Women in North Korea

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A woman from North Korea learning about embroidery.

The founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, has strived to eliminate their patriarchal social systems through new reformative laws, such as the Law on Sex Equality, the Labor Law, and the Law on Nationalization of Essential Industries. Although these social systems have not entirely been successful, they have been integrated into daily life in order to help women. The reforms implemented by Kim Il-Sung provided women’s rights at work, rights of inheriting and sharing of properties, and rights of free marriage and divorce. North Korea also outlawed polygamy. The state confiscated all privately owned land, eliminating property discrimination. Today, women in North Korea participate in a variety of labor forces, and there is a considerable number of women who are in high positions. Also, there are many facilities for women including Women’s sanatoria, rest homes, and maternity hospitals, although these are only available to the elite. The ratio of women to men in high wage jobs is still considerably lower than that of low wage jobs. In addition, most of women in the high positions in the society are either relatives or wives of top leaders. Irrespective of the reforms attempting to weaken patriarchal social structures, the political atmosphere is an example of the same patriarchal structure that the reforms intended to dissolve. This demonstrates the degree to which Neo-Confucian ideals still permeate and affect social and political policies. While most other Asian states have attempted to distance their contemporary society from Neo-Confucian ideals, North Korea has, to a large degree, embraced them.[1] In accordance with such norms, the North Korean system has remained largely divided and unequal.

Before the division of Korea[edit]

In the Joseon Dynasty, women were expected to give birth to and rear male heirs to assure the continuation of the family line. Women had few opportunities to participate in the social, economic, or political life of society. There were a few exceptions to limitations imposed on women's roles. For example, female shamans were called on to cure illnesses by driving away evil spirits, to pray for rain during droughts, or to perform divination and fortune-telling.

Before the Yi Dynasty and Neo-Confucianism was introduced, women comparatively had more rights and freedom. Women during the Shilla period held higher positions and statuses (although not equal to those of men) in society and had many legal rights including the right to be considered the head of a household. Furthermore, during the Koryo period, remarriage of women as well as equal property inheritance between men and women was completely acceptable.[2]

However as Korea entered the Yi Dynasty, Confucian ideology, was strongly adhered to by society and immensely affected the roles of men and women. From the young age of seven, males and females were separated and restricted to designated areas of the house: the outer part (sarangcha) for the males and the inner part (ancha) for the women. By Korean Confucian standards, "a virtuous woman obeyed men throughout her life: in youth, she obeyed her father; when married, she obeyed her husband; if her husband died, she was subject to her son." [3]

Few women received any formal education in traditional Korean society. After the opening of Korea to foreign contact in the late nineteenth century, however, Christian missionaries established girls' schools, thus allowing young Korean females of any class to obtain a modern education. With the influence of Silhak, Tonghak, and Western thought, a priority interest focused on human rights and equality. Thereby in 1886, Ewha Haktang (Ewha School) was established as the first modern women's school. And in response to the Chanyang-hoe (Chanyang Association) and their emphasis on education for women, in 1908, the government established the first public girls' school called Hansong Girls' High School.[4]

After the Division[edit]

The social status and roles of women were radically changed after 1945. Firstly, after the Korean War, the population ratio between the two Korea's was drastically different because of the "intense bombing". The bombing took a major toll on North Korea leaving "no more targets left to hit, which did not even happen in Vietnam". Secondly, "the DPRK lost 12-15 percent of its population during the war...Just over half the Koreans dead were men". North Korea was used "to combat the legacy of [the] colonial past." Because of these two factors, it affected the position of women in the DPRK. The importance on population growth was crucial to the development of North Korea. Women were " encouraged a high birth rate, partly by making contraception and abortion difficult to obtain".[5] It was considered socially unacceptable for a woman to not have or want children.

Women's roles were just as important as the men's. The 1972 constitution asserted that "women hold equal social status and rights with men."[6] The fact that the women held the same roles in society and in the economy can be seen when "Women workers had increased rapidly, with "equal pay [for equal work] and special treatment".[7] In addition, the role of women becoming more significant to society and them being more than simple housewives could be seen.[8] The 1990 constitution stipulates that the state creates various conditions for the advancement of women in society. In principle, North Korea strongly supports sexual equality and established different policies regarding women's emancipation, however, in practice, North Korea remains a patriarchal, sexist society.

When North Korea was established, it began applying communist principles of sex equality. North Korea believed they could obtain sexual equality through economic liberation and women's participation in economic production. For instance, Kim II Sung said: "The Women... can achieve complete emancipation only if they strive with no less devotion and awareness than men to solve the problems arising on the productive fronts of the factories and countryside"[9] The purpose was to transfer women's duties outside the family into productive labor for the state. Thus, theoretically, women can obtain different social positions through nontraditional roles such as paid labor.

