Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Shuang Lin in China asks:
Generally, do you feel that there is gender equality in North Korea society? Do women face serious discrimination?
North Korea is highly patriarchal to this day. For example, women are not advised to pay a visit to other households on January 1 and it is also considered bad luck for a shop if the first customer of the day is female. In the past, women received heavy criticism if men happened to be in the kitchen, though things might have gotten slightly better these days.
North Korean men are expected to go to work early every morning, even if they don’t receive their wages. It is thought to be appropriate and ideal that men obey the policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), even if the family has nothing to eat.
Therefore women, and not men, are expected to take care of everything that happens within the house. No matter how hard it is to make a living, the only duty men are expected to perform at home is to ban family members from doing anything against the policies of the WPK.
If a husband or wife does anything contrary to party ideology, even to make a living, this is considered grounds for divorce
In other words, it is thought that the role of men is to teach their wives and children so that they will not do anything that interferes with party ideology, even if they’re on the verge of starving to death. This is often reflected in divorce cases. If a husband or wife does anything contrary to party ideology, even to make a living, this is considered grounds for divorce.
Also, a WPK membership card is something you don’t show, even to your spouse, because party ideology is considered far more important than the affection between husband and wife. Men are expected to be able to cross a distinct line between their public and personal lives. Women shouldn’t want to know about the things happening to their men out of house.
And since North Korea is a highly bureaucratic society, when men are under stress at work they sometimes take their frustration and anger out on their wives, leading to domestic violence. Since the government doesn’t interfere with domestic affairs, women bear the consequences alone.
BEARING THE BRUNT
In my hometown, I’d say domestic violence occurred on a daily basis in three out of 10 households, two-three times per week at another three-four households and only once a year at one-two households out of 10.
As domestic violence increases, this makes women think twice about marriage. When girls grow up exposed to domestic violence between their parents, they do not have a good perception or view of men. As a result, while women married at the ages of 21-24 in the 1990s, since 2000 many have waited until their 30s.
So why do men commit domestic violence? It’s because men are under immense stress at work and it’s their way of expressing that they’re displeased with society. In other words, they’ve realized that there’s nothing they can do in a situation in which their family is starving. No matter how hard they work, they don’t get paid their well-deserved wages.
Still, men have to continue going to work every day even though there’s no way to make money, and this leaves women with the burden of keeping the family fed, which is why men become so frustrated with life.
As a consequence, women bear all the economic problems and must take responsibility for feeding the family. But since most public servants and police are men, women are constantly exposed to sexual harassment and face the risk of rape. For instance, women have to win the hearts of police to get a good space for their kiosk at the market. There’re two ways for them: A) bribe them, or B) if you don’t have that kind of money, know how to work people. Of course, if you had enough money to bribe them, you wouldn’t need to be vendor at the market in the first place.
Since so many women are at bringing home the family bread, there are very few women who go to the workplaces. Therefore, the ratio of men to women at factories is 9:1.
RE-BUILDING THE COUNTRY
When China and North Korea officially campaigned for gender equality, it wasn’t done out of respect for women or to free women from the patriarchy
When it comes to gender equality, North Korea was officially pushing for and encouraging gender equality before South Korea, but this wasn’t for the purpose of gender equality. When China and North Korea officially campaigned for gender equality, it wasn’t done out of respect for women or to free women from the patriarchy: The motive was to encourage women to go to work to re-build the economy after the Korean War.
Actually, women played a big role in this re-building. The government bestowed awards for working women who achieved great things, labeling them “hard-working heroines” to encourage more women to want to work harder.
But when jobs require hard labor, such as repairing machinery, it has always been challenging for women to keep up with men. No matter how hard women worked, there were limits. Even if women spent the same amount of time and effort as men, men took all the credit. Still, the government gave more credit to women in order to keep their morale high. When things got better in the ’50s and ’60s and the North Korean economy was better than that of South Korea, they didn’t need the women’s labor force anymore.
So, they say gender equality and women’s role in society is important when they need the female workforce. When they haven’t needed women’s labor, they have discontinued showing much of any respect for them. In North Korean society, when women do a good job at cooking, cleaning and other chores or when women have home brought lots of money after selling stuff at the market, they have highly praised the women.
But when a woman breaks the glass ceiling, gets a highly respected job or becomes a high-ranking party member, people quote the old Korean saying: “It goes ill with the house when the hen sings and the cock is silent.”
Even as I’m writing this piece I’m very saddened that women are doing the most difficult jobs in North Korea to keep their families from starving. I truly hope that the day arrives soon when people can practice their human rights in North Korea.
Got A Question?
Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1174 words of this article.