Co-opting the Narrative: How Changing Women’s Roles Provide Legitimacy to Kim Jong Un

On July 30, KCNA reaffirmed the country’s commitment to gender equality with a short notice on the 74th anniversary of the country’s Law on Sex Equality. According to Kim Il Sung, the women of the DPRK pushed “one of the two wheels of the revolutionary chariot” and are “flowers of the era for the prosperity of the country.”

In fact, how the North Korean state treats women’s roles can give us insights into regime capacity and illuminate potential cracks in the Supreme Leader’s domestic legitimacy. Official representations of gender roles show how much the regime can co-opt social changes and use them to support its legitimacy. When it comes to North Korean state-society relations more generally—like in music and media, technology and consumer trends—Kim Jong Un, like his father, has broadly been able to follow a three-step process taken from a successful dictator’s playbook: 1) identify on-the-ground changes perceived to threaten control and legitimacy, 2) stamp out or co-opt the narrative of those changes, and 3) use that narrative for his own political legitimacy.

Role of Women

As in most socialist ideologies, North Korea’s political ideology criticizes the burden of unpaid domestic labor and seeks to move women to the public workforce. North Korea took early steps to ensure women’s political and economic participation to build the nation. For example, to ease domestic burdens on women, the state established public childcare and “take out” food distribution centers as early as the 1960s. Service and political discussion groups specifically for women increased participation in social and political life outside the home. These steps led the North Korean state to claim the country is a woman’s paradise, where women have already been liberated from patriarchal feudalism.

But as we know, reality doesn’t always match rhetoric. Deeply rooted cultural practices often supersede these revolutionary prescriptions.[1] When it comes to the role of women in North Korean culture, the key is looking at how the family unit as an institution serves national development. Whether it’s a result of embedded Confucian mores or not, in Korean society the family unit is the basis for economic and social activity. In these traditional family institutions, the man takes care of all business outside the home and the woman takes care of all business inside the home.

Like his father, KCNA reports that Kim Jong Il respected women who served in the military as soldiers as well as officers’ wives and elevated their role as revolutionaries and cooks on the same footing. This family unit becomes a handy mechanism for the regime, because it’s already a seemingly natural, even primordial way of organizing society; in effect, the regime’s endurance is bolstered by its deep roots in an already conservative society.

Women’s roles can tell us a lot about the extent of control in totalitarian regimes, which by definition restrict individuals or groups from opposing the state and exercise immense control over public and private life. The North Korean regime’s “toolbox” ensures control both externally, by manipulating foreign governments, as well as internally, by restrictive social policies and manipulating ideas and information.[2] Social roles, including women’s roles, can be described on three levels:

  • Policies that protect or prohibit certain political or civil rights, dole out social benefits like welfare provisions on the basis of gender or family position, or shape individual economic advancement;
  • Practices, like giving preference to male applicants for work or female participation in neighborhood watch groups; and
  • Representation, or the power potential of an individual; in societies with low, bullet-proof glass ceilings, a woman’s influence on policymaking will be limited.

Just as there are elite politics and everyday politics in North Korea, there are two corresponding types of gender politics at play. The connection between grassroots changes and elite representations of womanhood suggests again how the regime is able to co-opt new social trends in the service of political legitimation and political and economic development.

Markets and Women’s Roles

When it comes to everyday gender politics, the most significant shift occurred during the Great Famine in the 1990s. At the time, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) couldn’t afford to hire the entire workforce and women were the first to be let go. In effect, the state recast women as unpaid domestics as part of the family unit, and created policies and practices that upheld women’s roles as mothers and wives—rather than workers in social, political and economic life.

But there was another countervailing trend. Men, if they were still employed, couldn’t bring home enough to support their family on a paltry government paycheck. Some women then turned to selling in black markets, becoming the breadwinners in these families. The makeshift market stalls were illegal, and women could face arrest or punishment, but the state largely turned a blind eye to these illicit market activities during the period of mass starvation.

At the same time, the government also criticized the work of these female traders as unnecessary or lower-class. Men at this time were limited to work at SOEs and were banned from working in markets unless a household dependent.[3] But as the economy picked up and the state rebuilt its capacity, the state saw an opportunity to introduce its own markets, made individual market activities illegal, and pushed out the local female entrepreneurs. In fact, in 2007, the government banned market trade for women under the age of 50. Women were once again relegated to the home.

In other words, the market activities that bubbled up from below were co-opted by the state and the economic benefits garnered from them were used to legitimate the regime. Women were empowered when convenient (whether intentional or not), but the official narrative and policy never institutionalized the gains made during this period. Low- and mid-level practices of political and economic empowerment may be possible, but policies that permit bottom-up social change are readily leveraged to promote regime stability.

Co-opting the Narrative

(Source: Reuters)

Over the years, the state co-opted the social effects of marketization while reaping its economic benefits. To get a full picture of the role of women in the DPRK, we can compare policy and official representation of everyday women’s empowerment with the female figureheads Kim Jong Un surrounds himself with. In North Korea today, the “new Korean women” are represented by two idealized images: Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s much talked-about sister, and Ri Sol Ju, his wife. These women fill different roles: one is the new top female political figure and the other the highest female ceremonial figure. Obviously, both are directly related to the Supreme Leader—one by blood and the other by marriage. But in the North Korean context, the importance of those family connections is actually much deeper: because of the primacy of the family unit in social, political and economic life in North Korea, the young Kim Jong Un benefited from the image of a strong family to uphold his legitimacy.

Kim Yo Jong serves as an essential advisor with her own military and political clout, but she doesn’t threaten Kim Jong Un’s claim to power, like a brother would. Her apparently strong influence is also an important signal in terms of domestic power consolidation. Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, was the most powerful woman in the country when Kim Jong Un took leadership. But she’s been virtually sidelined from the public eye and, it seems, political decision-making. Kim Jong Un has literally replaced the old guard with the new, his father’s sister with his own.

Ri Sol Ju fills an important role for everyday gender politics and crafting the new woman ideal in North Korea today. Ri wears modern shift dresses like any world leader’s wife does and carries luxury handbags from the West. Though easy to brush aside Ri’s image as merely cosmetic change, this image of the mother of the nation, of wife to the Supreme Leader, is carefully chosen and it matters to the society especially in a country where leadership is based around a charismatic personality.

By portraying his wife as the new modern mother of the nation, Kim Jong Un can get ahead of consumerism trends that started illegally during the Great Famine period. Ri helps the leadership show North Korean women, especially in elite circles, an official story about how to live. Many upper class North Korean women have acquired relatively more cosmopolitan tastes. New styles of female consumption are not counter to the regime, but rather co-opted by it. And because Kim Jong Un makes these goods more available—at least to the elite classes—it legitimizes his claims at being able to modernize the nation.

Social Roles and Legitimacy

Authoritarian regimes are resilient not only when they can withstand outside pressures, but also respond to any grassroots or popular changes in social roles that may spur political mobilization. With nearly a decade of rule under his belt, Kim Jong Un has apparently shored up control over acceptable social change. The official representations of his sister and wife are his leadership’s answer to remedying the social breakdown that occurred under his father, and he seems to have effectively used that dictator’s three-step playbook. When it comes to gender roles, his leadership has been able to not only tamp down unacceptable changes to gender roles and the family unit structure arising from marketization, but also create its own narrative to legitimize economic advancement and cultural resiliency.

  1. [1]

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

  2. [2]

    Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind, “Pyongyang’s Survival Strategy: Tools of Authoritarian Control in North Korea,” International Security 35, no. 1 (2010): 44-74.

  3. [3]

    Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics In the Failed Stalinist Utopia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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