What does it mean to be a woman in North Korea? What does it mean to be a man? Approaching 76 years since the Provisional People’s Committee issued the Sex Equality Law in 1946, North Korean media today continues to promote the image of institutional gender equality. Recent surveys and research of North Korean defectors, however, tell a different story. Are women and men in North Korea really equal as the North Korean state media asserts? As we discuss how gender roles are shaped in North Korea in this blog post, we will also look into how gender roles play out in different environmental settings such as the military, Jangmadang, and family structures in homes.
Article 11. “All citizens of the D.P.R.K irrespective of sex, nationality, religious belief, speciality, property status or education, have equal rights in all spheres of government, political, economic, social, and cultural activity.”
Although the 2009 revised Constitution of Socialist Constitution of the DPRK has not been made public, the old Constitution–derived from socialist ideology and reflecting the foundation of the state–still allows us to examine the North Korean government and its governance of the society. Observing how the word “communism” has been removed from the new revision according to the analysis of Radio Free Asia, however, we can sense the emergence of women’s engagement in society as well as capitalistic influence among patriarchal society in its centralized command economy.
Previously in North Korea, only men were subject to mandatory military conscription; women partook in the military on a voluntary basis. Things changed in March 2003 when, during the sixth session of the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly, the North Korean government announced that women would be subject to the same 10 years of compulsory military service as well. It was announced that military service, effective in the year of 2015, was to be reduced from 13 years to 10 years for men, and it became mandatory for women to serve for 7 years.
What caused this policy change? A high child mortality rate combined with low birth rates resulting as a long lasting impact of famine is understood to be the primary reason. Especially after the Arduous March [1994–1998], which caused severe hunger and starvation, the North Korean government made plans to make up for the shortfall in troop numbers in the North Korean army. As the North Korean state hoped, the 10 years of required conscription have led to more men being involved in the military, as well as taking in-state jobs; however, this has led to their decreased economic participation. In contrast, although women are now subject to the same compulsory military service as men, there is a lag–given the recency of the rule change–in this policy’s impact on women’s economic participation. As a result, a greater number of women are able to retain economic independence in the short term.
It is estimated that about 40% of North Korean women, aged between 18 and 25, are in uniforms — a number that is expected to grow, as military service only became compulsory for women seven years ago. So Yeon Lee, an ex-signal corpsman in North Korea’s army and now a defector living in South Korea since 2008, has been key in providing information about the military exercises for men and women in the North Korean military. She stated, “daily exercise routines for men and women were roughly the same. Women tended to have slightly shorter physical training regimes — but they were also required to perform daily chores such as cleaning, and cooking that male soldiers were exempted from.”
This revelation highlights the reality that it is not policy, but rather how equally each individual is treated depending on their gender, and what duties men versus women are expected to take in the military, that acts as an accurate indicator of gender equality levels, regardless of the number of women participating in the military. Being delegated duties based only on their gender–preventing them from earning promotions or being taken seriously by other colleagues–is a definite reflection of a lack of gender equality. This discrepancy is also seen in the term ttukong unjeoungsu (뚜껑 운전수). It literally translates as “cooking pot lid drivers,” symbolizing the role of women in North Korea, which implies that women must stay in the kitchen where they belong. The colloquial usage of such terms suggests that North Korean society remains inherently patriarchal, regardless of whether there have been changes or progress unbeknownst to the world throughout time.
Both women and men were part of Kim Il Sung’s big plan following the Korean liberation. Kim Il Sung wished to raise the nation using the Soviet Model and was also growing his power in North Korea with the support of Soviet troops in chaos. Working under a socialist system, North Korea pushed for a proletariat dictatorship based on the principle of industrial workers leading state development. A possible attempt at a push for institutional changes in North Korea was seen when the Provisional People’s Committee issued an “Sex Equality Law” in 1946; women’s labour was to be included in the production sector for further industrialization, perhaps encouraging them to be recognized as individuals.
However, following the deterioration of the North Korea economy in the 1980s and 1990s, many women were kicked out of their jobs and became either housewives or “street women” (가두여성) in Jangmadang, the North Korean black market. Even before the collapse of the distribution system, women were often discriminated against in the workplace–for example, some received only about half of the distribution quota of regular workers–and thus began to engage with economic activities in the informal labor market and marketplace. In the 1990s, the Arduous March exacerbated this inequality, forcing women to make ends meet for their families by participating in business out on the street. As a result, the size of the black market–Jangmadang–has expanded significantly.
