London. Reclusive North Korea on Tuesday made its maiden appearance at the Paralympic Games but swimmer Rim Ju-Song trailed in last in his S6 50m freestyle swimming heat.
Wild card entry Rim, a left arm and left leg amputee after a construction site accident at the age of six, finished the straight sprint at the Aquatics Centre in east London in 47.87secs, nearly 18 sec behind the heat winner.
But the 16-year-old Rim said he was proud to have competed for his country — and immediately set his sights high for the next Games in four years’ time.
“I’m very honored to be the first Paralympian. I’m encouraged that many people cheered for me today. I want to be the gold medallist in the next Paralympic Games in Rio (de Janeiro, Brazil).”
North Korea won four gold medals and two bronze at this summer’s London Olympics, finishing 20th in the overall medal table to register the country’s best performance since Barcelona in 1992.
The athletes returned home to a heroes’ welcome on August 17, with cheering crowds lining the streets of the capital Pyongyang before Premier Choe Yong-Rim and other top officials hosted a banquet reception, according to state media.
Vice Premier Kim Yong-Jin said in a speech that the gold medallists had glorified “the great era of Kim Jong-Un,” who took over as the country’s supreme leader after his father Kim Jong-Il’s death in December 2011.
The communist state has featured in international sport for many years, most notably the 1966 football World Cup where they reached the quarter-finals, losing to Eusebio’s Portugal 5-3.
But people with physical or intellectual impairments have faced a long history of discrimination. Acute malnutrition, which stunts development in children, has exacerbated rates of disability, according to the United Nations.
South Korean activists and human rights reports from the US State Department have alleged in the past that disabled people were quarantined within camps far outside Pyongyang and forcibly sterilised.
Charities working in the country, however, have said that attitudes are slowly changing and the government now offers welfare programmes for disabled people while there is a para-sports center in Pyongyang.
Kim Sung-Chol, the North Korea team doctor at the Games, said he doubted reports about ill-treatment of people with disabilities in his home country.
“There is a certain number of people with a disability. It is quite a normal thing. I don’t think it’s true (about the camps). I saw some media saying that but I don’t think it’s true,” he told reporters.
“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.”
Kim also said he had been surprised at the media attention at the Games given to North Korea, the nuclear-armed nation which former US president George W. Bush said in 2002 was part of the “Axis of Evil” with Iraq and Iran.
The doctor said that in future, more North Korean athletes were likely to take part in the Games, which began last Wednesday and have been billed by organisers as the biggest and most high-profile in the movement’s 52-year history.
“We are preparing athletes for table tennis, powerlifting, boccia, wheelchair racing and swimming but unfortunately we have had some time constraints,” he explained.
“That’s why we only have one swimmer participating. They are all preparing though and observing here.”