Part 1 of our special series on North Korean women introduced the female iconography of the DPRK. In this second part, we explore the various roles of North Korean women and the realities of their daily lives.
A Model State? The System Vs. The Reality
The DPRK takes pride in claiming to have eradicated gender inequality, a phenomena previously regarded by Kim Il Sung as both a ‘feudal vestige’ and evidence of the brutality of the Japanese occupation. And to his benefit, many experts agree that the DPRK has at least kept a de jure commitment to gender equality, as nearly all available documentary evidence seems to show.
North Korea’s commitment to gender equality started early, with Article 15 of the 1946 ‘Land Reform Law’ stating that women (mainly peasants) would see an improvement of their social status by becoming landowners on par with men. They would become landowners after the law was passed because land distribution would no longer be determined by gender, but instead exclusively on working ability.
The same year, the DPRK passed its ‘Law on Sex Equality’. This act of legislation (revolutionary for the time) would ratify the right for women to vote, provide equal rights of labor, pay and education, abolish marriage by force, provide the right to divorce (just to make a comparison: European countries like Italy and Ireland legalized divorce only decades later), and end the sale of women, polygamy, concubinage, and ‘the extraction of money or gifts in connection with marriage’ (matchmaking). That same year the DPRK would also establish the Democratic Women’s Union of North Korea and make significant moves to encourage the participation of women in socioeconomic activities.
Altogether, by 1946 the DPRK had apparently become a ‘model state’ with regards to women rights. But how did things work in reality?
The few available statistics from North Korea, combined with references made by Kim Il Sung to manpower shortages in various early speeches, reveal that the participation of women in economic production was supported mainly for the benefit of state-building, rather than the much propagandized “commitment to the revolutionary cause of the working class”.
North Korean women were liberated, true enough, but only to be immediately regimented by the state, which had needed all available manpower since the post-war reconstruction years. Women became equal to men only in the sense that they had to fully devote themselves to ‘the superior cause of socialism’. Their role and more importantly – their duties within the classical Korean family – did not change.
In fact, North Korean reforms were never aimed at abolishing familial institutions, as they fit quite well into the ideology of a family-state. So, in spite of all the official statements on gender equality, the DPRK actually did nothing to modify traditional household values such as the obedience of children to parents and the submission of women to men. Rather, it shifted the focus of family relations towards the state: the People’s Republic became one extended family, with the leader representing sometimes one, sometimes both parents, yet carrying out a figure decisively characterized by maternal attributes.
The society: motherly values in a patriarchal state
When I asked about women who might not want to have children, I was told: “All women in our country want children. Any woman who did not would be considered abnormal”. I checked the word “abnormal” and was assured that that was indeed what had been said. When I asked if there was therefore any social stigma attached to women who did not have children, again I was told: “All women have children”. – Jon Halliday, An Interview with the DPRK Women’s Union, 1985.
The North Korean leadership shows little or no sign of female presence (the only exception being Kim Kyong Hui); the same goes for the military, where all key positions are occupied by men. What, then, is the main role of North Korean women in society?
Expert Sonia Ryang argues that in the DPRK “maternity is the first and foremost qualification associated with women. Femininity is maternity and womanhood is motherhood“. This indeed seems to be the case, judging not only from the effort that the state has put into facilitating maternity and childcare, but also, and maybe more importantly, by reading into the culture and the ideology.
Anyone familiar with Brian Myers’ ‘The Cleanest Race’ has probably appreciated the book for its analysis of race-based nationalist propaganda. There is however another element that the book exposes with plenty of references: the prevalence of maternal figures and maternal values in North Korean ideology.
For example, Myers reports that the 1964 North Korean language dictionary entry for the word ‘Mother’, is quite rich in attributes (‘a metaphor for being loving, looking after everything’) and often includes references to the Korean Workers Party (‘the Party is the great mother of everything new’ and ‘Party officials must become mothers who ceaselessly love and teach the Party rank and file’). On the other hand, the definition of the word ‘Father’ is simply ‘the husband of one’s birth mother’.
References to maternal attributes abound in North Korean propaganda: both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are described as protective, caring and loving, while their soldiers are often depicted (much to the amusement of some Western observers who think of North Korea only as a ferocious, warmongering state) as finding comfort and shelter in the bosom of either of the two leaders. Laughable as it may look to Western observers, this concept is central to North Korean propaganda and it may also offer a reading of Kim Jong Un’s status as a leader.
If the idea of motherly leadership is correct as it it seems to be, then the impression is that Kim Jong Un can not be taken seriously by North Koreans. Mothers have a few indispensable characteristics: in order to perform a protective function and offer guidance, they need to be (or at least look) older and wiser than their children. Experience comes with age, and by looking at pictures of Kim Jong Un sitting among generals and party members old enough to be his grandfathers, one can hardly think he could be ever considered a maternal (and therefore leading) figure.
A leader who enjoys rollercoaster rides or a game of basket with Dennis Rodman can be easily associated with the notion of 젊은이 (‘youth, young blood, a lad’), but definitely not viewed like a mother. Ratcheting tensions on the peninsula and waiting for them to defuse may well be a way for the young leader to prove his protective potential to the North Korean people.
