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NK to send delegation, athletes to Winter Paralympics

North Korea will send a delegation including athletes to the upcoming PyeongChang Paralympic Games in South Korea, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday, which marks the reclusive nation’s first participation in the Winter Paralympics.
 

North Korean delegation that attended the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. (Yonhap)
North Korean delegation that attended the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. (Yonhap)

North Korea’s decision came as a result of Tuesday’s inter-Korean working-level talks and amid Seoul’s efforts to keep the momentum of rapprochement from the Winter Olympics, which came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s rare New Year’s overture.

The delegation will arrive in South Korea on March 7 to participate in the March 9-18 Paralympics via the Gyeongui Line, which several North Koreans used to travel back and forth during the Olympics, according to a joint statement released after the meeting.

North Korea sent a nearly 500-member delegation, including athletes, high-level officials and a cheerleading squad to the PyeongChang Olympics held from Feb. 9-25.

Tuesday’s joint statement, however, did not mention the size of the delegation nor the dispatch of an art troupe and cheerleaders.

South Korea’s three-member delegation headed by Lee Joo-tae, director-general in charge of inter-Korean exchanges at the Unification Ministry, attended the meeting that kicked off at 10 a.m. at the Tongilgak administrative building on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, said Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

Hwang Chung-song, an official at the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Country, the North’s state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs, was Lee’s counterpart in the talks. Hwang had attended the inter-Korean high-level meeting held on Jan. 9., where the North agreed to send a 150-member delegation, including athletes, an art troupe and cheerleaders,

Earlier in the day, Seoul said the first part of the meeting addressed the size of the North Korean Paralympic contingent, the length of its stay, the route it will use to cross the border, and accommodations during its stay.

The International Paralympic Committee has offered two wildcard slots to North Korean para-athletes competing in Para-Nordic skiing, mirroring the International Olympic Committee’s decision to give wild card spots to North Korean Olympians.

According to the organizing committee here, the PyeongChang Games are set to be the largest Winter Paralympics in history, with 570 athletes from 49 countries registered to compete. 

Hwang Chung-song, a senior official at North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (left), shakes hands with Lee Joo-tae, director-general in charge of inter-Korean exchanges at the South’s Unification Ministry, at working-level talks for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics on Tuesday. The meeting was held at the Tongilgak administrative building on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone. (Yonhap)
Hwang Chung-song, a senior official at North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (left), shakes hands with Lee Joo-tae, director-general in charge of inter-Korean exchanges at the South’s Unification Ministry, at working-level talks for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics on Tuesday. The meeting was held at the Tongilgak administrative building on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone. (Yonhap)

Many in South Korea are anticipating former North Korean table tennis player Li Bun-hui, who currently works for Pyongyang’s disabled sports association, to be part of the North’s Paralympic delegation. Li and South Korean table tennis player Hyun Jung-hwa played together as part of a unified table tennis team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, and grabbed the gold medal in the women’s team event.

Meanwhile, analysts see North Korea’s decision to participate in the Paralympics as a move to improve its image in the face of suspicions of human rights abuses against its disabled.

“With the international community’s eyes on the Paralympics, it’s a move that shows they recognize the rights of the disabled,” said Kim Jin-moo, a visiting fellow at the Sejong Institute. 

Last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, highlighted the lack of infrastructure for the disabled community in North Korea, Voice of America said, citing a pre-report on her 2016 visit to the North.

The disabled community in North Korea is often shunned and discriminated by the rest of society, while failing to receive sufficient attention from local communities and governments, Devandas-Aguilar said. She added she knows about the existence of isolation facilities for people with dwarfism or mental disorders, although her suspicions were not confirmed.

By Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)

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