Women’s lives in North Korea
I served as a judge for an English speech contest for North Korean defectors Saturday. The event gave me a rare opportunity to have a better understanding of women’s lives in the North.
Seven defectors, five women and two men, delivered speeches under the theme of “A Woman Is a Flower.” They went into detail about how women live in their motherland.
They also shared with the audience their experience of different types of human rights abuses among North Korean women, including their mothers, family members and even themselves.
I was much impressed by their vivid memory and graphic descriptions of what they went through in the North.
Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a Seoul-based NGO co-founded by Casey Lartigue Jr. and Lee Eun-koo, hosted the event under the sponsorship of The Korea Times and the Shin & Kim law firm.
One of the speakers said she had never known what abuses were until she fled to South Korea. Actually she had not recognized the fact that many women were subject to abuse because they were too common.
Another contestant pointed out that North Korea is a patriarchal society similar to that of the Joseon Kingdom. Women, particularly married women, must play a traditional role of feeding and taking care of their families.
But, a growing number of women have been forced to seek outside jobs to earn money to support their families since a severe famine swept the impoverished North in the 1990s. They had to make up for the falling salaries of their husbands following the famine and ensuing economic woes.
Under these dire situations, many housewives began to sell their farm produce and homemade goods on the black market, or “jangmadang.” Such markets have mushroomed across the reclusive country since the socialist economic system began to fail.
As a result, many women have made money and become the breadwinners of their families. To a certain degree, this has changed the role of women and lifted their socioeconomic status. They have climbed the ladder of the rigid social hierarchy.
I believe this change has helped North Korean women redefine their roles not only in their families but also in the patriarchal society.
This is not to say that the North’s patriarchal system has crumbled. It has been too deeply-entrenched to fall to pieces suddenly. Besides, the Kim Jong-un regime firmly sticks to such a system to legitimize its dynastic succession.
But it is worth noticing that women have apparently begun to change themselves to cope with the socioeconomic transformations taking place in the North.
I think North Korean women are more agile and resilient in adjusting themselves to the changing world than their male counterparts are. This may explain why women represent an absolute majority of North Koreans who have defected to the South.
According to government statistics, the number of North Korean defectors living here is estimated at around 30,000. Women defectors account for 71 percent of the total with their number standing at over 21,000.
The figures seem to suggest that North Korean women are more likely to choose their own fate than their male counterparts.
The North Korean regime introduced a gender equality policy under the slogan of building a socialist republic right after it gained independence from Japanese colonial rule from 1910-45.
Park Young-ja, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said in her book, “North Korean Women,” that women have long been forced to play a dual role both as “innovative workers” and “revolutionary mothers.”
She noted that the dictatorial regime has mobilized women to exploit them to tackle a labor shortage and achieve its revolutionary goals, especially since the 1950-53 Korean War. Women have also been required to be obedient to their husbands and the regime.
But, North Korean women have tended to be tougher and more assertive following the famine that reportedly claimed millions of lives. This tendency is certainly based on their growing economic power.
I’m not sure if the trend will continue under the Kim regime. But I want North Korean women to raise their voices and call for gender equality so they can have better lives.