This is the second of a two-part series examining recent research into life for women in North Korea. Read part one here.
North Korean women play a central role in the marketization of North Korean society. The number of female-headed households has increased in recent years, and they have formed the backbone of North Korean efforts to send workers to China.
North Korean women are leveraging the economy more than ever before and their representation the society is much more significant than it has been in previous decades.
A handful of women are also more visible at the very top of the Korean Workers’ Party, as we demonstrated in part one of this essay.
Nevertheless, women in North Korea experience extreme hardship and systemic discrimination.
In this second part of the essay, we will have a closer look at the findings of three major reports from NGOs on women’s issues in DPRK.
All of the reports — from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), the Korea Future Initiative (KFI), and Human Rights Watch (HRW) — highlight the link between women and the economy, closely related to the markets where women operate for their livelihoods.
This essay will open with the discussion on markets as dangerous sites for women and then point out the role of women’s organizations and responses of the state.
Markets as dangerous sites for even upwardly-mobile North Korean women
Women’s work is crucial in the North Korean economy, keeping the Jangmadang (markets) active as sites for consumer purchasing as husbands work in state-allocated workplaces.
The three NGO reports each show that women are exposed to occupational hazards in marketplaces.
These hazards are not only put down to physical injury or to exhaustion from overwork, but also “bullying by market officials and in many cases sexual harassment and sexual assaults” (NKHR, 21).
The NGO reports confirm the hardship of women’s position in society in relation to bureaucratic power. One woman who appealed to a mayor in search of a house outside of her home province was assaulted before she was provided with a house; she stated that a “woman’s dream cannot be achieved without being raped or without selling her body” (FKI, 55).
Other informants stated that women had difficulty being promoted within the Party because men look down on them (“ggalboaseo”) (NKHR, 24).
Women form the core of workers in caring professions, such as nurseries and teaching positions.
However, the increase of women’s role in society, including the increase in women party officials, does not stem from these traditional bases, nor is it the result of the government policies for gender equality.
Rather, it is the result of the “growing financial power of women involved in private trade” (NKHR, 24). Jung Kyung-ja’s study records an interview with a 47-year-old female that gives a picture of the economic power of women in North Korea:
“During my over ten years-marriage, I received little money from my husband. Perhaps one or twice, I received a [rations] ticket. So whenever we got into arguments, I always said to [my daughter’s] father that his only possession shall be the loudspeaker in the house that had been distributed by the government in case of war. “Take only that, and leave. Everything else is mine that I earned.” He could not object because he never contributed anything to the house (Seol, 47-year-old female, interviewed September 2014)
It is difficult to call the markets an unqualified success when it comes to expanding the autonomy of North Korean women
The essential role of women in the economy suggests a need for more education and skills training. But instead, paradoxically, there is a dominant perception that women do not need such background as they can pay any levies by undertaking private activities.
The lack of social benefits for women working in markets is a burden as well, if usually invisible. One informant noted that “the private economy is almost entirely dependent on women but these women receive none of the labor protections and social security benefits… let alone pregnancy and childbirth related benefits” (NKHR, 26).
Given the inflexibility of the state and societal perceptions despite the growing role of women in this country, it is difficult to call the markets an unqualified success when it comes to expanding the autonomy of North Korean women.
As the Korea Future Initiative report emphasizes, sexual violence has become normalized within local institutions and workplaces.
This is in line with the report’s assertion that mass organizations facilitate abuse. Although the DPRK government claims that human trafficking is “inconceivable” on its territory unless “committed under the manipulation of the South Korean authorities,” eighty-one interviewees spoke of women being trafficked into sexual slavery in towns and cities across the country (KFI, 10, 45, 52).
The organizational and cultural barriers are noted in KFI’s report, but so too are discussion of Party member malfeasance.
According to the testimonies gathered, users of sex workers were said to “range from high and mid-level KWP officials, KPA soldiers, merchants and good smugglers, foreign businessmen and diplomats, and South Korean politicians (during the Sunshine-era) and businessmen (in Kaesong).” (KFI, 46).
Aside from the prevalence of sexual violence, the financial burden on women is commonly mentioned in the reports.
Some engage in sex work to pay Balssam — giving fifteen percent of income to the government — while some supplement alternative incomes with occasional sex work. These examples show that the economy plays an important role.
KFI’s report suggests another angle to the lack of norms of sexual violence; “prevailing social norms continue to mark sex work as taboo in North Korea, but socioeconomic realities and corruption have allowed the practice to flourish” (KFI, 48).
