Revolutionized Woman: A Primer on the Historical Rhetoric of Women in the NK Economy

By | July 03, 2012 | No Comments

Kang Young-hee, editor of the magazine Korean Woman (Chosōn Yōsōng) Democratic Women’s Union, 1946. The magazine was founded in September 1946, a process described at length in Kim Jong Suk’s official biography.

Revolutionized Woman: A Primer on the Historical Rhetoric of Women in the NK Economy

by Darcie Draudt

This past Friday’s SinoNK weekly digest gave but short shrift to a rather significant working paper released in June of this year. Examining a recent survey of 300 North Korean refugees, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland examine the shift of North Korean female workers from state-affiliated employment market-oriented activity. The scholars conclude that female economic efforts in the DPRK are directed toward survival, and that, moreover, these women find themselves prey to the male-dominated state, which itself bribes female traders in exchange for their silence that would otherwise incur punishment. (A stunning 95 percent of female respondents reported paying such bribes).

Still seen as the main family breadwinners, North Korean men have been given preference for jobs at state workplaces; meanwhile, in times of economic hardship (read: consistently since 1991), women of North Korea have been forced out of their jobs. As has been well documented in news coverage and other journalistic tomes, the reality of this hardship has led jobless women into the gritty markets of what Mark MacDonlald calls the “grudgingly hybrid economy” in North Korea by the year 2000.  While Haggard and Noland write extensively about contemporary gender gaps in market activity and access to information, their report does necessarily describe why this shift is fundamental when taken in the context of DPRK culture. We find that market changes in the DPRK need to be taken in light of the social compact with respect to women, specifically the rhetoric describing their “new” roles in 1940s and early 1950s North Korea.

The “Women’s Paradise” | According Dr. Kyung-Ae Park, director of the Center for Korean Research at the University of British Columbia, North Korea remarkably claims itself to be a “women’s paradise” where women have already realized their liberation (Park 1992-1993). Indeed, as in most socialisms, in North Korea official steps had been taken early on to ensure women’s political and economic equality.

Marxist thought holds that the subordination or marginalization of women is a structural problem that cannot be solved within the bounds of capitalism, since under capitalism women are interpreted as the proletariat subjugated to their bourgeois husbands who themselves are seeking to extend estate inheritance through a patrilineal line. Women can only be liberated after a socialist revolution that lifts them out from under the burden of unpaid domestic labor activity and into the social economic arena. Moreover, the family was to be “abolished” under socialist revolution.

The tension between Marxist ideology and traditional Korean culture is unique in most circumstances in the DPRK, and the question of women’s position in society and the economy is no exception.  Dr. K.A. Park shrewdly claims that the concept of social and economic equality was “alien” to both men and women in the “authoritarian culture so prevalent in North Korea” (2011), an argument which, though mentioned in Haggard and Noland’s paper, needs further explication in relation to cultural context of the 1940s through early 1950s. Much more so than in its immense Chinese neighboring revolution, in North Korea the patriarchal family unit was sustained in the 1950s as the basis for economic activity, and therefore the Neo-Confucian focus on family as central left elements of gender role prescriptions—in spite of official proclamations to the contrary.

Similar to traditional (and modern, and post-modern…) Korean imaginings of woman relationally, as daughter, wife, and mother (Andre Schmid 2002), the North Korean woman was idealized as the “revolutionized mother.” This archetype was certainly epitomized by Kang Ban-sok, mother of Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-suk, mother of Kim Jong-il. It seems North Korea is continuing this tradition of idealizing women in the “great mother” role, as evidenced in recent efforts to spin Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Young-hee.

1940s “Women’s Lib” Policy? | Looking at the introduction of policy aimed at gender equality, it would seem that early North Korea was indeed a “paradise” for women’s liberation. The year 1946 was a particularly important one for official policy regarding women’s status under the North Korean state. Three major issues were tackled: (1) family and marriage laws, (2) mobilization of women in the labor force, and (3) the rights of working women and working mothers coping with housekeeping and childcare.

Writing in 1949, journalist Anna Louise Strong’s eye-witness account of the situation corroborated the generally equality regarding pay and the social welfare system at this time, including the Women’s Union and its achievements in “getting equality.”[1]

Kim Il-sung’s Vision of Women | Meanwhile, the Great Leader spoke of women’s productive and supportive roles for the prosperity of the nation. The Democratic Women’s Union was formed in 1946 to accommodate housewives, who by their “joblessness” were unable be members of the other four organizations including the Korean Worker’s Party and Farmer’s Union.

