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Inside North Korea

What it is like Living in N. Korea as a Woman



When I got married, I wished I had a son only, not daughter, because women in North Korea lead such a harsh life. In the North, the status of women is low both at home and in society. Women are described as one side of the wheel of revolution, meaning that they are capable enough to contribute to economic construction, just like men. They are forced to make a sacrifice for their husbands and children and for society as well. Thinking of so many difficult roles required for women, I wished I would not have a daughter. 

This year, North Korea marked the 75th anniversary of the enactment of a law concerning gender equality. On July 30, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that socialist states are a women’s paradise that has realized the politics of respecting women, while capitalistic countries are a woman’s hell, where women tend to be despised and discriminated against. Apparently, North Korea claims that women in the country enjoy a high level of gender equality. 

Today, we’ll talk about what it is like living in North Korea as a woman with Kim Young Hui, senior researcher from the Korean Peninsula New Economy Center at the Korea Development Bank. 

While South Korea celebrates Parents’ Day, North Korea marks Mothers’ Day. In the North, there are many songs praising women. In the popular song “Women are Flowers,” for example, women are described as flowers of the nation, flowers of home and flowers of happiness. The song urges women to be faithful to society, sacrifice themselves for their family and make their family happy. It indirectly asks women to assist their husbands well so the men can stay loyal to society and the state. 

The Korea Institute for National Unification in South Korea annually publishes the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea. According to the 2021 white paper, North Korean women suffer discrimination, both directly and indirectly, due to their stereotypical gender role, restrictions on social activities and the double burden of housework and social work. Photos released by North Korean media show that men and women in the North are not equal. 

Early this year, North Korea held the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party and the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is equivalent to South Korea’s National Assembly. Photos of these major political events show that there were few, if any, women. In the organizations, the percentage of female members is not high, meaning that women’s political status remains low. A workshop for regional party secretaries took place in March. The group photo of the event also shows that there were hardly any women. When I was in North Korea, chief secretaries of city and county Workers’ Party committees were all men. But it doesn’t mean there are no female officials at all. Some women work as mid-level officials. But the post is held by only a limited number of women. I think gender inequality is still common in the North. 

North Korea promulgated Gender Equality Law on July 30, 1946, to lay the groundwork for equality between men and women. It is said that North Korea tried various systems aimed at minimizing housework and therefore encouraging women to participate in social activities. 

Countless men died during the Korean War. As a result, many women were forced to work both inside and outside of the home. Former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung set up kimchi factories and rice factories to allow women to get cooked rice and kimchi on their way home after work. The system had the good purpose of freeing women from heavy housework. But it was introduced in Pyongyang only, not in local regions, and it proved ineffective. 

North Korea also set up various childcare systems to help working moms concentrate on their work without having to worry about child-rearing. 

I had my first child before North Korea was hit by economic hardships in the mid-1990s. In North Korea, a childcare center is located close to one’s workplace. North Korean women receive maternity leave—two months before and three months after childbirth. Once the baby is three months old, the mother can take her baby to the childcare center, where officials who graduated from medical schools would take care of children and check their health as well. The system was great. North Korean mothers all breastfeed their babies, so they are allowed to work six hours a day, two hours shorter than normal. 

After the mid-1990s, however, the childcare systems collapsed. Previously, the state-run childcare centers took care of children for free. But as the systems no longer worked, mothers had to pay or make some sort of backdoor dealings to leave their babies with childcare centers. 

It is believed that these systems were created to use women’s labor effectively, rather than to promote gender equality. 

In South Korea, many working moms quit their jobs to focus on childcare or housework, although the situation may vary slightly from person to person. In the North, some women also choose to leave their jobs and become housewives. But even if they quit jobs, they just can’t stay at home only. As soon as they stop working, they join the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, which mobilizes its members for various campaigns. 

North Korean women all have to work until they get married, so unmarried women cannot quit their jobs, while married ones can. When married women quit jobs, they enter the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea. Therefore, North Korean women, whether they are married or not, all belong to certain organizations. The union mobilizes women for important events or labor campaigns. For example, they join the campaign of collecting compost at the beginning of the year, support the rice-planting work at local farms in May and help autumn harvesting. They are also mobilized for birthdays of former leaders, the government foundation day, the party foundation day and national holidays. The union members hold their own singing contest as well. 

With the spread of private markets or jangmadang in the communist state and the subsequent emergence of the young, jangmadang generation, the traditional image and role of North Korean women have also been changing. 

Since the harsh period of extreme economic difficulties known as Arduous March, many North Korean women have quit their jobs and engaged in market activities to support their family. In some cases, husbands earn 3,000 won at their state-run workplaces, while their wives bring in 100-thousand won from the market. With women holding greater economic power, they speak up and have a greater say at home. Many North Korean women complain that their husbands are like “lights that are switched on during the day.” That means husbands are useless. It comes as no surprise that many women are seeking divorce. As they are increasingly exposed to outside culture, including South Korean TV programs, they question why they should obey their good-for-nothing husbands. In line with the changing social and economic environment in the country, the status of North Korean women is also changing little by little.

North Korean authorities cannot turn a blind eye to women’s changing thought and desire forever. It remains to be seen how North Korean women’s status may evolve down the road. 

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