PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

NGOs in Action: Zellweger on People with Disabilities in North Korea

by | April 25th, 2014 | 07:00 am

Kathi Zellweger has produced a report for the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford on people with disabilities in North Korea. Zellweger is one of the leading figures in the North Korea NGO community, working on the country first for Caritas out of Hong Kong and then as country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Pyongyang from 2006–2011. What makes the paper interesting is not only the details on disability policy in North Korea. Zellweger’s case study also claims that, through sustained engagement, the international community can have enduring influence on particular policies and even help generate a kind of civil society in the DPRK.

Zellweger notes that the challenges facing people with disabilities in North Korea have not only been material—the lack of resources to meet specialized needs—but also cultural and political. The reports of abuses go far beyond those cited by Zellweger, although all must be taken with the standard reservations. In his 2006 report, UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntharborn gave visibility to a number of reports suggesting extreme forms of discrimination against people with disabilities, including sweeping them from the capital city, segregation, incarceration in camps, medical experimentation and even murder (for example, KINU White Papers on Human Rights in North Korea, particularly the 2005 edition cited in the Rapporteur’s report; Radio Free Asia 2007; and most recently Korea Herald citing Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights 2013.)

The report places the discussion of North Korean policy on people with disabilities in the context of wider movements on the issue, including the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. (Ironically, both North Korea and the US have signed but not ratified the convention, in the US despite the best efforts of former Vice President Bob Dole). Zellweger claims that changes in North Korea are of longer-standing, however, moved in part by participation in UN bodies, the ongoing emphasis on the issue by core aid agencies, a 2001 MOU with Handicap International and contact with the Chinese Disabled Persons’ Federation, an organization established in Beijing in 1988.

In 1998, the regime established its own Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), nominally an NGO but operating under the aegis of the Ministry of Health. In 2003 it passed a Law on the Protection of Persons with Disability. Zellweger walks through a number of the discrete initiatives over the last decade with respect to particular populations—the deaf, blind, and war veterans—claiming that the KFPD has attracted volunteers as well as official workers. The report contains short case studies of two relatively new centers in Hamhung and Pyongyang devoted to the issue.

Zellweger catalogs a variety of donors and organizations that have played a role, including a number of highly specialized NGOs working on this issue from elsewhere in Asia, the US and Europe which were altogether new to us. Among the interesting examples are:

Zellweger is clear-eyed about the underlying failure of the North Korean government to devote adequate resources to health and to engage more effectively with the NGO community. And the report does not explicitly address the crucial question of whether DPRK policy on people with disabilities is an exception because it is less controversial than other areas, such as agricultural policy. Nonetheless, there are small signs of change, even including North Korean entry into the Paralympic Games in 2012. Zellweger’s study provides a granular interpretation of how NGO activism might have gradual but positive effects in particular areas.


NGOs in Action Posts: