Gender Equality in North Korea
This is not a communist country, it is a dictatorship. At no point am I defending a dictatorship. As an anarchist I would never defend an unquestioned authority subjugating their people. The Supreme Leader of the DPRK has allowed for nothing but pageantry and poverty to engulf the entirety of its people. Where lies about kimchi making people immortal, like their glorious leaders, who can shoot straight bullseyes from the age of 3, are common indoctrinated thoughts for the people living in North Korea. But also, fuck the United States. The country I’m from has also indoctrinated me. Made me believe there is nothing salvageable or commendable to say about the North Korean government and country. I had fallen for their lies and believed that the DPRK was, at varying times throughout my life, a communist hellhole, a satellite state, a place where nothing of value was ever created and a people who had nothing to gain from living in the DPRK. Now that I’ve done research about North Korea there is one specific topic that I wanted to give a nuanced take to. That topic is gender equality in North Korea. You might have just asked yourself, wait? Does North Korea even have gender equality? And that’s a really fair question. Because as I just mentioned, at least in my case, there is a lot of indoctrination regarding the state of the DPRK. There is also an incredibly fair amount of criticism with regards to the treatment of women in detention, women who are seen as subversives of the state and those who fled the regime and were expatriated back, how they have suffered some of the most cruel injustices possible: the constant beatings, rape, forced abortions and forced labor. All of which should be condemned and not be swept under the rug when talking about how women are treated within the DPRK. Once again, I’m not here to defend the DPRK, I just want to provide a nuanced take. To summarize my feelings of the country, I believe that all of their communist policies and rhetoric, especially after their liberation from Japanese colonization, has been merely a veil that has served no other purpose than to embolden the dickless leader dynasty and prop up the unquestioned authority of its government.
The Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula and Kim’s efforts at liberating the people, however, does provide some insight into the way that women’s positions have ameliorated within the DPRK. Even before the Japanese invasion, women were seen as commodities within the Korean family and state. The peninsula, as is the case with many east Asian countries/nations, has been dictated by Confucius and Neo-Confucius ideals. We will see how this has persisted under the current regime and I’ll give a very brief summary of what those ideals entail. But to begin with, let’s rant a little about the atrocities committed by colonial powers. Maybe some of y’all know the term “comfort women”. During the Japanese occupation thousands of women were either slaughtered or expatriated to serve as sex slaves for their military. The land of the Korean people was also given to Korean collaborators of the Japanese government and to the Japanese “entrepreneurs” (blood thirsty money ghouls) who saw it as their right to own and force Koreans to work on such land. Under these tyrants, women had nothing to look forward to, their position as sex slaves and literal objects was the complete debasement of their humanity. One way to view Marxist readings that is incredibly useful for countries such as Vietnam, Cuba, China, Korea, Cambodia, etc… Is the dichotomy between money hungry colonizers and the exploitation of their colonies for cheap labor and natural resources. This exploitation is not passive but rather constantly enforced through violent means. Japan was not alone in ruining these people’s lives. They had the help of other colonial and imperialist powers. The Koreans who fought for their liberation were doing so through violent means but solely out of self defense and independence. When the peaceful protesters are shot down and the people are already restricted through violence, violence is the only way to gain freedom. It is not surprising that the “communist” leaders who liberated their people were also the ones willing to pick up the rifle and sacrifice their lives to do so. What is notable about the army for Korean liberation, the one who fought alongside Kim Il-Sung (and who failed to free themselves with his father) is that women were not “the home front” but actively engaged in combat. Although any number provided by this article and used to talk about North Korea is definitely worthy of skepticism, especially now, as the country has not helped in the least, making their independence reach mythological levels of absurdity (I’ll be providing the sources I looked at at the end of this article for those curious). Some say that about ten percent of the liberation army was composed of women soldiers. A number that far exceeds the zero percent of many armed forces, even today. I don’t love the military, in fact, I fucking despise it. But as you might have understood from the context I provided, this army was not the same as an American army, it was there to fight for independence, and that to me is completely commendable, it also gave a platform for women to fight alongside men, which is an incredibly empowering thing to do if you and your fellow sisters have been nothing but sex toys for Japanese soldiers.
But seriously though, fuck the US. The air forces protecting US imperialist values had bombed so much of the North Korean peninsula that the army reported back that “there was nothing left to bomb”. Not even Vietnam had been so torn apart. North Korea is also the only “communist” country (except if you count Granada) to be occupied by the US. Even today, as people plead the US government to enact sanctions on North Korea, I wonder in amazement how these people don’t understand that such actions only hurt the proletariat and already impoverished people that they supposedly care about. So many times have I heard the idea, the demand, to impose economic sanctions on countries and nations whose actions are either inhumane or opposed to the views of said person ranting about sanctions. If we take the example of Cuba, you may despise, as I do, the way that LGBTQ+ people were rounded up and sent to camps during Castro’s regime (and today a good example would be the Uyghurs in China) however the US embargo on Cuba did not topple Castro’s regime and really only served towards making the Cuban people suffer immensely. The embargo forced an ultimatum on companies and countries, if they wished to trade with Cuba then these companies would be unable to do the same with the US, which once again, blocks off an immense amount of opportunities for those living in Cuba.