Whether or not North Korea’s original socialist model intentionally pushed for a system that would take care of all its citizens during previous eras–regardless of gender–the failure of the country’s economic development plans may have strengthened North Korea’s traditional gender roles. This includes society’s active internalization of the “motherhood ideology,” in which women are expected to be the main caretakers of households and children.
Despite these imposed gendered expectations, women have taken a prominent role in the unofficial economic sector, Jangmadang. Perhaps as a result, women in fact earn more than 70 percent of household income in North Korea. A survey of 60 female North Korean defectors by the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights found that women on average earned informal monthly incomes of 50,000 to 150,000 North Korean won ($6 to $18 at current black market rate). On the other hand, state jobs held by men pay around 2,000 to 6,000 North Korean won per month, which is less than the cost of one kilogram of rice in a North Korean city of Hyesan; it is in fact illegal for men to work as merchants in North Korea. These results suggest that women hold more economic freedom than men.
The Jangmadang also sheds light on why more North Korean women are able to defect than men. Women’s high level of engagement in the black market has allowed them to get more in touch with “brokers,” individuals who help people defect from North Korea. With both relative economic freedom and mobility around Jangmadang, women have more access to information circulating around the society. On the other hand, men are under strict state surveillance and have less economic and mobility freedom, thus hindering their opportunities in comparison to women.
Home and Family
Another factor affecting gender inequality towards women in North Korea is the deep-rooted Confucianism that prevails in North Korean society. This ideology dictates that in a heterosexual relationship, the man takes care of all business outside the house while the woman takes care of all business inside the home, and in this way emphasizes male superiority. Accordingly, many North Korean women tend to think of themselves as simply mothers or wives, rather than any other social roles that one might take up outside the household. Wives are expected to support their husbands faithfully, as their success often depends on the women’s efforts..In North Korea, there has been a severe lack of self-awareness towards these discriminative gender roles until the economic crisis that had changed their life patterns.
In the North Korean context, the family unit is a primary concept that prevails over the country, as the image of a strong family is beneficial to upholding government legitimacy. The family unit is the basis for economic and social activity, and has become a handy mechanism for the regime. Kim Jong Un, the Supreme Leader, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju,’s portrayal of the family plays a vital role in the crafting–especially in elite circles–the narrative of how a woman is to live in everyday North Korean gender politics. The image of the father and mother of the nation has been carefully chosen: the charismatic military leader, paired with the new female ideal in North Korea. As a model of any female citizen, the new woman (신여성) must not only be a revolutionary, but also a good wife and mother. When it comes to gender roles, Kim Jong Un’s leadership through the family portrayal has tried to tamp down on any unacceptable changes to gender roles or the family unit structure arising from marketization. Therefore, examining gender roles within the household allows us to paint a more vivid picture of North Korean culture today.
As women started to earn more money through their economic activity, the social sentiment towards patriarchal demands has also shifted. In our previous section on Jangmadang, we learned that the most significant shift in everyday North Korean gender politics occurred during the Great Famine in the 1990s. Women’s involvement in the economic markets heightened, and they became the breadwinners in the families. Even if men were employed, their paltry government paycheck was not enough to support their families.
As women left their homes to find food in the wake of this economic crisis, the number of men who engaged in household duties and child rearing increased. With women now holding more economic power, an increasing number of them began to seek divorce on grounds of their husbands’ financial incompetence. Today, this female takeover of North Korea’s central economic system is changing the patriarchal system that considered the ideal woman a stay-at-home wife. Male and female roles in the family are no longer strictly defined by dividing chores and labour according to gender.
This week’s Medium article has been brought to you by the HanVoice UBC x HanVoice SFU (HanVoice SFU) chapters, who have come together to question the background of gender equality in North Korea.
We are relying on the limited information provided by North Korean defectors or researchers who have a network or connections in North Korea. North Korean defectors are the embodiment of our hope of bridging the rest of the world with North Korea. By working in our university chapters, we acknowledge our essential duty of raising awareness for the ongoing North Korean human crises, as well as advocating the rights of North Korean defectors in Canada.
Story written and contributed to by Lina Park (SFU), Yujeong Choi (SFU), Leah Jo (UBC), Chloe Kang (UBC), and Danielle Lee (UBC).