From all accounts, North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.
While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets inside the country — since all men have jobs assigned by the state — female defectors say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male counterparts.
“Men hold the purse strings a lot of times and men have all the social status. …. Women always have to be modest,” said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in South Korea.
Sexual violence is also a major problem. It’s “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2018 report.
Jean Lee, an Associated Press reporter who opened the wire service’s bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, said she endured “incredible sexism. … My female North Korean colleagues [said] they were expected to do their jobs all day and still take care of all the cooking and cleaning at home,” said Lee, who is now the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “To be honest, neither Korea, north or south, is a great place to be a woman.”
On the other hand, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, shared his opinion that, “North Korea has a 70-plus year history of women being very close to the center of power, of being influential in North Korea’s decision-making processes.”
Kang, the defector, isn’t so sure. When asked if she imagined there could be a female Supreme Leader while still living in North Korea, Kang responded incredulously, “Oh no way.” She said, “I can’t even imagine. Can’t even dream.”
One thing is sure, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, is one woman who has already become prominent in the North Korean government, and could really be on her way to making history.