Women in the Markets of North Korea

It is a challenge to report on North Korea without talking sometimes about the hardships in the country. On this blog, we generally try to focus on fostering greater understanding of this place so different from our own, and to do that we often play up the “good news” or choose lighter fare to cover, since so many sources focus instead on the negative. We try to provide a picture of hope.

But, to deserve the respect of our readers, sometimes we have to cover difficult issues. We’ll touch on some such issues in this post.

A new report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics examines the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in North Korea. It used a detailed survey of refugees living in South Korea to build a picture of life inside North Korea over the past ten or twenty years.

A woman sells snacks at a roadside stand on April 21, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

One of the most prominent features of gender inequity in North Korea is the role of women in private markets. Women tended disproportionately to be shed from government or party jobs, which along with the military are deeply biased toward men; women also tend generally to be less likely to hold a job in general.

At first, this is a clear disadvantage.

If they have no job—and, sometimes, even if they hold a regular job—women tended to participate in the markets. Market participants are most commonly married women: housewives (who are often shed from the state employment sector if their husbands hold jobs) who need extra income to feed their families.

Indeed, when surveyed on the source of their income, the most common response—almost half of the sample 300 refugees surveyed—was that all of their income came from private business activities. 69% reported that half or more of their income came from such activities.

Women sell goods in a screen grab from a video of the Chaeha Market in July 2012 in Sinuiju, North Korea. Photo credit Chosun Ilbo.

Similarly, access to food from the state-run distribution system seems to be tied to state employment. This explains the rise of the markets: from 1999 to the end of the sample, not a single female refugee reported that the state-run rationing system was her primary source of food. The markets arose as an organic solution serving this need for income and food, and were mostly tolerated by the authorities.

In fact, the survey revealed that when market crackdowns did occur, women were less commonly punished than men—in other words, officials treated markets leniently when they were survival mechanisms, as they are assumed to be for women. This reinforces a curious gendered division of labor between a job-holding class of men who work but don’t earn much money and a “housewife” class of women who earn the actual bread for the family.

Respondents were also asked,

“What is the best way to make money in North Korea?

  • work hard at assigned job
  • engage in market activities
  • engage in corrupt or criminal activities
  • none of the above.”

The most popular way was engaging in market activities. And there is little doubt that markets continue to grow in importance in North Korea.

Vendors and customers interact in the Chaeha market in July 2012 in Sinuiju, North Korea. Photo credit Chosun Ilbo.

So, in a very important way, women tend to have better access to food and to money in North Korea than men do, though men retain the power.

It should be noted that, when asked the best way to “get ahead” in North Korea, officialdom was by far the most common answer, comprising 70% of the answers. The military (despite the “military-first” policy) was in a distant second, and engaging in business was third. This makes it clear that officialdom is still seen as providing the most status and probably also the best safety net. Yet it is not as reliable a source of food and income as market activities.

Most reports on these subsistence markets have used their presence to emphasize the dire state of the North Korean economy. But we already know that North Korea’s economy is poor; isolation from the rest of the world has left them far behind, and deforestation has led to poor soil health and increased flooding, destroying crops and lives. Even still, the people—and the women especially—are finding ways to survive in one of the most enfamined countries on the planet, and, though they exist outside the official system, to a certain extent they are the ones making the system work.

A man rests in a field outside Wonsan, North Korea on October 8, 2011. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.


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