although he didn’t stand on the podium or receive a medal, I smiled. Of course, there is a shocking disparity between what I see on the surface and the reality of the North Korean regime, but in that moment I dared to hope that his victory could stir the winds of change for everyone who faces injustice because of the way they were born.
As a thinker and feeler who loves to transform experiences into words, Michelle Shin has attempted to craft a deeper understanding of individuals in unimaginable situations through a story relay of personal human connection.
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