The North Korean team was the 39th to make an entrance among 164 participating countries at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics on Thursday. It is North Korea's first participation in the Paralympics, which were first held in 1960.
For a long time, disabled people were seen in North Korea as a product of corrupt capitalism or as people who should never have been born. Regime propaganda in the past claimed all North Koreans are born healthy and smart because they are of "pure race."
Disabled people were kept out of Pyongyang, and all residents of Pyongyang were taught to say "There are no disabled people in Pyongyang, where the great leader lives" whenever they met foreigners.
A North Korean defector who left the country in 2005 said, "There were rumors that the health authorities secretly kill disabled babies in Pyongyang."
It was only in the early 2000s that the North Korean regime changed its approach to the disabled. It introduced laws to protect them on June 18, 2003 and designated it a commemorative day.
With the help of South Korean aid groups, North Korea set up a rehabilitation center in 2007 and a sports and cultural center for the disabled in 2010. Last year, the country issued its first ever statistics on disability -- there are 1.87 million disabled people in North Korea -- and newly created a position within the government in charge of their affairs.
A sports association for the disabled was established, and it served a crucial role in North Korea's participation in the Paralympics this year.
However, experts say the regime's support for the disabled should not be taken at face value. Lee Soo-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, "Religious organizations and leisure and sports bodies sprang up in North Korea from the 1990s, but they were mostly used to win funds from abroad. Its recent efforts to help disabled people probably are just another ruse to get funds from abroad."