As for the people living in the country and ruled by the laws and morals of said country, North Korea still has a lot of influence from their Confucian past. To begin understanding women’s position in society you must first understand the way that the DPRK separates each echelon of it’s organization. Juche is an incredibly complex and all-encompassing term for the DPRK (that I by no means am able to completely explain), to the point that each year in North Korea is written as 109 Juche (for our current year of 2020). Ever since their independence, Kim Il-Sung viewed women as essential to the functioning of North Korean society but also believed that Feminism was fundamentally opposed to the views of Communism. For me, this is a big red flag (no pun intended) for leftists looking into Juche philosophy, as an emancipation of people can not be divorced from the intersectional world that we live in: feminist, anti-white supremacy, anti-ableist, pro-LGBTQ+, socialist struggles (and many others I have failed to mention) work in tandem to defeat the systems of oppression that work against us all. As someone opposed to Feminism, Kim Il-Sung viewed society as being distributed into three categories: The Father is the Supreme Leader, the Mother is the Government and the Children are the People. For those familiar with how Confucius depicted control, as it pertains to the state and the family, this organization should already be quite worrying. Essentially, the Father is the force of order that dictates the rules, the Mother must maintain the household and the Children must execute and/or follow the rules of the Father. This is an organization that essentially solidifies men as the ultimate power in any given area. Even though women are able to participate, and are encouraged to participate, in certain fields that would usually have been restricted to men, such as agriculture or politics, the women in such positions are either treated as inferiors, paid at lower rates or simply put on an artificial pedestal of equality.
Here’s a funny (or terrifying) example of the Women’s government body:
In Names of Mothers on This Land
"The news that 'defectors from the north' scattered hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into areas of our side in frontline areas late in May is making the officials and members of our women’s union burn their hearts with highest indignation. Such senseless acts were not committed only once or twice. Now we cannot tolerate them any longer. It is the shame of mothers that villains, who are ignorant of their mothers, country and nation, are running amuck under this sky. We officials and members of Socialist Women’s Union of Korea who hold our supreme leadership more dearly than our lives will deliver sledgehammer blows at the mongrel dogs and their foolish protectors in the name of the mothers and women on this land." Jang Chun Sil, chairwoman of C.C., Socialist Women’s Union of Korea
This is found on the North Korean website. You can try to navigate it yourself but I should warn you, it looks like it hasn’t been updated since the year 5 Juche. You might notice the line “We officials and members of Socialist Women’s Union of Korea who hold our supreme leadership more dearly than our lives” followed shortly by sledgehammer blows like they just unlocked cheat codes on GTA. If we go back to the organization of Korean society then it makes sense that the chairwomen would hold such high regards for her Supreme Leader. As pointed to earlier, the Supreme Leader is the Father and must always be seen as the ultimate authority on everything. This view does not restrict itself to politics and thus makes it so that men are always given a higher status from which they must rule and participate in the daily life of North Korean society. The Supreme Leader is exceptional though, because despite the fact that he has a say in everything, he is completely untouchable, unreproachable, and a fucking gross human being. So let’s look at the type of policies that the Supreme Leaders have enacted towards empowering women.
The moment the Japanese government was kicked out of North Korea an immediate redistribution of land under the control of such money hungry ghouls was set in motion by Kim Il-Sung. The land was divided, according to their own reports, equally among men and women. The nationalization of many sectors of Korean society also meant that the gendered division of labor was not dismantled even if it was subverted. The land that women were able to live on and own was ultimately a small token of redemption for the many other facets of their lives that remained cruelly ignored.
Kim Il-Sung also viewed women as the most important part of rebuilding the workforce. Which is why every woman must become a mother. There is no talk of contraception in North Korea and abortion is only deemed necessary when the child being carried contains impure blood (their term not mine). Even though their position in society as mothers is incredibly claustrophobic, the support for mothers has some commendable attributes. Because women are viewed as both those who will bring forth the future generation of workers as well as being seen as workers in their own right, a substantial amount of a woman’s life is cared for in order to emancipate them from the role of housewife. Maternity leave is at 240 days for the mother, roughly 35 weeks, which exceeds that of France, the United States, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom and many more. Women who have more than three children also get paid 8 hours wage for 6 hours work, and apparently women who have 5 children get a special trophy.
As for raising these children while the women are at work, massive investments in collectivized education were made during the reign of Kim Il-Sung. Remember that the entire north of the Korean Peninsula had been erased, with all agricultural, industrial, social welfare and cultural establishments desperately needing to be rebuilt. Starting off with a few hundred kindergartens, North Korea has since built thousands more kindergarten and elementary schools with over 3 million kindergarten children able to receive free education while their parents are at work. This liberates women from the necessity of child-care without changing the way that women are still perceived as the ones who must take care of children in the first place, partial credit maybe? Mothers are also able to get at-home delivery for almost every meal, eliminating the burden of making meals whilst working and maintaining the household. These conveniences are severely lacking outside the capital and even with these certain privileges, the functioning of society is still proffered onto the hard working women of the DPRK who must still stick to several traditional tasks. They must maintain the household and are told they should constantly be thankful that the fight for gender equality has been vanquished ever since the passing of the Gender Equality Act in 1946 despite the fact that, for example, women are unable to smoke cigarettes as it is seen as unladylike.
