North Korean Women: Markets and Power

In recognition of International Women’s Day last week (March 8), we sought out a female perspective on the status of North Korean women. This article also marks the launch of a new 38 North series: one that will focus on cultivating the work of young North Korea watchers. This interview was conducted and translated by Janice Lee, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, and Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a Swedish economics and political science student at Stockholm University, and workshopped with 38 North editors and experts. We welcome these new voices to 38 North, and look forward to hearing from more up and coming analysts and scholars.  

Researchers, diplomats, tourists, and defectors have all spoken of gradual changes in recent years to the complicated role women play in North Korean society. Andrei Lankov, a scholar at Kookmin University in Seoul, points out that women are able to play a dominant role in the black markets that emerged during the famine of the 1990s because they come under less scrutiny than men in the North’s patriarchal society.[1] Some scholars have also argued that the increasing flow of information from abroad is changing the way North Korean women dress, behave, and regard themselves, setting the stage for major changes in the country’s social dynamics.

A picture of a woman dressed in a western suit walking down a city street would usually be of little interest. But when that street is in Pyongyang, imaginations tend to run wild, contemplating what the image may reveal about North Korea’s closed off society. (Photo: Irina Kalashnikova)

However, North Korean defector Hyun In-ae has cautioned against overstating the significance of these changes for women in the North. A former professor at Chongjin University, Hyun fled the country in 2004 after her husband was arrested by North Korea’s infamous State Security Agency. She is now working on a Ph.D. in North Korean studies at Ehwa Women’s University in Seoul, and heads the North Korean Intellectuals’ Society, an organization of North Korean intellectuals who defected to the South.

38 North met with Dr. Hyun earlier this month to get her insights about the status of women both in the DPRK and in the defector community in the South. (Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.)

Q: In general, how would you characterize the historical status of women in North Korea? What does North Korea’s government have to say about the role of women in society, and how does this compare to the reality on the ground?

A: North Korean society obviously denounces capitalism. One of the reasons for this, in theory, is that capitalism breeds inequalities among workers. Historically, gender discrimination has been one of these inequalities prevalent in many societies, with the value and wages of women’s work being less than that of men. North Korean ideology sought to solve this problem by proclaiming institutional gender equality. This was meant to awaken women’s consciousness and mobilize them to participate in the labor force, especially production activities.

When I talk to South Korean women of my age here, many of them tell me that they could not go to school because their parents prioritized their male siblings’ education over their own. But such discrimination did not exist in North Korea in the 1960s, because the state took care of the matter—everyone could go to school. The socialist revolution even promoted gender equality.

But in 1974, when Kim Jong Il became the official successor of his father and began to idolize himself, the propaganda to “Learn from Mother Kang Ban Sok” faded away.[2] The country’s stagnant economy also posed an increasingly great obstacle. In the 1970s, the Workers’ Party proclaimed that “women must be freed from the heavy burden of household labor,” but in reality, society had reached the limit of what could actually be done within the country’s economic system, and little progress has been made since then. In reality, the empowerment of women requires economic progress, but the North Korean economy remains marginalized and closed off from the world.

Q: Some North Korea-watchers have spoken of the famine of the 1990s as a sort of turning point for North Korea’s gender hierarchies, as women increasingly became the primary providers for countless households reliant on the black market for survival. Do you agree with this assessment?

A: The status of women in North Korea may have improved, but that does not mean the quality of their lives has in any way. Whatever increased power they may accumulate can, in no way, make up for the relatively greater level of suffering that they go through.

Some scholars argue that North Korean women were empowered by the fact that they started making money for their families, and indeed their voices did get stronger. But the fact that men went to work and women were allowed to trade in the markets should hardly be regarded as a process of empowerment. It wasn’t any real liberation for women, because North Korean women still lacked any real choices. It was simply a shackle of a different form.

Furthermore, the North Korean government encourages the perception that market vendors are doing something unjustified or inferior. Even though the women are working and putting food on the table while the men don’t earn enough in their jobs to provide for their families, little value is placed on what the women are doing. This is somewhat true even in South Korea, where small merchandise workers are looked down upon. However, the bias is more pronounced in North Korea. In the North, prejudice comes not only from the general public, but also from the government, which often threatens to eventually punish those who work in the markets as well.

Q: With the large inflow of South Korean culture into North Korea in recent years, there has been much speculation on how this might be affecting North Korean society. From fashion trends to consumer goods to glimpses into everyday life in the South, the belief is that North Korean perceptions of the outside world must be evolving. What might this influx mean for the North’s female population?

A: Although I’m not exactly sure what impressions North Korean women are getting from watching South Korean media, but the culture shock is certainly huge, just as it is for defectors when they first come to South Korea. In North Korea, only idealistic depictions of reality are shown on TV, while in South Korea, this is not true. For instance, in South Korean dramas, women slap their men across their cheeks all the time! I once watched a drama, after coming to Seoul, where one of the characters in the drama was a male prosecutor. There was one scene where his wife gave birth to twins and the prosecutor carried his kids around all by himself. Such a thing would be unimaginable in North Korea. Watching this show reminded me that the status of South Korean women is very high compared to that of North Korean women. Compared to North Korean women, South Korean women are in a much better environment to voice their opinions. It’s very different from the way things work in North Korea.

Q: Studies have shown that North Korean defectors have difficulties finding jobs in the South, and many suffer from severe bouts of depression. Within the defector community, there is some belief that the exposure North Korean women have had to market structures and activities in the North allows them to better integrate into South Korean society. What particular challenges do women defectors face, and do you believe that they can adjust more easily to life in the South than defector men?

A: In South Korea, among the defectors who participate in civil society, almost all are men, despite the fact that about 70 percent of defectors are women and the rate of education attainment is equal among men and women. This is a limitation North Korean women have placed on themselves from a general lack of exposure or experience, as the level of  empowerment that women can achieve within North Korea is severely limited.

Most female defectors in South Korea were sold to Chinese husbands before defecting, so they’re rarely married upon coming here. These women cannot make living unless they take the initiative to survive, and find someone to marry. As part of a marginalized immigrant population in South Korea, it is very difficult for defector women to find husbands, and when they do, it is often to men of equal or lesser social stature. Therefore, even after coming to South Korea, most defector women end up supporting their families again.

Q: What can be done to improve the status of women in North Korea?

A: Until the North Korean system itself changes, it is very hard to do anything that will rapidly improve women’s rights. We can keep pressuring the North Korean government about human rights in general, and maybe through that we can achieve small changes over time.


Janice Lee is a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a South Korea-based NGO that conducts research on human rights violations that occur in North Korea. She graduated from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with B.A. in political science and international affairs.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a Swedish economics and political science student at Stockholm University, currently living in Seoul and studying Korean language at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He has been focused on North Korea for a number of years, during which he has co-authored a book on North Korea’s economic history, written articles about North Korea for a number of Swedish newspapers and magazines, and been published in the academic journal North Korean Review.

[1] Andrei Lankov, “Pyongyang’s Women Wear the Pants,” The Wall Street Journal,  April 16, 2010.

[2] Kang Ban Sok was Kim Il Sung’s mother, who became a symbol of female revolutionary leadership and women’s liberation in North Korea.

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