North Korean Women’s Struggle for Survival

“We, Korean women, survive no matter what it takes, because that's who we are."

When I asked Soon-young, whom I met in Yanji, about the lives of North Korean women, she made that reply without hesitation. Her response, "survive no matter what", illustrated to me her determination to overcome whatever life had thrown at her. There seemed no more appropriate expression than ‘surviving’ to describe a North Korean woman who crossed the border to China to work illegally to help support her children. A woman of over 70 years of age, Soon-young has endured the tumultuous history of North Korea. "I became a member of the party. You probably have no idea how hard I worked. I stayed at the factory and just kept working when everyone else had gone home." So, what made an elderly woman leave her home and stay in China?


The liberation and the war

The liberation of the Korean Peninsula came suddenly. Japan's imperial rule collapsed with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the liberation was not won by the efforts of the Korean people, and the peninsula became a clash point in the front line of the two camps of the Cold War. The southern half of the peninsular was directly ruled by the U.S. military government, while the north was indirectly governed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet forces, which had arrived in the North Korean region just before the liberation, withdrew in December 1948, but the Soviet Union's influence left a lasting impact on the establishment of North Korea's political system, regulations and institutions. The North Korea Interim People's Committee issued the Act on Land Reform in North Korea on 5 March 1946, which was a socialist reform to distribute the land owned by the Japanese and the landlord class to the peasantry. Further legislation that followed, the Act and Enforcement Rules on the Equal Rights of Men and Women in North Korea, was of great significance in that it was a measure that sought to guarantee the rights of women in all areas of society. It provided not only for women's political suffrage, but also the right to equal wages for equal work, social insurance and education. It also specified women's rights in marriage and divorce, and property and land inheritance. Within a short period of time after the liberation, North Korea implemented progressive policies for women, and women who had been living under the patriarchal system were suddenly able to call themselves farmers or workers.

Unfortunately, however, the institutional changes that guaranteed women's rights could not be fully realized because of the war. The Korean War, which broke out in 1950, forced women to take on strenuous labor for the war effort in the rear-guard. They worked in factories to produce military equipment, worked in the fields and manufactured relief supplies. In addition, women also participated directly in the war, playing many roles, including treating and nursing injured soldiers. The war was devastating to everyone, but even more so for women. They lost their families, and their livelihoods were ruined due to the destructive bombing that lasted throughout the war. Even after the war, women's lives remained hard and difficult. Because of the huge number of fatalities of men in the Korean War that lasted longer than three years, women were left to assume the primary role in the post-war reconstruction efforts.


North Korean women in the nation-building period

The North Korean regime pushed women to become actively involved in nation-building with the stated goal of restoring the war-ravaged country and constructing a socialist state. Through films and literature, they emphasized the achievements of the heroic female workers and urged women to take up work, especially in light industry. North Korean women, who now had the opportunity to ‘work’ alongside men, were hopeful about the changes as they were given a societal ‘role’. Even prior to the Japanese colonial period, North Korean women had suffered from considerably lower status than their male counterparts, which made them feel various measures implemented in the name of socialism ‘liberating’. However, the shift in societal norms was difficult to adapt to for many women who were familiar with the patriarchal system, and the sudden changes in the social environment caused considerable challenges and distress.

The North Korean regime implemented various measures in the organization of women, such as the establishment of the North Korean Democratic Women’s Federation in November 1945, an organization modeled on the Soviet Union's Women's Federation. This organization was later renamed the Socialist Women's Union of Korea and was the tool used for the revolutionization of women during the Korean War and the subsequent post-war reconstruction. It was created with the particular purpose of organizing married women into a satellite organization of the Workers' Party, and was deployed to production sites as ‘the rear guard of the revolution’ whenever the state needed them. Thus, women were required to perform a dual role, participating in the public sphere as ‘one wheel of the carriage of revolution’, as well as in the private sphere. In the process, propaganda was used to emphasize the sacrifices and efforts of KIM Jung-sook (KIM Jong-il’s mother) and KANG Ban-seok (KIM Il-sung’s mother) in order to encourage the devotion and hard work of women. As a result, North Korean women sphere-headed the increasing production and the revolution in the public sphere, while also taking responsibility for the ‘revolutionization of their families’ in the private sphere.

Meanwhile, the power struggle within the North Korean regime had a direct impact on the lives of women. Behind the purge of the Central Committee members of the Workers’ Party, known as the August Faction Incident of 1956, there were disagreements over the direction and plans for national economic development. The Yan’an Faction and the Soviet Faction, later branded as ‘factionalists’, sought to quickly restore the economy through economic construction based on light industry, while the domestic faction, led by KIM Il-sung, favored a post-war reconstruction that prioritized heavy industry. In the end, the heavy industry-oriented policy was adopted, which led to the devaluing of women’s labor which was mainly centered on light industry as opposed to male labor concentrated in heavy industry. The female labor force was now regarded as a ‘secondary force’ rather than a central force of the revolution, and with it came the solidifying of the discriminatory status of North Korean women.

