By New America Media‘s Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee
SAN FRANCISCO – Despite a mountain of international sanctions and grinding poverty, North Korea’s leaders have proven adept at procuring everything from the latest in digital toys to nuclear technology. But for the country’s disabled population, there is one item that remains in constant short supply.
Just outside San Francisco, in the East Bay city of San Leandro, Hee Dal Park has spent the past five years collecting donated wheelchairs and shipping them to the communist nation.
“Regardless of nationality, ethnic background, religion or ideology, I want to offer my help as best I can,” says the 67-year-old Seoul native who for the past 12 years has spent his weekends serving the homeless. “I haven’t missed a day,” he says proudly.
That calling led Park in 2007 to launch the non-profit Jageun Nanum, a term akin to the English phrase “every little bit counts.” To date the group has shipped upwards of 1400 wheelchairs to countries across Asia, including North Korea. Park himself has made four visits to the North since 2007.
“I was surprised to find that people I met in North Korea think and talk like people in South Korea,” recalls Park, who noted the distinctly Korean obsession with education. “Some of the officials who showed us around were very much concerned about their children’s education, wanting to send them to this or that university.”
Other sights were more troubling, such as the disparity in available care for the disabled between the relatively affluent North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and outlying cities and towns.
“Conditions at hospital facilities in Pyongyang aren’t bad, but outside of the capital it’s a different picture,” Park eplains. “I visited hospitals in Chongjin and Nasun, in northern Hamkyung province, last year. A four-story hospital [there] had no elevators and [so patients] had to rely on the staircase.”
Park says that relatives or other patients would often help carry one another up and down flights of stairs.
Infrastructure is indeed an issue, considering the country’s moribund economy. North Korea ranks 129 in per capita GDP, with about half the population living in “extreme poverty,” according to the CIA World Factbook. The World Food Program says about a third of North Korean children are stunted due to malnutrition, with reports warning of another growing food crisis.
With scarce resources and the ruling class more intent on enriching itself through the inflow of illicitgoods smuggled in via China, improving conditions for the nation’s disabled are likely not much of a priority.
There are some 1.8 million disabled people in North Korea, about 7.5 percent of the population, according to the Green Tree Charity Foundation in South Korea, which based the figures on information provided by the North Korean government.
Discrimination against them is widespread, and often brutal, according to reports. In 2006, the Associated Press quoted a North Korean doctor who defected to the South. He alleged that babies born with physical defects are rapidly put to death and buried. A United Nations report from 2007 noted that disabled people are allegedly rounded up and placed in “special camps.”
Experts contend that in their eagerness to obscure any sign of potential weakness, North Korean leaders have long prohibited disabled persons from living in the capital, where they might be noticed by visiting foreigners.
Still, there are signs emerging that attitudes in the country may be shifting. North Korea’s state-run Korean Federation for the Protection of Disabled People has been working with the NGO Handicap International since 1999. In 2008, the United Nations noted the government had also considered providing welfare to the disabled.
More recently, North Korea participated for the first time in the 2012 Summer Paralympics, fielding one athlete in the freestyle swimming competition. Yahoo News reported that same year that Pyongyang had opened a Paralympic culture center in the city.
Heung-duk Kim, head of the Joy Center for the Disabled in Southern California, was in North Korea last year as part of a program that, like Park’s, works to assist the country’s disabled residents. While he admits there have been improvements in attitudes, Kim says discrimination remains a problem.
In an interview with the Korea Daily, Kim said disabled North Koreans are still seen in a negative light. He recalled a North Korean drama he’d seen while in the country, in which an injured soldier is “brought out of his wheelchair” thanks to the ministrations of a patriotic female friend.
The message: being disabled is unpatriotic.
He also noted that while centers for the disabled have opened in recent years, their scope remains limited. “The reality is that there are eight special facilities for the blind and three for the deaf but not many services for people with other disabilities,” said Kim, who added it is still very rare to see someone with a disability in the capital.
Park began his work with the disabled in South Korea, where he would send wheelchairs donated by members of his local church and community in the Bay Area. “Despite South Korea’s booming economy, there are still many disabled people there in need of assistance,” he says.
South Korea last year signed the U.N. Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, first adopted by U.N. member states in 2006. April 20 also marks the country’s National Disabled Person’s Day.
Park started sending wheelchairs to North Korea in 2007 on the urging of a pastor with the Doorae Missionary Church in South Korea, which for the past 40 years has worked to improve the lives of rural farmers in that country.
Once they arrive, the wheelchairs are handled by the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled, explains Park, which then distributes them to local hospitals around the country that “need them the most.” He notes ha has been able to verify that wheelchairs are going to their intended recipients, though he did not go into detail.
Park, who was honored for his work last year by the northern California chapter of the Federation of Korean American Journalists, says he plans to return to the North in May, where he is scheduled to meet with officials from the agency in charge of distributing the wheelchairs. He adds “there are about 200 wheelchairs now on their way to the country.”