The North Korean leaders were committed to changing traditional family, economic, and social systems and instituted new legal and social arrangements which promoted equal rights for both men and women.[10] Political opportunities were given to women, especially in the lower echelons of the power regime. Regardless, "North Korean women can hardly be said to have achieved socioeconomic status equal to men's."[11] While economic strides were made to improve the status of women, it is clear that North Korean women did not have the equal power of property in comparison to North Korean men. Women are given occupations with a lower pay wage, allowing the men to become the main source of income for the North Korean family. By having men be paid more than women, it achieved a family structure that depends on men. Men would be considered as the primary earner and women were earning money by the side. As such, women who marry high-income earners have followed a trend of quitting their jobs and a majority of married women work at their homes. As result, there is clear declination of women workforce and the women mostly become very dependent on their husbands.[12] This trend is seen clearly throughout the history of Korea, and it has deep roots in the Confucius ideals. It is also very hard to see many women in any position of power in North Korea. Women do hold one-third of the representative positions in the lower echelons of power, however, the lower echelons are not considered to hold any power over major decisions. "As one examines the more powerful organizations such as the Central Committee (CC) and the Politbureau (Political Committee) of the KWP Congress and the Administrative Council (the Cabinet), it becomes apparent that very few women have held positions of power."[13] Since women barely have any position in the higher positions of power, they are not well represented and do not hold any real power over the government. Although women position may have changed in the society since the Choson era, the deeply en-rooted Confucius culture is still very visible in contemporary North Korean society.

Chollima (Flying Horse) Movement[edit]

Main article: Chollima Movement

The Ch'ŏllima movement (Ch'ŏllima meaning "Thousand-ri horse" but translated as "Flying Horse")[14] was a mass mobilization campaign and North Korean government initiated Chollima movement to solidify its power in the late 1950s.[15] Chollima movement, which focused on women’s policy, socialized North Korean women’s housework thorough the help nurseries, kindergartens, laundries, and an efficient food industry.[16] One member of the Women’s Union said the socialization of housework in North Korea as “Children are brought up at state expense. If there is pressing and ironing [to be done] it goes to the laundries. The foodstuffs industry has been developed, so food can be bought at any time. So what is there left to do in the family?”[17] Chollima mass mobilization campaign increased the number of female labor. Female labor grew with the rate of over 19 percent between 1956 and 1964, which led to 49 percent of the total labor force.[18] Also between 1963 and 1989, the number of female professionals and technicians grew 10.6 times when male professionals grew only 2.5 times.[19] With the goal to continue raising positive statistics, women were being encouraged more and more to work towards achieving equal, if not greater, status as men had.

Statistics[edit]

Data from 1980 indicates that women occupied 56% of the labor force in the agricultural sector, 45% in the industrial sector, 20% in mining, 30% in forestry, 15% in heavy industry and 70% in light industry.[20] The heavy emphasis on light industry aims to raise poor living standards and combat the widespread shortage of food and consumer goods. In 1989, North Korea declared the "year of light industries" and shifted more women from heavy industry to light industry.[21] Women accounted for 80% of the school teachers, but very low in the university scene. For example, In Kim Il Sung University, women composed 10% of the faculty and 25-30% of the students.[22] Among professionals and technicians, women accounted for only 14.6% in 1963, yet in 1989 more than 37 percent were women. The number of female professionals and technicians increased 10.6 times between 1963 and 1989 while that of males increased only 2.5 times.[23]

The Laws Promoting Social Change on North Korean Women[edit]

The Provisional People’s Committee promulgated various laws promoting social change, such as the Law on Land Reforms, the Law on Sex Equality, the Labor Law and the Law on the Nationalization of Essential Industries."[24]

The most progressive change in the traditional position of women was the Law on Sex Equality, announced on July 30, 1946. This law emphasized equal rights in all spheres, free marriage and divorce, and equal rights to inherit property and to share property in case of divorce. It ended arranged marriages, polygamy, concubinage, the buying and selling of women, prostitution, and the professional entertainer system."[25]

The North Korean Labor Law defined women’s rights at work. Articles 14 through 17 stipulated the rights of mothers and pregnant women, including seventy-seven days of maternity leave with full pay, paid baby-feeding breaks during work, a prohibition against overtime or night work for pregnant or nursing women, and the transfer of pregnant women to easier work with equal pay."[26]

In addition, the Law on Nationalization of Essential Industries weakened the economic power of a patriarch by eliminating of private property."[27]

Unlike in South Korea where women struggled to abolish the family feudal system, the Democratic Women's Union of North Korea replaced family registry system based on male lineage (family feudal system) with a new citizen registry system.[28] Therefore giving more power to the women in purchasing and owning land.

