Comment: The plight of women in Kim Jong-un's North Korea

You must be a homemaker and a bread-winner but above all you should not disrespect your master: Those are the rules for women in North Korea. On the bright side, arranged marriages, polygamy and concubinage are things of the past.

Three key ingredients go into being a 'good woman' in North Korea.

First, she must be a homemaker, second, a bread-winner but above all, she should not talk back to her master.

In fact, she should respect her lowly status in the presence of men in general.

"You are not allowed to talk back to your husband or father. You need to be subordinate. Quiet and docile all the time."

That's the conclusion Professor Seok Hyang Kim drew, after visiting the clandestine Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as part of a South Korean delegation.

Professor Kim works with the Ministry of Unification, an executive department of the South Korean government responsible for working towards the reunification of Korea.

"You are a mere woman. How can you be your master? You have to have a man, right?"

How a woman held such a position was puzzling to those she met in North Korea, Professor Kim, from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told an audience at The Australian National University.

"North Korean people think, 'She is a representative, how come? She is just a woman. How can she hold that important a position?'"

They assumed a powerful man was backing her.

When they discovered her father was a retired pastor with little power, they wanted to know who her husband was.

It was beyond belief she wasn't married, Professor Kim said.

Likewise, the charismatic academic struggled to accept comments by the more than 100 men and women she met in the DPRK.

"They were saying a woman has to be the bread-winner for her own family," she says.

"So she has to make all the money the family needs. But she cannot be her own master."

When she questioned why women were not allowed to be in control of their own lives, the answer was always the same.

"You are a mere woman. How can you be your master? You have to have a man, right?"

At the same time, those she interviewed generally didn't feel discriminated against, although Professor Kim believes some may have rethought their views after their discussions.

In the 1940s, just after Korea was divided into North and South, Chosun Neosung, the only woman's magazine in Korea, bragged 'gender equality' and 'women's rights' were celebrated realities in the North.

The most progressive change in the traditional position of women was the Law on Sex Equality, announced on 30 July, 1946. It ended arranged marriages, polygamy, concubinage, the buying and selling of women, and prostitution.

It also enabled equal rights to inherit property, and to share property in case of divorce.

During the 1980s, Chosun Neosung upheld women only achieved such 'rights', because of the compassionate policies of North Korea's founder and then leader, Kim Il-sung.

Come the 1990s, the concept of women's rights was replaced with women's duty and loyalty to the Kim family.

In the noughties, Chosun Neosung ceased to mention 'women's rights' altogether, choosing instead to focus on women's 'enthusiastic and selfless work' as a sign of their loyalty to the Kim family.

Professor Kim suggests the gradual replacement of state socialism with grassroots capitalism since the early 1990s has given rise to the number of women earning a living outside the home.

Many do so through selling goods on the black market, to avoid forfeiting some of their earnings back to the state.

As Professor Kim maintains, women are less likely to get caught out taking part in illegal activities than men.

"If you are a woman, North Korean authorities assume you are powerless, and not important."

"If you are a man, doing that type of business, in front of the North Korean government, you will be targeted soon," she says.

"You will be approached at any moment.

"But if you are a woman, North Korean authorities assume you are powerless, and not important."

Not every woman has a lowly status.

The country upholds two women in particular as ideal role models for its citizens.

They are Kang Ban Sok, the deceased mother of former leader Kim Il Sung; and Kim Jong Suk, his deceased wife.
Their birthdays have been commemorated since the 1960s.


Belinda Cranston is a writer at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

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