It is unclear to what extent, if any, Kim Jong Un’s strict statements about anti-corruption activities for the Workers’ Party of Korea have reduced such activity.
Beyond North Korea’s borders, KFI’s “Us Too” report contains other testimonies of trafficking and sexual slavery happening in China for those who fled from North Korea.
Human Rights Watch’s report, too, contains interviews of women who were detained in or returned to North Korea from China.
According to their testimonies, women who are “picked” by a guard or police officer does not have a choice but to comply with any demands, as people in custody have little choice as their duration of detention or level of investigation depends on their interactions with the guards or investigators.
The role of the party-run Democratic Women’s Union takes on different aspects in the reports. Perhaps most interesting is the NKHR report, which takes pains to note that the DPRK is equipped with the bureaucratic apparatus to investigate gender equality as well as sexual violence.
The country has a “National Committee for implementing International Human Rights Treaties,” and this body, along with “the Democratic Women’s Union are responsible for collecting an unquantified remit of data on women’s rights, including sexual violence” (NKHR, 33).
It is a strange portrayal of a hybrid and uneven state that emerges from these reports
However, it appears that the function of these groups is severely hamstrung. According to one informant, Ms. Bok, “anyone can report sexual violence, but the identity of the survivor is publicized and if the perpetrator has money, they can harm the woman and her family. Survivors are reluctant to report because they will be damaged as a consequence. A number of survivors who declared [to authorities] suffered.” (NKHR, 33).
We, therefore, witness the failure of the state women’s organizations on two levels: the failure to adapt to advocate for women, and the failure to allow any space for civil society to emerge where reporting and pressures could truly be bottom-up and women could agitate for more rights.
Ultimately, it is a strange portrayal of a hybrid and uneven state that emerges from these reports.
At times, the state is heavily controlling and unwelcome toward any suggestion of imperfections, while at other times, the state is open and adaptable to the point of chaos.
This is the paradox of a state where local inminban are there primarily to watch, surveil, and control, but which are also held up by the state as an organization which can help to assure no sexual assault — or cohabitation among non-married people — takes place (HRW, 18, 36).
It is a state where corruption among local officials allows for abuses of women to take place (HRW, 10), but it is the culture of corruption which also allows some female traders to bribe their way into positions of influence.
Perhaps these paradoxes are just part of the North Korean “everyday” now, to borrow a phrase from Suzy Kim’s portrait of North Korean women in the more optimistic era of decolonization, when the personality cult and women’s groups had greater agency, and were themselves led by more genuinely charismatic figures like Ho Jong Suk.
Now the women’s union seems to primarily exist, so far as the international community is concerned, to serve as an evasive and obfuscatory talking point when asked about reporting measures within the DPRK on women’s rights, and as a means of gathering labor for the regime (NKHR, 17).
Human Rights Watch also reports that sexual violence is so common that “it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life”
Causes, norms, and women’s rights
The NKHR report gets into the greatest level of detail with respect to how complaints of sexual assaults or gender-based discrimination ought to be handled in North Korea.
One of the most illuminating issues comes from the interviewees themselves, who did not understand the concept of “complaint” of sexual abuse.
Their understanding of this term was “thought of governmental institutions and its officials criticizing an individual’s action” rather than a form of action to improve the lives of women or to report abuses (NKHR, 20).
Human Rights Watch also reports that sexual violence is so common that “it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country.”
For that reason, survivors rarely report cases so there is no precise number of victims of sexual abuses.
It is therefore not surprising that the medical system does not function well for the victims of violence in this norm-lacking society – to an extent, the medical system does not really exist at all for survivors of rape.
Interviewees testified that the responsibility of contraception is on women and there are no forms to report medical examinations (NKHR, 31, 34).
Despite the fact that most of the interviewees had medical facilities nearby, ninety percent of them reported that they have not observed programs for preventive screening for gynecological issues and breast cancer (NKHR, 29).
The findings of the reports suggest the need for healthcare and mental care for the victims. Moreover, a lack of responsible women’s rights organizations and complaint mechanisms or legislation on sexual violence in North Korea is a common problem observed in all of the reports.
This may be linked to the education that does not provide any sex education or education related to contraception at all levels of schools (NKHR, 29).
The regional context of the North Korean women’s rights, seen through the testimonies of three NGOs, paints a grim picture.
However, the issue is too complicated to draw a hasty conclusion, blaming the institutions or lack of institutions.
In order to improve women’s issues and their rights in North Korea, various parts of society need to work towards a better life for women. Of course, a prerequisite for this is a break of current norms and practices that are prevalent in the country.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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