Due to these changes in society the family structure drastically changed from the traditional systems; clans eventually disappeared, the family lineage-book system was completely destroyed, and a nuclear family system began to emerge.[29] Thus making women in society more equal to men.

Although there are new laws created to make women more equal to men, it is highly arguable that women in North Korea are completely equal to men in society. Opportunities for women have been greatly expanded, however with certain aspects they are still not equal to men in society. There is evidence that the male gets paid higher than females in North Korea. Thus, the wage difference reflects the unequal representation of women in various occupational structures, which indicates a sexual division of labor.[30]

Contemporary Era[edit]

In contemporary North Korea, women are important for three reasons:

  1. increasing production of material goods and services
  2. reproduction in order to increase the population
  3. ensuring that there is a long-serving and largely celibate army

To fulfill these expectations, women are expected to fully participate in the labor force outside the home.[31] Apart from its ideological commitment to the equality of the sexes, the government views women's employment as essential because of the country's labor shortage. No able-bodied person is spared from the struggle to increase production and compete with the more populous southern half of the peninsula. According to one South Korean source, women in North Korea are supposed to devote eight hours a day to work, eight hours to study, and eight hours to rest and sleep. Women who have three or more children are permitted to work only six hours a day and still receive a full, eight-hour-a-day salary.

Military[edit]

In early 2015, the North Korean government decided to make military service mandatory for all women living inside the country’s borders. The intention is to improve the country’s dwindling military forces. For women ages 17 to 20 that have graduated from middle and high school, enlistment is now a requirement. Prior to 2015, women only served on a voluntary basis, whereas men have always been forced to serve. Although, the term of service still differs, with women being free from the military at the age of 23 and men being bound for ten years. This initiative was proposed to replenish the losses felt in the 1990s during the North Korean famine, when the country experienced widespread death, a low birth rate, and a high child mortality rate. This directive has resulted in much concern, seeing as in most North Korean families, women are the ones bringing in the money by working in illicit businesses.

In 2003, in an annual Supreme People’s Assembly, the government granted a small reprieve for members of the military, reducing the term for men from 13 to 10 years and for women from 10 to 7. [32]

Classes and Castes[edit]

Although North Korean government officials do publicly claim that North Korea as a country is a purely classless society, some have proven otherwise. There has been a clear divide between the wealthy, educated, and politically all powerful citizens, in comparison to the politically powerless. There has been an obviously unequal distribution of wealth and privilege throughout North Korea. North Koreans have been forced to be placed into subdivisions in accordance with family history and origin. If at any point in time a member of a given family is to commit a crime of any sort, the entire line of that family suffers from their crime, by becoming even lower in status. A woman’s status has never been completely equal to that of a man. Men have a far better advantage of progressing through the workforce than women of a lower class. Lower class women are seen as having completed their career once married, which is not the case for men. On the other hand, women coming from higher ranking families are presented with much more opportunity. [33]

Division of Labor[edit]

In North Korea, heavy manual labor is traditionally done men, and light work is appointed to women. An individuals employment is predetermined by the state in accordance to the state’s judgement of family prestige, capability, and skill set. For example, it would be highly unlikely for the state to assign a wealthy family with a high education to work constant manual labor as a miner. Ultimately, for North Korean men and women, each citizen’s occupation must be completely calculated and deliberated by outside authority. [34]


Role in the Family[edit]

In 1990s, the North Korean government decided to push women out of state jobs, deeming it more “advanced work,” and therefore only appropriate for men. State employees used to be given rations and most families could survive on that. But during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, these rations, known as the Public Distribution System, dried up and families had to look elsewhere for financial support. Men, even though they are not receiving payment, are still required to attend their government jobs. The cash-strapped government relies heavily on the free labor they get from men and it is unlikely to discontinue this practice anytime soon. For men to be free from work, they actually must pay their employer between 20 and 30 times their monthly salary, allowing them to take on other, more profitable jobs, such as repair work. This payment is required even if one is unable to afford food to eat, otherwise they are punished with jail time. It is rumored that the women of the family are the ones deciding if the men’s skills are good enough to do this.

Illegal markets began springing up all over the country out of desperation to keep people alive. These markets became the target of a number of crackdowns and restrictions but were later relaxed. These markets have become the main source of money for the vast majority of families in North Korea, with almost half of households claim private trading as their only source of money. Although these numbers are difficult to come by in the iron-clad North Korea, researchers believe women are the breadwinners in 80 to 90% of homes. This dramatic change has had tremendous consequences in this patriarchal society. Women across the country, empowered by their new money-making abilities, have become less obedient to their husbands and have started controlling a lot of the household decisions. Many North Korean women refer to their husbands as “puppies” or “pets,” because they are unable to do anything productive but still must be taken care of and provided for. Women now make about twice and much as what men used to get paid.

