Disabled people in North Korea live in poverty as the government lacks a social welfare system that can provide for them, with even those who were disabled after injuries sustained on the job offered no support from the companies they worked for or the government, sources in the country say.
Despite their plight, the government uses imagery of thriving disabled people to promote what sources call a false narrative — that the state takes care of everyone.
A disabled resident of South Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on Nov. 27 that after being injured while on duty more than 10 years ago, the government still hasn’t done anything to help.
“It’s been more than a decade since I lost my right hand at a machinery factory and I still haven’t received any rice or compensation from the country,” the source said.
“I face many hardships as a disabled person making a living by selling goods on the streets,” the source added.
The source relayed stories of other disabled people who similarly were not taken care of by the state.
“In July, a man in his forties who was working at the Unsan Machinery Factory in South Pyongan Province had his right hand cut off while cutting a tree, but the factory did not pay for medical treatment or compensate him,” said the source.
“Three months later, the factory gave the worker documents saying he was declared as disabled from work injuries. They then asked him to resign, saying that he could get financial assistance from the state,” the source said.
The source said the now-disabled carpenter and his family were left destitute by his injury.
“He is the head of a family of three. He worked for the factory during the day and worked at home in the evenings, making furniture to sell. But he lost his livelihood suddenly when he became disabled. The monthly subsidy of 2,500 North Korean won (U.S. $0.31) is not enough to buy even one kilogram of rice,” the source said.
“It is difficult for even a healthy man to make a living these days. The worker who lost his right hand can’t make enough money to buy food, so he is being treated with contempt at home and in society,” said the source.
“He is now living from day to day, begging for food with other disabled people near a rail station.”
Another source, from North Hamgyong province, told RFA on Nov. 26 that the government has been using disabled people to tug on the heartstrings of international donors to get funding, and also using them to promote and foster a sense of loyalty to Kim Jong Un and the state.
“Since Kim Jong Un took power, a center for the disabled was built in Pyongyang,” the second source said.
“But the facility uses the disabled people to get international support and promote the people’s love for their leader,” said the second source.
“Disabled children learn to sing and dance there. They perform for international audiences, and all of them are children of the privileged class.”
The second source said that the North Korean government also uses images of the disabled to show how well it cares for them, even when the disabled themselves are crying out for help.
“Propaganda media has released photos of disabled athletes winning medals in shooting and table tennis at a sporting event for the disabled. Residents, including the disabled, are angry that the government would create such false propaganda,” the second source said, adding, “[most] disabled people can’t afford to buy things they need like artificial legs and arms.
The source also said that the country has a shortage of artificial limbs because the state has failed to provide supplies for their manufacture.
“The Hamhung Orthopaedic Factory, which produces and supplies artificial arms and legs for disabled people, has almost ceased operations because it did not receive the special metal and vinyl it needs from the state,” said the second source.
“They can only produce artificial limbs for a small number of disabled people who are capable of paying for the raw materials.”
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.