It’s hard to find people sympathetic to the plight of North Korea. One of the few remaining communist countries on earth, North Korea has few friends and plenty of suspicious neighbors who see to it that through international sanctions and tough diplomacy the rogue nuclear state doesn’t upset the balance of power in Asia.
However, the people of North Korea have little control over the decisions their government makes and for this reason Hee Dal Park, a resident of San Leandro just outside San Francisco, has made it his mission to donate as many wheelchairs to North Korea as possible.
In 2007 Park launched a non-profit organization called Jageun Nanum which loosely translates to “every little bit counts”. Having visited North Korea on several occasions Park was struck by the lack of available care for people with disabilities. While people in the capital of Pyongyang seemed to have access to decent medical facilities, those in the suburbs and rural areas of the county fared much worse. “I visited hospitals in Chongjin and Nasun, in northern Hamkyung province, last year. A four-story hospital there had no elevators and patients had to rely on the staircase”, Park told Oakland Local. Park witnessed patients carrying each other up and down the stairs and that was enough for him to start collecting and donating wheelchairs to North Korea. Since 2007 Park has shipped over 1,400 wheelchairs across Asia with most going to North Korea.
“Regardless of nationality, ethnic background, religion or ideology, I want to offer my help as best I can”, Park said. According to the CIA World Factbook roughly half the North Korean population lives in extreme poverty and a third of North Korean children go hungry every day. While many blame the erratic behavior of North Korea’s leaders for the misery that pervades the country, people like Park ignore the politics and focus on the mission of helping those in need.
Estimates put the number of disabled people in North Korea at roughly 1.8 million, or 7.5% of the population. A United Nations report in 2007 concluded that disabled people in North Korea are routinely rounded up and placed in “special camps” where few are ever heard from again. Still, Park endures with his work and donates his wheelchairs to the Korean Foundation for the Protection of the Disabled. While he can’t verify that the wheelchairs reach the intended recipients; he is optimistic that his help is making a difference. In 2012 North Korea participated in the Summer Paralympics for the first time and has been working with the NGO Handicap International since 1999.
On a personal note, when our daughter worked at AmeriCares, a humanitarian and disaster relief agency, one of the countries she worked with was North Korea. AmeriCares provided medicine to that country having found similar results to those observed by Hee Dal Park. So we salute Mr. Park for his humanitarianism. This is all about human beings – not politics.