This is the first of a two-part series examining recent research into life for women in North Korea.
Has Kim Jong Un empowered women in North Korea, or has his regime presided over and driven a worsening of conditions for women in the country?
This essay approaches this question via an assessment of three large and interview-rich reports on North Korean women which were published in 2018, focussing on gender dynamics as well as sexual violence.
When taken in aggregate and correlated with broader themes in North Korean society and recent scholarship on women in North Korean markets, the overall picture is a bleak one, but not without its unexpected moments.
Women as symbols of power
A 14 March 2019 Rodong Sinmun editorial confidently asserts that in North Korea the Supreme Leader is “the center of the life of the popular masses and the top intellect.”
Any discussion of women in the upper ranks of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), therefore, has to acknowledge the fact that in a personalist dictatorship like North Korea, there is not a great deal of agency or choice for anyone.
Even within the upper reaches of the Party, no man or woman who is not directly related to the leader by blood can be considered untouchable.
In the vast capillaries of society beyond Pyongyang’s conference halls, the country suffers from a lack of basic human rights, and the status of women within society means that women tend to suffer most.
The overall picture is a bleak one, but not without its unexpected moments
That iconic American statement in Beijing in 1995: “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” certainly applies here. But if we wish to be more critical still, we might critique the need to separate the two and to repurpose a thought from Judith Butler and ask “do [North Korean] women have the right to be human”?
Improvements in the human rights of women in North Korea, and for North Korean women who clandestinely transit through or live in China, would be improvements for all North Koreans — and, for that matter, would send a signal across the border to China.
While symbols of women in the top echelons of power are hardly abundant in North Korea today, one can hardly ignore them, beginning with Choe Son Hui.
Choe was recently promoted to first vice foreign minister; she is navigating much of the dialogue with the Americans, throwing verbal jabs at John Bolton, and she appears to have both trust and power within the regime, having survived the alleged ouster of Kim Yong Chol from the U.S. negotiating team.
Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the Supreme Leader, played a vital role in inter-Korean dialogue in 2018, as did Hyon Song Wol, the head of the Moranbong Band and a leader of North Korean cultural diplomacy.
The two women led a largely feminine delegation of North Koreans to the 2018 Winter Olympic games in the South — including a frosty encounter with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and a healthy dose of ‘soft power’ — and prepared the way for Kim Jong-un’s summit with President Moon Jae-in.
First Lady Ri Sol Ju is not the chairwoman of anything: she is no Margot Honecker, who was concurrently East Germany’s First Lady and its Secretary of Education. However, Ri is a former member of the Unhasu Orchestra, has appeared at a number of on-site inspections with her husband (focusing primarily on consumer goods) and forged bonds with her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan.
Women serve as leaders of historically significant sites such as the Sinchon Massacre Museum and institutes for the study of Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary history and appear to be reasonably well represented in certain sectors of the education, medical, and science & IT establishments.
Women in North Korea are demonstrated to have benefited significantly from moves towards marketization
Markets and upwardly-mobile women
Along with these carefully managed images of women near the center of power in North Korea have come images of women as consumers and as moderately prosperous urban elites, with the implicit understanding that some marketization has helped and will continue to help cement or elevate their standing.
In a study of forty-one North Korean defector women published in 2018, a team of scholars led by Jung Kyungja showed how that, even if most were ‘pushed’ into market activity rather than ‘pulled’ by independent ambition, women in North Korea are demonstrated to have benefited significantly from moves towards marketization.
There is a certain irony in that the ‘patriarchal socialist’ state of North Korea encouraged nearly 70% of married women to become housewives in the 1980s, and that, according to Jung, it was precisely their lack of employment that gave them more relative freedom to engage in market activity as the state faltered in the following decades.
Haggard and Noland’s major study of 300 female entrepreneurs who had defected from North Korea in the late Kim Jong Il era argues rather the opposite, that the breakdown of the state led to space for corruption and abuse, asserting in their 2012 paper that “the increasingly male-dominated state preys on the increasingly female-dominated market.”
Female-headed households have increased in recent years. Some analysts have linked marketization as a process to changes in daily life, or, as Jung puts it, “North Korea’s socio-economic transformation has had a profound and yet under-appreciated impact,” not only on the economy, but “on the social construction of femininity.”
In a situation in which “money is patriotism” (to quote one of Jung’s informants), women with money have become more important than ever to the state.