Together with their maternal role, North Korean women are burdened with a number of economic responsibilities towards the household, because all things considered, they still live in a patriarchal society. This is a double-burden that is rarely acknowledged by the state, who, as seen in 1946, simply gave women the freedom to work according to state directives, but maintained that their additional housekeeper role should not be discussed. The combination of work, study and household duties proved to be quite a heavy burden on women, who, especially during the years of the famine, had to make enormous sacrifices to feed their families.
A few medical studies have investigated the consequences of stress, malnutrition and excessive work on young North Korean (female) defectors, finding that their reproductive abilities are delayed in time. The heart of the matter remains that women in North Korea work harder than men but get paid less and often receive less assistance. Much as it happened in fascist Italy and nazi Germany, the DPRK government has seen fit to relegate women in the lower ranks of productive activity (a strategy often combined with the creation of separate educational paths for women), prioritizing their maternal role. As their jobs were deemed nowhere as important as the ones held by men, their purchasing power (or better yet: receiving power) at the public distribution system (PDS) was weak. For this reason, North Korean women were the first to suffer the consequences of economic crisis and unemployment. But as we will see, their exclusion from high-paying jobs seems to have brought them to the forefront of North Korea’s new economy.
Daily life: leaders of the market economy
Markets in North Korea are not a novelty anymore. They may close and re-open in a matter of weeks, but one thing remains consistent: they are all run overwhelmingly by women.
In a study based on refugee surveys Andrei Lankov and Kim Seok Hyang report that “women compose some 80 percent of all people involved in the North Korean market.” How did this happen? Starting from the 1970s, when the economy stopped growing, North Korean women were gradually pushed away from state employment. Having virtually no access to the higher ranks of the military or the Worker’s Party, they had more freedom to engage in trade, something that has always been considered a ‘lower’ activity in North Korea (for trade means independence from the state, and the state is everything in North Korea).
For years people in the DPRK had learned to rely on the traditionally male managed public distribution system (PDS) for food. But when the economy collapsed in the mid 1990s, male workers held on to their official jobs on the assumption that things would soon improve. Things did not, though. As a result of changing realities men therefore began to lose their role as primary breadwinner in the family, although they retained nominal importance as the ‘main worker’. And because the state would still request workers to show up at factories, mills and plants even though there was nothing to produce, women found themselves with plenty of time on their hands to engage in the only productive activity of post-famine North Korea: trading.
Today, every picture of any market activity in the DPRK shows that it is women who run the new market economy while men sit on the fence.
The Future: Start over, start with Women.
Aside from driving the daily economy – the one that counts most for the people of North Korea – women also form the majority of refugees arriving in South Korea. Even among those North Koreans who remain in China (either by will or due to circumstances), most are women. If the world is to make any investment in the future of the DPRK, for three reasons I would place my bet on investing it in North Korean women:
• The older generation has proven capable of resisting nearly everything, from the famine to the loss of several family members.
• The younger, market (장마당) generation, mainly composed of girls, is the first to have foregone state-subsided education (years of schooling were lost during the famine) and might be more receptive to the influx of South Korean culture coming into the DPRK.
• Younger (female) North Koreans also represent the largest age group of defectors in the South (age range 20 to 40), as well as a good number of workers in the Kaesong Industrial Park (from where they contributed to the spreading of South Korean Choco Pies as the most sought after item in North Korea)
Altogether, this is human capital that could make a significant difference in the years to come. Recent initiatives seem to be heading in the right direction.
Choson Exchange, an organization running training seminars for North Koreans between Pyongyang and Singapore, has dedicated much attention to empowering North Korean women with business skills. And here at NK NEWS we have done what little we could, having a female defector answering questions form our readers to offer a different picture of North Korean people.
It is hard to say what the future holds for North Korea, but we hope that women on both sides will play a major role in bridging the gap.
- Choo, Hae Yeon, “Gendered Modernity and Ethnicized Citizenship: North Korean Settlers in Contemporary South Korea”, Gender and Society, Vol. 20, No. 5 (Oct., 2006), pp. 576-604.
- DPRK, 조선녀성 (North Korean Women), Pyongyang, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1970.
- Haggard Stephen, and Noland, Marcus, “Gender in Transition, the case of North Korea”, East-West Center Working Paper – Economic Series 124, Nov 2011
- Halliday, Jon, “Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women’s Union Journal”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985), 47-48
- Jung, Kyung-ja and Bronwen, Dalton, “Rhetoric Versus Reality for the Women of North Korea”, Asian Survey, Vol. 46, No. 5 (September-October 2006), pp. 741-760
- Myers, B. R., The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, Melville House Publishing, New York, 2010.
- Park, Kyung-Ae, “Women and Revolution in North Korea”, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 4, pp. 527-545.
- Park, Kyung-Ae, “Economic Crisis, Women’s Changing Economic Roles, and their Implications for Women’s Status in North Korea”, Pacific Review, Vol. 24 No. 2 May 2011: 159–177
- Park, Kyung-Ae, “Women and Social Change in North and South Korea: Marxist and Liberal Perspectives”, Franklin & Marshall College Working Papers 321, 1992.
- Ryang, Sonia, “Gender in Oblivion: Women in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, Journal of Asian & African Studies, 2000, Vol. 35 Issue 3, pp. 323-349.
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