Women power up North Korea

2015-03-15 15:00

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In 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared in public with an elegant young woman later identified as his wife, Ri Sol-ju. This was meant to give the regime a more modern image, in contrast with the mysterious private life of Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, who was rarely seen with a partner.

Ri’s discreet chic is not unusual. Many smart young women can be seen among the new privileged class in Pyongyang. North Korean women’s clothes have become more varied and colourful. High heels and platform shoes are common, even for young female soldiers on leave.North Korea’s biggest shoe manufacturer, Potonggang, now offers models for more fashionable customers. The influence of Chinese fashions can be seen in state-run shops.

Short hairstyles, like those of the pop group Moranbong Band (who wear military jackets, caps on the backs of their heads and short tube skirts), and slightly lightened hair are popular.The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is trying for a more appealing image, and sends squads of pretty young women to work in its restaurants in China and Cambodia, like cheerleaders. TV stations air concerts by female pop groups on a loop.

Air Koryo, the state-owned carrier, shows them on its planes.Pyongyang is not doing this entirely as window-dressing – although in the provinces people often live in borderline poverty and women’s dress barely changes. North Korea’s borders are closed and there is little access to information or direct contact between visitors and locals, so discovering the truth is not easy. But visit by visit, you can build up a picture of a society changing despite the unchanging regime.

The clothes and behaviour of women in Pyongyang and women’s activities throughout the country reflect this.The women who emerged after Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945 had to be revolutionaries, but remain feminine. The father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, was still urging them to do this in 1989 in the magazine Choson Nyosong (Women of North Korea).According to Helen-Louise Hunter, a former US Central Intelligence Agency analyst, North Korean women “have maintained their attractiveness as women far more than their Soviet and Chinese counterparts”.

Their dress was always more varied than in Mao’s China, where women on posters were transformed into supermen with short hair and minimised curves. In the DPRK, they sometimes appear in traditional dress, shortened for ease of movement.Since the late 1960s, the regime has encouraged women to wear traditional dress on formal occasions to represent continuity between past and present.

In daily life, most workers, peasants and housewives wear Western-style clothing, with their hair pulled back, permed or covered with a headscarf.“The DPRK has never been a hermit kingdom in dress,” said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, who spent time in Pyongyang in the 1980s. But it was prudish. When Chinese fashions made their first appearance in the early 2000s, there was official disapproval.

This has softened. There has been an annual fashion show in Pyongyang since 2002, and last year’s included suits in the classic Chanel style alongside traditional dresses.Driving forceNorth Korean women have become a driving force with the rise of a de facto market economy, which emerged from their efforts to survive during the 1995-1998 famine.

But they are still poorly represented in the upper echelons of government, though there have been prominent women, such as Kim Kyong-hui, sister of Kim Jong-il (who disappeared from politics after the execution of her husband Jang Sung-taek in 2013) and Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, aged 27, who in November apparently became vice-director of the organisation and guidance department of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

(According to other observers in Seoul in South Korea, she is vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department.)In 2002, which is when the most recent data were published, women held just under 25% of seats in the Supreme People’s Assembly, and only 4.5% on the Workers’ Party central committee.But “the new North Korean capitalism has a resolutely feminine face”, Lankov said in 2004.

His observation has since been confirmed. Women suffered most from the famine – aside from the hunger, they were subjected to sexual violence, forced abortion and other mistreatment. According to political scientist Park Kyung-ae, these experiences have given them greater independence, importance within their families and an awareness of rights.

In response to popular pressure, parallel economic activities of all kinds have sprung up within the moribund state-run economy, bypassing regulations.The regime at first tried to suppress this mercantile activity, but is now aware it cannot turn back the clock, so it is being more flexible and doing its best to combine rigid planning with the dynamism of the market economy.

Autonomous activities in commerce, services and production account for a significant, though hard to quantify, share of gross domestic product.This parallel economy has led to a divergence of interests in a society once relatively egalitarian, by creating a new privileged class of entrepreneurs, middlemen, traders and retailers, which has joined the traditional elite of high-ranking officials mainly descended from the partisans who fought the Japanese beside Kim Il-sung. There is no data, so we have to rely on information such as the number of cellphones – 2.5?million in 2014, which means 10% of North Koreans can afford to pay $200 (R2?450) to $300 for one.

