Women in North Korean society

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).

The Role of Women in North Korea

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.

[Excerpts from The Economist]

The changing role of women in North Korean society

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.”

And North Korean women now have a new figurehead: the fashionable wife of the young leader Kim Jong Un, first lady Ri Sol-ju. North Korean women hope her high-profile role might translate into gains for them.

Desperate North Korean women become breadwinners

Anecdotal evidence collected in interviews by Kim Seok-hyang, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, indicates that women are the main breadwinners in 80 to 90 percent of North Korean households — and that is having social consequences within the family.

One North Korean woman says those social changes are playing out in her own family. “I don’t know if you can call it power, but … we can speak louder now,” she says. “In the past, we obeyed our husbands. But now they can’t make money. Women have to make money and feed them. Women have become the heads of the family. They make the money and buy the food. Men cannot say what they want.”

She admits her friends mockingly call their husbands “puppies” or “pets” because they have to be fed, yet they do nothing.

A typical woman may earns about 3,000 won a day at the markets that have sprung upthe equivalent of less than 50 cents — at black market rates. But that’s double what her husband would earn in an entire month, were he to get paid.

A male interviewee who has an office job in a state-run company complains, “I get paid 1,200 won (5 cents!) a month. It’s a joke. There’s nothing you can do with that salary. A kilo of rice is something between 5,000 to 7,000 won.”