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]

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