Despite sending only two novice athletes, and during a major charm offensive with the outside world, there is hope that North Korea’s Winter Paralympics debut might signal progress for the country’s often harshly treated disabled.
Wheelchair-bound Kim Jong-hyon and Ma Yu-chol only started sit skiing three months ago, so it was little surprise when they finished at or near the back of the field in their two races in Pyeongchang.
However, they were cheered enthusiastically by South Koreans, who have witnessed the North’s rapid warming of ties with Seoul and Washington during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang.
North Korea is notorious for its record on human rights, and accounts from the country suggest a dismal fate for its disabled citizens.
But the United Nations special rapporteur on disabled people’s rights, who visited North Korea last year, also said the isolated country was “very proud” of its support for para sports.
“This I believe is a good sign of how North Korea wants to support the participation of persons with disabilities,” Catalina Devandas-Aguilar said.
“The government is very proud of its support for the participation of people with disabilities in sports.”
North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and over the years dark tales have emerged about its treatment of people with disabilities.
Reports have described disabled people being taken away from the showcase capital Pyongyang and being placed in camps where they live in poor conditions.
A 2006 UN report said that people suffering from dwarfism were rounded up and interned at special sites, while there have also been claims that medical experiments are performed on the disabled.
While it has difficult to independently verify such allegations, disabled people who have fled North Korea give harrowing accounts of their treatment.
Choi Kwang-hyouk, a defector playing for the South’s Paralympics ice hockey team in Pyeongchang, said he faced harsh discrimination after losing his left leg in a train accident in the North.
“Life is really difficult for people with disabilities in North Korea,” Choi said.
However, Kim and Ma’s appearance in Pyeongchang – about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the heavily fortified Korean border – follows a few more positive developments.
The North ratified a key UN convention aimed at protecting the rights of the disabled in 2016, and Devandas-Aguilar was allowed to visit last year, the first time a top UN rights expert had been granted access to the country.
After previously ignoring the Summer Paralympics, swimmer Rim Ju-song became North Korea’s first Paralympian at London in 2012, followed by two more athletes at Rio 2016.
However, some believe political motives rather than genuine concern for disabled people are behind the North’s debut at the Winter Paralympics.
Robert King, a former US special envoy for North Korean human rights, said the nuclear-armed state was more focused on improving ties with the South and the United States as sanctions over its weapons programme start to bite.
“The North Koreans are interested because of the political benefits that they get out of it in terms of their relationship with the South, and an effort to improve relations with the United States,” King said.
King conceded the North had made progress in improving disabled people’s rights, but said it was a risk-free way for the state to improve its rights record.
“This is something that does not have much of a political cost for them,” he said, explaining that it did not compromise the North’s ability to tightly control the country.