Shops in Pyongyang are evidence of the new social stratification: aside from state-run shops, which are better stocked than they used to be, there are a dozen covered markets crammed with food and imported goods from China, Singapore and South Korea.

In up-market stores, the range of imported alcohol, cosmetics and clothing suggests international sanctions on exports of luxury goods aren’t working. Prices are far out of reach for most, but not so high that the goods don’t sell. Women are at every level in this parallel economy.

As far as legislation goes, the DPRK has been a pioneer in Asia. In civic and political rights, North Korea’s women are equal to men, with access to free education, freedom to choose their spouses and the right to divorce and inherit. After the 1946 land reform law, farmland was redistributed to peasant households whether the head of household was male or female, sapping the foundations of patriarchy. Women were freed from their traditional Confucian duties, to the benefit of the party.

Marriages were no longer arranged between families; the party would arrange them “between comrades”.The regime was progressive on principles but conservative on gender roles. Female emancipation was subordinated to the building of socialism. The new woman was to be a revolutionary, but also a good wife and mother – she would become the model of the revolutionary female citizen.Economic participationAfter the Korean War (1950-1953), female participation in the rebuilding of the country was indispensible.

Many men had been killed and women were needed to make upthe labour shortfall. In the 1950s, women were required to contribute to production, attend ideological indoctrination sessions, take on neighbourhood public services, run their homes and bear children. Later, the emphasis on heavy industry meant fewer jobs for women, who were relegated to menial work.Economic stagnation in the mid-1980s led many women to give up working outside the home after marriage.

Propaganda began to preach a more traditional view in which women were encouraged to have children. The image of the mother, embodying kindness, naturalness and affection, was linked to the Workers’ Party, while the family became a metaphor for the state. The regime’s heroines were its mothers, including Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk – the “mother of the revolution” – and Kim Il-sung’s mother, Kang Ban-sok.Before the famine, women accounted for about half of the working population.

During it, they became a survival mechanism for the whole country. Men thought food shortages would be temporary, and women took the initiative – even if that meant some husbands were seen as ineffective heads of the family and lost face. Housewives set up small local businesses, and those who went out to work were torn between their family duties and responsibilities as employees. The dilemma is reflected in novels of the early 2000s.

Women sold or exchanged household goods and clothes for food on farmers’ markets, which became huge black markets. In side streets, they sold firewood, medicinal herbs, vegetables grown in small private gardens and little cakes. Others offered hairdressing, shoe repairs or sewing. At dawn, long lines of peasant women, bowed down under heavy loads, headed for town. Some walked long distances or rode crowded together on the backs of trucks.

Today, women still work as peddlers. You see them with enormous bundles on station platforms, especially at Sinuiju, on the border with China, the gateway for most trade, legal or otherwise, between the countries. North Korea’s Confucian heritage dies hard. “In the north, patriarchy is still deep-rooted,” said a middle-aged refugee in Seoul, South Korea. “Even here, we are still marked by that attitude.” There is plenty of business for agencies that arrange marriages between North Korean women and South Korean men.

According to the old adage, nam nam buk nyo (southern man, northern woman), this is the ideal partnership, and South Korean men find South Korean women too aggressive prefer to marry refugees.Though most North Korean women do not rebel against their traditional role (as the best way to ensure peace in the home), many are the main breadwinners, and their importance has grown.

Refugees say the youth no longer see marriage as an obligation and put it off for as long as possible.The chaos of the late 1990s and early 2000s led to a relative liberalisation of relations between the sexes.North Korean women took advantage of the chaos and its aftermath to establish areas of autonomy. They resisted when the regime set an age limit of 50 on female market traders, with demonstrations in Hoeryong in 2007 and Chongjin in 2008.

This limited civil dissidence revealed their solidarity and readiness for embryonic collective action. The revolution liberated North Korea’s women from tradition, only to enslave them as guardians of the family. They are gradually escaping. – Copyright Le Monde, distributed by Agence Global

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