North Korea launches anti-divorce campaign, targeting women

Convincing disgruntled wives to stay with their families amid harsh economic slump seems key thrust of program
By Myung Chul Lee for RFA Korean
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North Korea launches anti-divorce campaign, targeting women A North Korean couple has their wedding photos taken at Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang in 2018.

North Korea is trying to stop couples from getting divorced by launching an education campaign targeting married women, but residents say the initiative blames women unfairly, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

The campaign also punishes the parents of divorcing couples by shaming them in public and holds companies responsible should their workforces have high divorce rates.

North Korean divorce rates are not publicly available, but at least one source suggested they were rising – and that a key reason for this was the enormous stress that economic difficulties have put on families – and women in particular – in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The directive … emphasized that divorce should be prevented by strengthening ideological education for those who propose divorce,” said a woman in North Hamgyong province who asked not to be identified to protect her safety. 

“This phenomenon is directly related to the problem of the people’s livelihood, which has become increasingly difficult each day since the coronavirus crisis began,” she said, referring to the rising divorce rate.

Women are the breadwinners in most North Korean families. Men spend their days working in their government-assigned jobs, which pay meager salaries nowhere near enough to live on. 

So it usually falls to the women to run a side business – such as selling food or crafts in a market stall – to support the household.

‘Giving up on families’

On orders from the Central Committee, the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea held lectures for housewives to discourage divorce, a source from the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The lectures affirmed that divorce is against the party line and policy, which says that it must be somehow eliminated,” the source said. 

But residents who attended the lecture said it was irresponsible of the authorities to say it is women’s fault for families breaking down without acknowledging the responsibility of the state to improve living conditions, she said.

“They ask things like, “Do you think women would voluntarily break up their families if it was easier to live?’”

A pin showing North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung [left] and former leader Kim Jong Il decorates the wedding dress of a bride during a photo session at Pyongyang Folk Park in 2015. Credit: Reuters

A 2016 article published in the Asian Population Studies academic journal said that 96% of North Korean adults over the age of 30 were married, and less than 1% of the country’s population was classified as separated or divorced according to official data. 

“Housewives expected that they would be able to escape life’s difficulties when the coronavirus crisis subsided,” the North Hamgyong source said. “But now they are increasingly giving up on their families, as the hardships are becoming serious enough to be compared to the Arduous March.”

The Arduous March refers to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed hundreds of thousands and possibly more than 2 million people by some estimates. Suggesting the current situation is anywhere close to the Arduous March is an indication that the future could be bleak for many families.

Parents held accountable

The North Hamgyong source said that in addition to the lectures, the government is even threatening to punish the parents of people who divorce.

“The Central Committee ordered that not only should the divorce petitioners be held accountable at collective meetings, but their parents should also be as well, for erroneous education of their children,” she said,

This is not the first time the government has tried to address divorce, she said.

“In September last year, the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea issued an order to strengthen ideological education for women, in order to prevent divorce,” said the source. “However, as the number of divorce cases has not decreased, the Central Committee has again ordered measures to prevent divorce.

Convincing disgruntled housewives to stay with their families seems to be the main thrust of the campaign, sources said.

Each regional party office therefore will conduct an ideological education project for members of the Socialist Women’s Union under the theme “Let’s thoroughly eliminate the phenomenon of divorce and build a harmonious family, the cell of society,” the North Hamgyong source said.

“Party and labor organizations were ordered to strengthen individual collective education in order for each woman to fulfill her duty as a mother, a homemaker, and a wife,” she said.

In Ryanggang, preparations are being made to investigate every government institution, factory and enterprise to assess the number of divorcing households, the source there said.

“Company officials are nervous because the Central Committee has a policy to hold them responsible for poor family management in the organization if divorce and family discord frequently occur among employees' families,” she said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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