Long-time aid worker evaluates disability policy in North Korea

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Production workshop at the Hamhung Physical Rehabilitation Center and Orthopedic Factory in North Korea. In 2012, over one thousand devices were made; many others were repaired, and unusable devices were recycled.
Photo credit: 
Katharina Zellweger

Disabled persons have long been subject to social discrimination in North Korea, mostly left out of sight with few services available for their support. But this image of the disabled in North Korea, often conveyed in the media, is out of date and distorted, says a new report issued by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

According to veteran Swiss former aid official with extensive experience in North Korea, Katharina Zellweger, North Korean policy toward the disabled has undergone a recent shift, with institutions now increasingly trying to address the growing need for disability services.

In her report, “People with Disabilities in a Changing North Korea,” Zellweger aims to provide a balanced view of what it means to live with disabilities in North Korea.

“Though much more needs to be done, services for people with disabilities are increasing [in North Korea]; public awareness of the needs and rights of the disabled is growing; and integration of the disabled into mainstream society is occurring, albeit gradually,” writes Zellweger, a former director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Pyongyang. 

She is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and former Pantech Fellow on Korean Affairs at Shorenstein APARC.

The North Korean government only recently, and reluctantly, acknowledged people with disabilities. But this development, coupled with some signs of economic reform in the isolated state, has led to some positive change in perceptions and attitudes toward the disabled. 

During the last two decades, North Korea accepted an extensive framework into law for the support of the disabled and created the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled, a non-governmental organization supported in part by the Ministry of Health.

“The strides made in the past few years are commendable, but the way ahead remains daunting,” she writes.

Continued advocacy, grassroots work and government support are critical to instill fundamental, lasting change to the rights of and services for the disabled.