But with this change, women in this country are facing increasing domestic violence. Scholars who survey North Korean defectors claim they have yet to interview a women that hasn’t experienced some sort of violence in the home. They believe it is because of the immense power shift that has occurred inside the homes of people across the country. Men are frustrated with their new-found lack of power.

Albeit with heavy obstacles, women are still leading the charge for civil disobedience, an unusual occurrence in North Korea. When new restrictions are imposed on the markets, women are very vocal and prominent in the protests.

These changes have resulted in women preferring to wait longer to get married and men being forced to accept their subordinate roles as husbands. This power change in life has resulted in another in death, it is now men that are forced to beg when their spouse dies, instead of the other way around. [35]

Media influence[edit]

The media showcases role models. The official newspaper Pyongyang Times, in an August 1991 article, described the career of Kim Hwa Suk, a woman who had graduated from compulsory education (senior middle school), decided to work in the fields as a regular farmer in a cooperative located in the Pyongyang suburbs, and gradually rose to positions of responsibility as her talents and dedication became known.[36] After serving as leader of a youth workteam, she attended a university. After graduating, she became chairperson of her cooperative's management board. Kim was also chosen as a deputy to the Supreme People's Assembly.

Despite such examples, however, it appears that women are not fully emancipated. Sons are still preferred over daughters. Women do most if not all of the housework, including preparing a morning and evening meal, in addition to working outside the home; much of the responsibility of childrearing is in the hands of t'agaso (nurseries) and the school system. The majority of women work in light industry, where they are paid less than their male counterparts in heavy industry. In office situations, they are likely to be engaged in secretarial and other low-echelon jobs. Women were relieved of some of their domestic duties in order to shift their focus off their jobs. The food industry was developed to the point where women could just buy and pick up food for their families. Therefore, one of their main tasks became educating their children about communism based on their experiences.[37]

Different sex roles, moreover, are probably confirmed by the practice of separating boys and girls at both the elementary and higher middle-school levels. Some aspects of school curricula for boys and girls also are apparently different, with greater emphasis on physical education for boys and on home economics for girls. In the four-year university system, however, women majoring in medicine, biology, and foreign languages and literature seem especially numerous.

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Halliday, Jon. "Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union Journal." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985): 46-47. Print.
  2. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 528. Print.
  3. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 528. Print.
  4. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 529-530. Print.
  5. ^ Halliday, Jon. "Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union Journal." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985): 47-48. Print.
  6. ^ N. Korea Calls for Women's Increased Role in Economic Campaign. Yonhap. August 6, 2009.
  7. ^ Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History. New York: Norton, 2005. 431. Print.
  8. ^ Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.
  9. ^ "On the Founding of the Magazine," p.354
  10. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 540. Print.
  11. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 540. Print.
  12. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 540-541. Print.
  13. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 540. Print.
  14. ^ Koh, p. 641.
  15. ^ Chollima movement was a mass mobilization campaign and North Korean government initiated Chollima movement to build socialist in the late 1950s.
  16. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 536. Print
  17. ^ Halliday, Jon. "Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union Journal." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985): 53. Print.
  18. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 537. Print.
  19. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 537. Print.
  20. ^ Tae Young Lee, Pukhan Yosonc (North Korean women) (Seoul, Korea: Silch'6n Munhaksa, 1988), p. 194.
  21. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 537. Print.
  22. ^ Halliday, Jon. "Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union Journal." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985): 55. Print.
  23. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 537. Print.
  24. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 532. Print.
  25. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 533. Print.
  26. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 533. Print.
  27. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 533. Print.
  28. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 533. Print.
  29. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 533. Print.
  30. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 540. Print.
  31. ^ Halliday, Jon. "Women in North Korea: an Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union Journal." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17 (1985): 47-48. Print.
  32. ^ Song Min, Choi. "North Korea Introduces 'mandatory Military Service for Women'" The Guardian. N.p., 31 Jan. 2015. Web.
  33. ^ Ryang, Sonia. "Culture of North Korea." Advmeg Inc. 2015. Web.
  34. ^ Ryang, Sonia. "Culture of North Korea." Advameg Inc. 2015. Web.
  35. ^ Lim, Louisa. "Out Of Desperation, North Korean Women Become Breadwinners." NPR. NPR, 28 Dec. 2012. Web.
  36. ^ Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). North Korea: a country study. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-8444-0794-4.
  37. ^ Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and Revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs Winter 65.4 (1992): 536. Print.

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. (Data as of 1993.)

External links[edit]

  • A video on YouTube depicting the last 100 years of fashion trends and how they deviate once Korea divided into North and South.