North Korea’s debut at Paralympics could signal improvements for citizens with disabilities

For the first time, North Korea has sent athletes to compete in the Winter Paralympics.

The North’s team received a warm welcome as they entered Pyeongchang’s Olympic stadium on Friday. Thousands of LEDs placed throughout the stands glowed red, blue and white to form the shape of the country’s flag — a display that if for any other occasion, would be illegal in South Korea.

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Since the 2012 Summer Games in London, North Korea has only sent athletes with disabilities to summertime overseas sporting events. Its participation in the Pyeongchang Paralympics, as well as other recent international competitions for athletes with disabilities, could indicate growing acceptance of people with disabilities in a country known for violating even the most basic individual freedoms.

“We hope their participation will highlight further the abilities of athletes and help to change attitudes towards disability not just in North Korea but around the world,” IPC spokesperson Craig Spencer told PRI in an email.

Related: Two Koreas will march together at the Olympics

North and South Korean athletes were set to march together at Friday’s opening ceremony under a unified, blue and white Korean flag — perhaps a broader sign of thawing relations. But Thursday evening, the Koreas decided to march separately.

For Kim Jong-hyon and Ma Yu-chol, North Korea’s first winter Paralympians, participating in sports has given them greater confidence. That’s according to Sue Kinsler, a Christian missionary who is one of the few foreign nationals who has gotten to know them.

Kinsler, a naturalized US citizen who was born in Seoul, has for the past 20 years been involved in sports and arts programs for the disabled in North Korea.

Portrait of Sue Kinsler, a Christian missionary who helps North Korean disabilities, wearing a brown jacket and pink scarf.