Women’s lives in North Korea

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Park Yoon-bae Deputy man­ag­ing editor byb@ktimes.com

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.

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