N. Korea at Games no 'PR exercise': Paralympic chief

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Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP)

North Korea's debut at the Winter Paralympics was no "PR exercise", the head of the Games told AFP on Thursday, as the team left South Korea and returned home.

Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee, said he hoped North Korea's participation could help the lives of disabled people in the isolated state.

"I think it is a strong message of what sport can do for the world in terms of peace," Parsons told AFP in an interview in Pyeongchang.

He added: "For us it is not a PR exercise, for us it is something that is meaningful.

"What we hope to see happening is that it can change or affect positively the lives of persons with an impairment in North Korea."

Parsons was speaking as North Korea's first two Winter Paralympians and the rest of their 22-member delegation headed back across the heavily fortified Korean border on Thursday.

North Korea competed in the Paralympics and last month's Winter Olympics against the backdrop of rapidly warming ties with Seoul and Washington, culminating in the stunning announcement of talks between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

Some have hailed North Korea's debut at the Winter Paralympics as a positive sign for the country's disabled, but others suspect it is part of political manoeuvring by Pyongyang.

Sit-skiers Ma Yu Chol and Kim Jong Hyon, who only started skiing three months ago, finished last or nearly last in their two events, but were cheered by home fans excited at the latest sign of an inter-Korean thaw.

North Korea has a dismal human rights record and there have also been reports that its disabled people are often harshly treated.

A 2006 UN report said that people suffering from dwarfism were rounded up and interned at special sites, while there have also been claims that medical experiments are performed on the disabled.