Nowadays the distribution of DPRK’s workforce is almost 50-50 but a closer look at which jobs each gender occupies immediately demonstrates both an unnecessarily gendered division but one that is also elevating the status of men despite constant talk of equality. One example that might resonate with y’all is the divide between university professors and elementary school teachers. Where there used to be zero women with PhDs or equivalent in North Korea before Kim rose to power, the number has steadily increased with about ten percent of professors in the DPRK being women. However this number is incredibly low and especially disconcerting given that the average pay for university professors is much higher than that of elementary school teachers. Although the wage gap here isn’t especially surprising, the fact that women are still cultivated into pursuing lower standards of education and men having a much better infrastructure for pursuing the higher education necessary to become professors means that this wage gap is inherently tied to gender.
Where women have made important strides within the DPRK, by becoming a part of the political life of the country, they have also been restricted into functioning as mostly symbolic puppets for the all encompassing authority of the Supreme Leader. It is impossible to be a part of any government body without first partaking in the Korean military. Though this is not exactly a law, like many other expectations forced onto the people living there, the pressure to conform is so strong that it is almost impossible to not comply. The reason why the military is such an important facet of North Korean society stems from the emancipation of their people from Japan, made possible by those who were willing to fight for their independence. The current North Korean army has very little to do with its ancestor. Each soldier is expected to be smiling and happily participating in the life of the people. Which is why it makes sense that those who were soldiers ended up joining a government involved with a very similar task. There are local governments as well as heads of the state. Those elected in local government have basically zero control over the policies that dictate the lives of their voters. Even though some localities have more women in power than men, like the region where Kim Song-Ae was born (Kim Il-Sung’s second wife and incredibly important figure in the country). Since their position is basically meaningless and is only a really cushy position in comparison to those working in the fields, the token of political activity works like the dollar you lose trying to get a fun toy from a claw machine. The higher positions of government are predominantly filled by men although there have been a handful of women who consistently made up its body.
So there we have it! No, not at all. In fact, this barely scratches the surface. Hopefully this helped scratch the itch at the back of your brain, the persistent curiosity contained within your mind. I think it’s important to open up the subject and invite y’all to read about a world that, despite its horrible living conditions, can teach us about our own experiences and the values versus actual implementation of communist policies. In looking at a country that doesn’t care about its people except to promote its own man-child monarch, we can also shift our focus back to the world we live in, seeing eye to eye with people who have made it their mission to stand tall and look down on us. Does your country and/or your leaders really care about you? Have you been taught to view your country, and its geopolitical interactions, through the lens that ultimately always comforts you with the thought “well at least I don’t live there”. While this particular lens isn’t inherently corrupt, if that is the only conclusion you come to time and time again, then it might be time to shift your focus towards alternative views, to see the world and understand it with a different lens. Taking a specific topic like gender equality and pitting it against a country that most people do not bother looking at beyond the screeching headlines of impending nuclear warfare also allows us to perceive a culture that has existed for far longer than the first Juche year. I don’t support North Korea, I don’t think they’re a communist state and I truly wish the best for its people. I don’t personally want a communist state to replace the capitalist world I live in now, but, more importantly than being an anarchist, I’m a leftist, a socialist. I believe in leftist unity and in working side by side with communists and other socialists to make the world a better place. What gender equality in North Korea taught me most of all, is that my mission of leftist unity can never be achieved if those fighting by my side do not take into account the intersectional world we live in, if it does not look beyond the class struggle and seek out solutions for the various overlapping systems of oppression that make everyone suffer in their own right.
The sources I used for this article and provide a great overview of the subject:
Bonner, N., 2017. Made In North Korea. London: Phaidon.
Bonner, N., Cockerell, S. and Banfill, J., 2019. Printed In North Korea: The Art Of Everyday Life In The DPRK. London: Phaidon Press Limited, p.239.
DeMarco, E. and Swieszkowski, L., 1986. PUBLIC TOL: The Skeleton in Our Closet: Public Library Art Collections Suffer Appalling Losses. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 5(1), pp.22-23.
Halliday, J., 1985. Women in North Korea: An interview with the Korean democratic women's union. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 17(3), pp.46-56.
Ohana, D., 2020. Human Rights Report Details ‘Heartbreaking’ Accounts Of Women Detained In DPRK. [online] UN News. Available at: <https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1069131>
Park, K., 1992. Women and Revolution in North Korea. Pacific Affairs, 65(4), p.527.
Yang, J. (2018) “Women's Rights in the Dprk: Discrepancies between International and Domestic Legal Instruments in Promoting Women's Rights and the Reality Reflected by North Korean Defectors,” Cornell international law journal, Vol. 51, No. 1, P. 219-243.
로동신문. 2020. [online] Available at: <http://rodong.rep.kp/ko/>.