The Dire State of Women’s Rights in North Korea

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The Dire State of Women’s Rights in North Korea

While the country espouses an official commitment to gender equality, the reality for women is one of discrimination and limited opportunities.

The Dire State of Women’s Rights in North Korea
Credit: Depositphotos

On International Women’s Day on March 8, North Korea held various events to celebrate the country’s women, repeating what has become more or less a national slogan, “Women Are Flowers,” and hailing the country as a “paradise” for women. State media even compared North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a “mother” who cares deeply for her children. 

The situation of North Korean women, however, is a far cry from the barrage of propaganda the regime spreads across newspapers, television, and smartphone screens for domestic and international consumption. 

Up until now, information about the state of women’s rights in North Korea has largely been limited to anecdotal reports assembled from grassroots media outlets, defector testimony, and reports submitted by the North Korean government to international agencies. Recently, however, Daily NK, with the support of the Embassy of Canada to the Republic of Korea, conducted a survey of 30 North Korean women inside the country, as well as 10 North Korean defectors, to delve deeper into the state of women’s rights in North Korea. 

The results were alarming: More than half of the respondents reported sexual victimization by officials in state institutions such as the national police agency and correctional centers, while a staggering 73 percent said they had encountered instances in the workplace, military, or markets where officials coerced, cajoled, or tricked them into having sex in exchange for promotions or business opportunities. The findings lend credence to reports of widespread workplace discrimination and sexual harassment in North Korea. 

Equally troubling, some 70 percent of respondents had never heard of North Korea’s Women’s Rights Protection Law (a 2010 law that establishes basic protections and rights for women), and only 16.7 percent had ever received education about women’s rights. 

Overall, the findings stand in stark contrast to what North Korean authorities claim in their reports to the international community about the state of women’s rights in the country. In its 2021 Voluntary National Report to the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals, North Korea claimed that gender equality had been “achieved a long time ago.” 

North Korea’s constitution theoretically guarantees gender equality, and women have legal rights to education, employment, and participation in political life. The North Korean government claims that women have the right to participate in politics and that women hold leadership and decision-making positions in government and other institutions. The North Korean government further says it has implemented policies to promote women’s rights and gender equality. These include initiatives to increase women’s participation in the labor force, provide access to education and health care, and ensure legal protection against discrimination. 

However, the survey provides further evidence that the basic rights of women in North Korea are often not fully realized in practice.

State Propaganda Defines Women’s Roles

While women in North Korea are highlighted in state propaganda as “cogs in the revolutionary wheel of society,” in reality they are expected to fulfill the role of “faithful housekeepers.” Given the patriarchal nature of North Korean society, traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained in North Korean society, with women expected to prioritize family and domestic duties over personal or professional ambitions. These cultural attitudes reinforce gender inequalities in many aspects of life.

It should come as little surprise that North Korea’s leadership and state-run media play an important role in imposing traditional roles on North Korean women. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, recently called on women to take the lead in raising the country’s dismal birth rate, and media outlets such as the Rodong Sinmun constantly urge women to “bear many children and raise them as supporters of the revolution.” 

This situation helps explain why the survey found that women in North Korea are most likely to take on the role of “raising children” (25.6 percent) and “supporting the household economy” (22.2 percent) in order to contribute to the development of society. The survey also found that restrictions are in place that limit women to certain fields of study, such as teaching, nursing, and accounting. Indeed, the survey provides further evidence that North Korean women are often directed toward careers deemed more suitable by the state, such as teaching or healthcare, rather than fields such as science or technology.

In addition, the survey showed that women in North Korea are significantly affected by the country’s system of “non-tax burdens.” This system refers to irregular or semi-regular mandatory contributions imposed by the regime, including everything from cash to firewood. The survey found that women are asked to help pay for construction projects in Pyongyang, provide funds to build neighborhoods in their areas, and raise funds to send to the military, which is focused on advancing the country’s nuclear program. 

Women who do not work (only an estimated 5-10 percent of women in North Korea remain in the workforce after having children) are also required to be members of the Social Women’s Union of Korea, one of North Korea’s oldest and most important mass organizations. The union’s local branches require women to collect items ranging from notebooks and pens for children to providing underwear, socks, and meals for soldiers.  

North Korean women’s attitudes appear to have been affected by these societal pressures and a flood of propaganda that emphasizes traditional roles – not to mention a lack of information about life outside their own country (exacerbated by the fact that most North Koreans do not have access to the Internet). The survey found that 25 percent of respondents believe that women’s rights are not equal to men’s, and only a small percentage (9.4 percent) believe that women can become government or party officials. 

In fact, the survey results show that women’s participation in government decision-making is limited and given their increasing role as the main earners for families, they most often have to spend time in markets selling goods to earn cash. While North Korea does have a petition system that allows women to voice complaints about their circumstances – including corruption and sex crimes – the survey found that most respondents believe the system is useless, and some even did not know where to file petitions. 

Raising Awareness Among Women About Their Rights Is Key

Overall, while North Korea espouses an official commitment to gender equality, the reality for women in the country is one of discrimination, limited opportunities, and significant challenges in realizing their rights and aspirations. 

The secretive nature of the North Korean regime and limited access to independent sources of information means that obtaining accurate and comprehensive data on women’s rights in the country can be challenging. However, there is an urgent need to conduct more surveys similar to the one conducted by Daily NK on the perceptions of North Korean women in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges they face. Moreover, we should not overlook the need to understand the perceptions of women’s rights among North Korean men, as they are a key part of improving women’s rights in the country. 

Perhaps most importantly, we must increase our efforts to send information into North Korea that is tailored to North Koreans with a view to raise their awareness of their rights. This can be done through radio broadcasts or other means, such as USBs or SD cards distributed inside the country. Already, many organizations inside South Korea and abroad are involved in flooding North Korea with outside information, and these efforts can only help in changing perceptions toward women’s rights inside the country for the better. Only when the North Korean government’s information blockade collapses will women inside the country be able to gain insight into new possibilities for their lives.