Speaking to enlarge the Democratic Women’s Union, in May 1946 Kim emphasized the need to:

…wipe out the feudal conventions of binding women to the home and other remnants of the old habits so that all of them will not only help their husbands who are participating in nation-building endeavors, bring up their children well and run their homes thriftily, but also directly contribute to the nation-building  work by their own labor efforts. (Kim Il Sung Works, vol. 2, 1979).

The organization strived to project an image of a “culturally enlightening group” tasked with “educating and indoctrinating women on Communist ideology” (Park 1992-1993, p. 539). Kim Il-sung saw compulsory social training as important for not just the regime but ostensibly for the sake of gender equality.  As he claimed in a September 1946 speech on the founding of the Korean Woman (Chosōn Yeosōng),”the women…can achieve 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” (Kim Il Sung Works, vol. 2, 1979).

Lines running to Jang Song Taek; female laborers on the margins | Rodong Sinmun, July 3, 2012

After the establishment of public child care centers and “take out” food distribution centers in the early part of the 1960s, the supposed household duties tasked to women was to be realized through a greater project for three revolutions: ideological, technological, cultural. In speech to Fifth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1972, Kim claimed that women would be “liberated” from heavy household chores, not through cultural or social norms but through technological revolution (Jung and Dalton 2006). Thus, the cultural acceptance of woman in the home was not threatened to because of any ideological change, but rather structurally lessened due to technological advancement.

The rhetoric and reality of Kim’s intention may not have been the same. Jung and Dalton (2006) cite inconsistency between his supposedly progressive interpretations of gender equality with his view of women’s primary role as mothers to instruct their children. Currents of gender segregation remain, as Haggard and Noland’s findings show; indeed, it’s curious to posit to what extent today are Kim Jong-un’s promises today regarding superficial living standards target women in a way analogous to the gender-segregating promises of his grandfather in the 1970s.

Revising Women’s Roles Today |As Ewha Women’s University Professor Hyun In-ae, a defector and leader of the North Korean Intellectuals’ Society in Seoul, notes in a March 2011 interview, women in North Korea’s marginalization with respect to the economy stifles their empowerment with the implication that assumed socialist goals of gender equality are undermined.

Tasked with the new burden of working in these murky illegal enterprises, what exactly will this mean for the status of women in North Korea in the coming years of mixed economic activity? The statistics in Haggard and Noland’s piece certainly corroborate that women statistically have been pushed into the market economy and that this criminalizes women systematically, but looking at this snapshot belies the extant patriarchy that pulses throughout Korean society. With this new reality being driven by women, women gain certain powers the men do not have. Whether that means a “revolutionizing” of their economic roles is yet to be seen.


Jung, Kyungja and Bronwen Dalton. “Rhetoric versus Reality for the Women of North Korea.” In Asian Survey. 46, no. 5 (2006): 741-760.

Kang, Jin Woong. “The Patriarchal State and Women’s Status in Socialist North Korea.” In Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies. 6, no. 2 (2008): 55-70.

Kim Il-sung. “On the Future Tasks of the Women’s Union, Speech Addressed to the Communist Workers of the Women’s Union Scheduled to Attend the First Conference of the Democratic Women’s Union of North Korea, May 9, 1946,” in Kim Il Sung Works vol. 2 (Pyongyang: Korean Workers’ Party Press, 1979), p. 218.

Park, Kyung Ae. “Women and Revolution in North Korea.” In Pacific Affairs. 65, no. 4 (1992-1993): 527-545.

–. “Economic crisis, women’s changing economic roles, and their implications for women’s status in North Korea.” In The Pacific Review. 24, no. 2 (2011): 159-177.

Ryang, Sonia. “Gender in Oblivion: Women in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).” In Journal of Asian and African Studies. 35 (July 2000): 323-349.

Schmid, Andre. Korean Between Empires, 1895-1919. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

[1] The North Koreans were so impressed with Strong’s reporting from the new DPRK that exactly sixty years after her sojourn to Pyongyang and environs, North Korean judges actually berated Laura Ling at her trial to be more like Anna Louise Strong.

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