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. Continue reading

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Women in North Korea

According to an article written by a Korean in the Economist in October, 2010, working women in South Korea earn 64% of what their male counterparts do. In addition, most major companies do not have women at all in senior jobs. Although there may be many reasons behind this, gender discrimination must be one of them.[1] In one of the lectures given during my internship at the Ministry of Unification last summer, one North Korean defector told the audience that some male defectors from the North had a hard time adjusting to the gender equality (despite the statistics given above) in South Korea. She also told that most North Korean men never go into the kitchen to help out their wives or themselves.

Although gender inequality is pervasive in North Korea, it was one of the first developing countries to provide legal means to improve women’s rights. On July 30, 1946, the Law on Sex Equality was announced. This law emphasized equal rights in all spheres, free marriage and divorce, and equal rights to inherit property and to share property in case of divorce.[2] It ended arranged marriages, polygamy, concubinage, the buying and selling of women, prostitution, and the professional entertainer system. In addition, in the North Korean Labor Law, women are guaranteed seventy-seven days of maternity leave with full pay, paid baby-feeding breaks during work, a prohibition against overtime or night work for pregnant or nursing women, and the transfer of pregnant women to easier work with equal pay.[3] North Korean women are considered an important source of labor. While women had not been allowed to work or vote in Western Europe or the United States before women’s rights were largely improved, in North Korea, women are expected to fully participate in the labor force outside the home. This demand for commitment is based on severe labor shortage in North Korea and the ideology that every citizen is equal.[4] Furthermore, with the introduction of the nuclear family system, women’s role in the society became more like men’s. In purchasing and owning land, women have even more power than men do.[5] Continue reading