We are connected to Skype. Robert and his sign language interpreter Anja Bäuerle* are waving at me on the other screen. I am excited that the connection works so well for once. We address each other by our first names. This is standard practice in sign language. The German more formal "Sie" does not exist. What a shame that this is not the general practice among people who are able to hear. It would definitely make life much easier.
I come straight to the point and ask Robert why he chose to provide development aid to North Korea of all places. After all, the country is roughly 5,000 miles away from Germany as the crow flies and the tense political situation also doesn’t necessarily make a visit to North Korea the greatest travel experience.
Robert laughs and tells me that this is actually always the first question people ask. When he was 15, he learned that there are allegedly no deaf people in North Korea – they were said to be virtually nonexistent. But he did not want to accept this fact. When he turned 18, he applied for his first visa to get in touch with deaf people in North Korea. A difficult undertaking as it turned out. Nobody was locally able or willing to provide any information. He finally met the first Korean deaf person who was in the same age three years later, in 2006. Until then, this person, in turn, assumed that deaf people only exist in North Korea.
Robert’s persistence ultimately persuaded the North Korean people in power. They asked him to come back and support them improve the living conditions of deaf people in their country. They also already had one concrete idea: the North Koreans wanted to open a school for deaf, blind and non-disabled children in Hamhung, the second largest city in North Korea. The German ambassador in Pyongyang ultimately encouraged Robert to accomplish this. He believes that smaller projects could result in bigger ones. Robert subsequently decided to give things a try.He was supported in this by Dr. Barbara Unterbeck. She also had the idea of establishing an organization. Since this type of large project can only be implemented together, it was named "TOGETHER – Educational Center for Deaf, Blind, and Non-Disabled Children Hamhung". Robert is now the organization’s vice chairman. For all the members it is very important to also support blind people. Their commitment and team spirit is what actually fills the organization’s name with life.
Unfortunately, there is a reason behind the statement that there are no deaf people in North Korea. Time and again we hear about cleansing campaigns against people with disabilities and detention centers where they are being re-educated or used for experiments. I ask Robert if people with disabilities are really treated unfairly and without regard for their dignity in North Korea.
"Needless to say, the media also botches their reporting a lot. This makes it difficult to properly assess the situation," says Robert. "Deaf people are practically not integrated into the North Korean society at all; they are being explicitly excluded and live on the fringes of society. People are embarrassed about them. That’s why many people hide their children from society. But this not only happens in North Korea but also in other Asian countries." Having said that, he believes there are no political motivations behind all this. In fact, he thinks it is the cultural background that restricts the quality of life of people with disabilities.
The fact that policy makers actually care about the needs of people with disabilities is shown by Robert’s own presence in North Korea. After all, he entered the country at the request of the North Koreans to help them in their efforts to integrate the deaf into society. Since 1959, there have also been eight schools for the deaf across the country. Unfortunately, so far there has not been a school in Pyongyang. "That’s why we first started the project in Pyongyang since there is such a high demand in this area."By "we", Robert means the just recently founded National Association of the Deaf in DPR Korea (North Korea). I am pleasantly surprised how actively the North Koreans want to advocate for the needs of people with disabilities. They jointly created the first kindergarten for the deaf in North Korea which is located right downtown.
To implement the project, it was important to Robert to work together with local deaf people. After all, they can best assess what’s important and what is needed. Empowerment is the key concept here. A matter of great importance to Robert. I can tell by the determined way he talks about it. "It is important to me that deaf people participate in conversations. I know that the North Korean society views this differently. If I notice that no North Korean deaf persons are involved in a team meeting, I get up and leave." I am beginning to understand that it is probably this very trait that enables Robert to successfully implement projects in North Korea.At first, the North Korean deaf people were intimidated and very shy, Robert continues. By now, there are sign language interpreters who support them. The newly founded Sign Language Interpreters’ Association also assists them. The North Korean deaf people boosted their self-confidence by traveling to other countries, to meet other international deaf people and attend Deaf Congresses. This would have been unimaginable just five years ago.
The population stands behind its government. This is primarily reflected in how opinions are shaped: since the government approves both of the kindergarten and the Center for the Deaf, the North Koreans embrace the facilities for deaf and blind people."There is actually still a lot of work ahead of us since the pent-up demand is simply very high. When I moved to Pyongyang back in 2013, there was de facto nothing there. There were schools but none of them were in the capital and just in the provinces. The parents of the deaf children actually didn’t know that there are schools for the deaf. This is now changing thanks to the government’s approval."
Robert’s mission has not been completed yet. There are many possible follow-up projects. He wants to improve the general educational situation for the deaf for instance, visit schools for the deaf and make higher education more accessible. Another dream: a sign language interpreter in North Korean television.
However, German bureaucracy impedes his work in a roundabout way. For the past two years, he has been fighting for personal assistance services. Even though Robert is entitled to a sign language interpreter by law, it only applies to "neighboring countries" which does not include North Korea. This is why Robert is not entitled to personal assistance services. He only gets help from volunteer sign language interpreters. Needless to say, they don’t always have time for him.
It dawns on me that this fact contradicts other German laws in many respects. For instance, the right to free choice of employment, the prohibition of discrimination and not least the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Nobody shall be discriminated against because of disability! A principle Robert remains true to while he is being impeded in his development work. I hope that he will continue to be committed to his work in North Korea. This country needs people like Robert. But based on how I have gotten to know him, there is actually no doubt in my mind that he will carry on.
*Special thanks to sign language interpreter Anja!