North Korean women have also formed the backbone of workers resident in China, at least until they are all nominally sent home by the end of 2019 under the current mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 2397.
The state enables female activity to a certain extent, and even empowers certain women politically, but also controls those individuals heavily
But, as a major study edited by Remco Breuker has shown, North Korean women who work abroad are subject to severe curbs on their freedom of movement and association, and in the case of seamstresses and other less visible workers, even subject themselves to insufficient food consumption in order to save the small portion of their wages which is not arrogated to the state.
It is a decidedly mixed picture, then, when the occasional assertion is made that North Korean women are leveraging economic clout into more political representation. The state enables female activity to a certain extent, and even empowers certain women politically, but also controls those individuals heavily.
The three reports focused on here, therefore, have to be set against this larger backdrop of marketization within a larger socialist system, symbolic politics (both inner-track and outer-track), the transformative role of defection and overseas labor, and the direction provided by the ruling party’s predominantly (though not exclusively) male leadership.
2018 saw the publication of three major reports on the condition of women in North Korea. While the emphasis of the reports was on sexual violence against women in the country, it is possible to draw out a wider range of themes from the reports.
The individual experiences of women described in the reports manifestly contradict the state’s claims to perfection — but given that few individuals outside of North Korea actually adhere to these claims of perfection in any meaningful sense, the role of reports in exposing basic hypocrisy is not what lends them power.
Performed by three different NGOs based respectively in Seoul, Washington D.C., and London, the reports cumulatively represent 130 interviews with an emphasis on subjects with life experience in North Korea after Kim Jong Un came to power.
The quality and veracity of testimony by North Korean “defectors” or “resettlers” is frequently challenged, but readers can be assured that these reports are all carefully done, with extensive research apparatus and scholarly citations.
The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) performed interviews with 36 female defectors in 2017, including several health care workers. Their report has the advantage of containing a detailed readout of North Korea’s UN responses and discussion of the role played by socialist organizations in preventing or facilitating pressures on women.
In Washington D.C., the Human Rights Watch (HRW) NGO had the largest number of interviews. This report has undertaken with 54 defectors in 2017 whose departures had occurred from 2011-2017, meaning the report gives a good scope of the Kim Jong Un era.
In London, the Korea Future Initiative (KFI), with Parliamentary links and support from MP Fiona Bruce, published the “Us Too” report, including interviews with 40 former North Koreans resident in Seoul and the UK.
This particular report, the research for which took place from 2015-2017, is especially excoriating on North Korea, calling it a “misogynist state” that systematically enables sexual assault.
The sense of erasure is particularly prevalent when it comes to issues of sexual violence
The framing of the report was the most comparative in discussing the methodology of writing about sexual violence against women. It also represented the clearest attempt to date to link North Korean human rights issues up with the “Me Too” movement.
A difficult reception
However, in spite of receiving a favorable debut in no less an outlet than the Washington Post, the Korea Future Initiative report was quickly overshadowed by more positive news of the Panmunjom summit.
The Post also covered the Human Rights Watch release in October 2018, including excerpts from the testimonies, footage from Kenneth Roth’s presentation, and an implicit criticism that the U.S. and South Korean negotiations with North Korea should not ignore human rights issues.
However, the relative paucity of ongoing discussion of these reports are an indicator that any attempt to call attention to poor treatment of North Korea’s women within the DPRK has to contend with a general fatigue in discussing North Korean human rights issues — as well as the allure of multiple contending narrative strands like missile launches, assassinations, or summits more likely to hold public attention.
The role of the state
Our assumption as readers when entering into these reports is that DPRK generally does not acknowledge the abuse of women within its borders or systemic discrimination of women.
The sense of erasure is particularly prevalent when it comes to issues of sexual violence. A statement made in Geneva by Jang Il Hoon, a researcher at the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seems to sums up the state’s astigmatism when it comes to sexual assault:
“Torture, rape or forced abortion, they never existed in my country and the prevailing reality in my country is that phenomenon is strictly prohibited. They can never exist. They cannot exist. And they are not existing in practice as well.” (NKHR, iii annex, p65).
But is it really the case that the state is absolutely absent with respect to its acknowledgment of sexual assault in the country?
The second part of this essay will assess state responses and the role of women’s organizations in the DPRK, look at the role of markets as dangerous sites for even upwardly-mobile North Korean women, and consider the analytical benefits to placing North Korean women’s rights in a more regional context.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps, edited by NK News
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-09-07 07:14:29