A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
The following is based on excerpts of responses to questions posed to a North Korean defector in China:
North Korea is highly patriarchal. … In the past, women faced criticism if their husbands were seen in the kitchen, though things might have gotten slightly better these days. 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 Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
Kim Il Sung’s communist regime passed a gender-equality law two years before it enacted a constitution. In 1965 almost 55% of the labor force were women, thanks in part to the carnage of the Korean war in the early 1950s. But Sonia Ryang, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa, points out that the formal commitment to gender equality, transplanted from the Soviets, did not take root. Kim was soon urging women to carry the double burden of production and reproduction, fulfilling their output quotas and also raising “the successors to our revolutions and the reserves of communist builders”. Visitors noted that at home the typical North Korean male did not lift a finger to help.
The breakdown of North Korea’s planned economy in the mid-1990s thrust women into a new role. Men had to show up at their assigned work units, but the state turned a blind eye to women who did not report for duty. This allowed women to build the informal market economy that partially replaced the collapsing planned economy. Women became retailers, petty traders and peddlers. In a survey of North Korean defectors by Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, 76% of the women had been involved in trading before they left, compared with 63% of the men. Almost half the women said they had got all their income from the market.
Those who engage in these markets still run risks. The government has criminalized a range of market activities. Those convicted face up to two years in a so-called “labor-training” facility, which are grim but less harsh than the political prison camps for which North Korea is famous. Of the women who left after 2005, 95% report paying bribes to stay out of trouble.
Women’s lives have become less regimented but no less arduous. They are now often the breadwinners, and men are doing more housework, says Hazel Smith of Cranfield University in her forthcoming book on North Korea. But as the market economy has grown, she finds, the biggest cut has gone to the Chinese trading networks that span the border, and to the wholesalers with connections in North Korea’s regime. Messrs Noland and Haggard note that as the state has thrust women into the market, “the increasingly male-dominated state preys on the increasingly female-dominated market.”
Drudgery remains the lot of many of North Korea’s women.
According to Marcus Noland, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, North Korean women were traditionally pushed out of employment in core state organizations. “And that is why they ended up in the market,” he adds. “Certainly, there was no intention on the part of North Korea decision-makers to raise the role of women relative to men. Just the opposite.”
“Women, because of their prominence in the market, are at the forefront of acts of civil disobedience,” Noland says, emphasizing that civil disobedience is still extremely unusual in North Korea. “The protests are generally reactive and defensive in nature, but women are very prominent in them.”
The extra burden women carry is beginning to have social consequences, with young women hoping to delay marriage to avoid taking on a husband. For men, their emasculation within their own households is now a fact of life.
“Whatever your wife tells you to do, you do,” says Mr. Kim, despairing. “If women say it’s a cow, it’s a cow. If they say it’s a giraffe, it’s a giraffe. We are slaves, slaves of the women. Women’s voices have become louder. … Men without wives become beggars. They become so hungry that they can’t go to work. Then they have to go to market to beg. This has happened to between five and seven men I know.”
One major — and largely unspoken — problem for North Korean women is skyrocketing domestic violence.
Ewha University’s Kim Seok-hyang makes a point of asking North Korean defectors about domestic violence. “I interviewed more than 60 people. All of them agreed violence is there against women. Violence against women is not news for them. It’s so natural, it’s happening almost every day.”
Outside the home as well, in the marketplace, women are vulnerable too, says Marcus Noland, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In his research of women working in local markets, 95 percent reported paying bribes to police and officials, who would try to shake them down.
That — and being exposed to new ideas in the marketplace — could affect women’s political views. “Women, because of their prominence in the market, are at the forefront of acts of civil disobedience,” Noland says, emphasizing that civil disobedience is still extremely unusual in North Korea. “The protests are generally reactive and defensive in nature, but women are very prominent in them.”