The Life of the Disabled in North Korea with Hyosim Maeng

North Korean defector, human rights activist, and advocate for disability rights, Hyosim Maeng, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full Remarks: 

My mission is to raise awareness about the lives of disabled people in North Korea.

Over the years, North Korea has said the right things about disabilities. In 2003, they enacted the ‘Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act.’ They said, quote, “The state respects the personality of disabled people and guarantees their social and political rights, freedoms, and interests in the same way as healthy citizens.” They promised good healthcare and access to services. It has said a lot of things! But North Korea’s actions have not met its words.

 I hope after you hear my speech that you will be more aware of the challenges that disabled people face in North Korea, and that you will be inspired to find ways to help disabled people in North Korea.

 I am from Hyesan, North Korea, on the border with China. My mom has been disabled my entire life. After she was born, she contracted polio and was sick for 9 months. From then on, she was paralyzed from the waist down and unable to walk.

When she first married my dad, people thought that he’d only stay with her for a few months before he ran away. I remember seeing a wheelchair on TV when I was little, but never in real life. Instead, my dad carried her on his back. Going outside was very scary for her. You don’t often see people with disabilities in public. Strangers would look at her and call her an “idiot” to her face. I still hate hearing that word today.

People with disabilities are not allowed to go to university in North Korea and it’s very hard to find a job. But my mom worked two jobs to help support our family: she handmade clothes and sold them, and she worked at a convenience store. 

Article 7 of North Korea’s Disability Protection Act states that soldiers and people with disabilities who helped build the country would receive special treatment. But that is not the reality.

I remember one time when I was 16 years old, we took a family trip to Pyongyang. The disabled veterans we met sold goods on trains to make a living. Looking back, I can see that North Korea’s Disability Protection Act does not support or protect disabled North Koreans, even veterans.

According to Article 9 of that Act, medical care is provided free of charge. That is also not true. In May 2018, my mother was working in the convenience store when a customer did not pay what he owed. He attacked my mom and broke her arm. My mother needed urgent surgery and we had to sell almost everything we owned to pay for it. The North Korean government tells the whole world that medical care is free. North Koreans know that they must pay for medical care.

We thought that the police would help us and that they would punish the man who attacked my mother. But the police officer closed the case a few days later, saying “Ms. Maeng’s mother fell while walking alone.” Of course, that was not true. But her attacker had bribed the police officer. And that’s when my parents and I knew that North Korea was no longer safe for us. We had to leave.

Escaping North Korea is dangerous no matter what. It’s even worse when you have a broken arm and you can’t walk. We left on June 27th, 2018, and for more than a month, my father carried my mom on his back while I held his hand. We crossed the Yalu river into China, then went through Vietnam, the mountains of Laos, by boat to Thailand, and finally we were flown to South Korea. We were so scared as we escaped, but looking back, the thing that I remember most is my father’s love for my mother.

When we arrived in South Korea, we were shocked to see how well they treated people with disabilities. They had special seats on the train and elevators in the train stations. My mom finally got a wheelchair and free medical care from the government. And now, she is fulfilling her life-long dream of studying at university! Compared to North Korea, South Korea is truly a paradise.

It was not until I was in South Korea that I learned that North Korea had passed legislation and signed international agreements about the protection of the disabled. They even have a day supporting disabled people! But it is a lie. Daily life is often inconvenient and dangerous, and people with disabilities in North Korea face difficulties in nearly every part of their lives.

My mission is to raise awareness about the reality of life for disabled people in North Korea. I hope to be able to one day send crutches and wheelchairs to support North Korea’s disabled people.

 North Koreans should not have to carry loved ones to freedom as my father did. We need protections just like disabled people do in the U.S. and in Europe – and that is what I’m fighting for.

Recently, there was an article that 200 North Koreans were repatriated from China to North Korea.

My hope is that  one day all North Koreans, and especially those who are most at risk, will finally be able to live in freedom and with full protection from the government.

Thank you.

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

 

Transcript:
In 2003, North Korea enacted the ‘Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act.’ They said, quote, “The state respects the personality of disabled people and guarantees their social and political rights, freedoms, and interests in the same way as healthy citizens.” They promised good healthcare and access to services. It had said a lot of things! But North Korea’s actions have not met its words.

 I am from Hyesan, North Korea, on the border with China. When my mother was born, she got sick with polio and was paralyzed from the waist down ever since.

 North Korea’s healthcare system is so bad that, her whole life, she never even had access to a wheelchair. Instead, my father carried her on his back. People with disabilities are not allowed to go to university in North Korea and it’s very hard to find a job. But my mother worked two jobs to help support our family: she handmade clothes and sold them. And she worked at a convenience store.

 But then, in May 2018, a customer attacked my mother and broke her arm. We thought that the police would help us. But my mother’s attacker bribed the police. And that’s when we knew that North Korea was no longer safe for us.

 We left on June 27th, 2018, and for more than a month, my father carried my mom on his back while I held his hand. We were so scared, but looking back, the thing that I remember most is my father’s love for my mother.

 But North Koreans should not have to carry their loved ones to freedom! We need protections just like disabled people have in the USA and in Europe – and that is what I’m fighting for. My hope is that one day all North Koreans, and especially those who are most vulnerable, will finally live in freedom with full protection from the government.

Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Hyosim Maeng

North Korean defector, human rights activist, and advocate for disability rights

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