In addition, the patriarchy which had deep roots before the war were still entrenched in North Korea, which by then was advocating the construction of a socialist state. The most problematic area was the housework undertaken by women, which the North Korean government was determined to lessen in order to mobilize them to work. To this end, the North Korean regime built day-care centers and kindergartens to socialize childcare, and constructed rice factories, sauce factories and laundry factories to reduce the domestic workload of women. In addition, considerable efforts were made to establish a social security system that granted postpartum leave (180 days) and pre-natal leave (60 days) to women in order to maintain a stable level of population reproduction. However, due to the unstable security situation and economic hardships, many of these attempts by the North Korean regime failed to bear fruit. The economic crisis that deepened in the mid-1990s resulted in the overall collapse of North Korea's food distribution system, and policies promoting the protection and equality of women were left unenforced. In the face of the collapse of the educational system, childcare became the sole responsibility of women, in addition to their new responsibilities of providing food for their families by participating in the newly emerging street markets, known as ‘Jangmadang’.

Jangmadang and women

The economic crisis that destabilized the North Korean society in the 1990s greatly impacted the lives of women, who had previously been confined to jobs assigned by the state and largely stayed at home after marriage to be mobilized through the Women’s Federation. Now, these women were at the forefront of the Jangmadang economy, doing whatever they could to support their families. This can be attributed to the gendered labor system established by the North Korean regime, which emphasized the importance of women's labor but did not break down the patriarchal structure that had assigned the female labor force mainly to light industry, as opposed to heavy industry, the key industry of North Korea. When the economic crisis hit and many factories became idle, the women who were relatively free from the national labor system and its controls were pushed into Jangmadang. Their experience of working at home as part of ‘home working groups’, organized around the Women’s Federation since the 1980s, also enabled them to quickly engage in Jangmadang. Women who suddenly found themselves in Jangmadang did their best to support their families, and now the North Korean economy cannot be sustained without Jangmadang and the economic activities of women.

Since the onset of the economic crisis, North Korean women have strived to do their best to support their families by engaging in a variety of economic activities. The type and scale of their activities have also diversified considerably, ranging from the most basic form of trading goods by travelling or producing food to sell in the local market, to importing goods through Chinese traders and selling them to North Koreans. Some North Korean women have even crossed the border into China to take up jobs in restaurants or factories, or the care sector as nannies and caregivers, in order to send money home. They are willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families, and it is thanks to their labor that many North Koreans can subsist today.

The increased economic activity of North Korean women has also brought about changes in the gender roles within the family. As women take on the responsibility of providing an income for the family, the traditional patriarchal gender structure is changing. Whereas women were solely responsible for housework in the past, men are now increasingly taking on household duties and becoming more involved in looking after their children. Additionally, women are postponing marriage, recognizing that with marriage comes the responsibility of providing for a family as well as bearing and rearing children. Women's participation in Jangmadang are shifting traditional gender norms and will likely be a driving force in bringing about further changes in North Korean society.


How did North Korean women survive?

Going back to Soon-young's life, she was born in Yanbian, China in 1940. Her parents had moved to China from their hometown in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula when making a living in colonial Joseon became no longer viable. Born and living as an ethnic Korean in China, Soon-young met and got married to another ‘Korean’. She had two children and lived in China throughout the period of the Korean War and the construction of the North Korean state, but she ended up moving to North Korea as her husband decided to relocate his family to his homeland.

Having settled in Cheongjin, she was loyal to the party and the state because she was determined to become a member of the Workers’ Party. She worked hard never missing a day and left no stone unturned to achieve the production targets required by the party. At that time, she was proud that she was playing an important role for the party, and took pride in her title of female worker. It was a time when the party recognized hard work. However, just as she was getting older and her children were starting to have their own families, North Korea fell into an economic crisis. Her married children could not make ends meet and she herself was unable to live on the state ration. She was forced to trade in Jangmadang despite her old age but the income generated was far from enough to feed her entire family. Ultimately, her eldest son suggested that she go and live with some relatives in China. Having even one less mouth to feed could make a difference, and if his elderly mother were able to make some money and send it to them, they would be able to survive. With great determination, Soon-young, who has managed to ‘survive’ in China, sends money to her children whenever she can. She is willing to dutifully help them for the rest of her life, like so many other North Korean women.

In conclusion, women in North Korea have faced a series of historical upheavals, such as colonization, the war, the division of the Korean peninsula and economic crises. Legislation and policies were put in place to promote gender equality under the influence of socialist ideology, but with the pressing political situation of post-war reconstruction, women were asked to perform their duties rather than to enjoy their new rights. After the post-war restoration period and during the time of ideological competition, women were expected to perform both the role of mothers in the private sphere and the duties of workers in the public sphere. This was further exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1990s, which resulted in a warped structure where women had to take full responsibility for providing for their families. In North Korea, which is still experiencing economic hardship, the state and society are not providing adequate protection and a safety net for women. Paradoxically, this means that North Korean society is kept afloat due to the perseverance and sacrifices of its female population. In other words, North Korea has only been able to survive so far because of the continued struggle for survival of North Korean women.

Prof Kim Sung-kyung is Assistant Professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.  She is editor-in-chief of the Review of North Korean Studies, a Korean Citation Index Journal (KCI) issued by the Korean Research Foundation. She is also a member of the Peace and Prosperity Division in the Presidential Commission on Policy-Planning and a board member in the Ministry of Unification. She received her PhD in sociology at the University of Essex, UK.

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