International Women’s Day Causes North Korean Women to Question Society

Government tries to scale back female power with education campaigns.
2021-03-08
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International Women’s Day Causes North Korean Women to Question Society Women's Union Officials and members gather at a meeting against South Korea and North Korean defectors, outside Sinchon Museum, in North Korea, in this picture supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 10, 2020.
KCNA/via Reuters

Yearly celebrations of International Women’s Day in North Korea are awakening women to the concept of women’s rights, some to the point where they question the legitimacy of North Korean society itself, sources told RFA.

“Today is a holiday where women who struggle all year round to make a living are treated to a meal by men. This morning I had a meal that my husband prepared and received socks as a gift,” a resident of North Pyongan province, in the country’s northwest, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.

“For women, 3.8 Women’s Day is emerging as a more meaningful holiday than the Day of the Sun,” she said, referring to national founder Kim Il Sung’s birth anniversary, widely considered to be the most important holiday on the North Korean calendar. 

In years past, North Korean women would simply declare their freedom from men to have a day to themselves with other women, but with each passing year, the relative power of women in the home increases.

In most families, men are forced to work in government-appointed jobs that pay far too low to support a family, so it is their wives who must run a family business to make ends meet.

The source said that Women’s Day commemorates how women established local marketplaces as a means to support their families after the country’s economy collapsed in the mid-1990s and government salaries were no longer enough to support families.

It was women who pulled the country out of the Arduous March famine and saved their families, she said, referring to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

“Women are now taking on more leadership roles in the family. Not only have we been working hard to feed our families, we are also taking over our husbands’ party contributions,” she said.

Men must pay two percent of their monthly salaries, or 5,000 won [U.S. $0.63], whichever is greater, as a loyalty fund to the party.

Though Korean culture is widely considered to be steeped in deep-rooted patriarchal practices and ideologies, the source said this is no longer the case in North Korea.

“The patriarchy… has collapsed, and even the prestige of being a core party member has been diminished, as it is the women who are in charge of the family economy,” said the source.

The source said that the authorities are alarmed that women are gaining too much influence.

“This is why they designated the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea as an ideological education organization. They want to transform the ideology of women, and the intensity of women’s education and mobilization is increasing every year,” the source said.

“This year for 3.8 Women’s Day, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] held a plenary meeting for the Socialist Women’s Union on the 4th and demanded that the women’s union organizations turn their fight against anti-socialist and non-socialist values into a public project. This will stop women from valuing money more than the party’s ideology,” she said.

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA Monday that 3.8 Women’s Day celebrations were canceled there this year because of the coronavirus.

“We can’t just do nothing this women’s holiday, which is only once a year,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Close friends are instead gathering together to celebrate 3.8 Women’s Day, sharing their worries of these difficult times,” the second source said.

The second source said in previous years, women did not understand the significance of the holiday.

“Last year we all said the holiday was just for us to enjoy freedom from men, and we considered it a day to go have fun dancing. But this is different now. Women are starting to awaken to the current situation in the world. Now we gather on 3.8 Women’s Day to discuss our history,” said the second source.

“We learned that the history of the day began when women in the U.S. began to fight for their rights, calling for improved working conditions and the elimination of discrimination against women,” the second source said.

The second source said that by learning about the history of the day, women are starting to question certain male-centric features of North Korean society.

“When the authorities bind housewives to an organization called the Socialist Women’s Union and force ideological education and unpaid labor on them, we wonder if that is a violation of women’s rights,” said the second source.

“Women are raising their voices, saying that the propaganda of the authorities is forcing women to fulfill their moral obligations and responsibilities in their homes and in society as mothers, wives, daughters-in-law. Controlling women in this way is a sort of triple exploitation of women, and a violation of human rights.”

Forced celebrations

Also Monday, several North Korean women in their 20s who were dispatched to China to earn foreign currency were forced by their handlers to celebrate the day by dancing and singing at restaurants, a local source who requested anonymity for security reasons said.

“Whenever events are organized by the authorities on national holidays it is strictly controlled and you can only perform a few designated songs and dances,” the third source said.

“But when North Korean women go on picnics with their close friends, they can dance however they want… They play foreign songs on amplifiers and men and women together spend Women’s Day dancing disco style!”

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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