Percentage of the population that is female: 51.1 percent (compared to 50.5 percent in the United States, 53 percent in Estonia and 37.1 percent in Bahrain) [Source: World Bank data.worldbank.org ]

Percentage of adult women who are working: 75 percent. [Source: World Bank]
Proportion of seats held by women in parliament: 18 percent
Enrollment in secondary school: 92 percent for men and 93 percent for women
Year women obtained the right to vote: 1948
Percentage of women (aged 15-49 years) who consider a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one of the specified reasons ( percent): 10
Percentage of men (aged 15-49 years) who consider a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one of the specified reasons ( percent): 8 [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]

In the Chosun Dynasty, before North and South Korea were divided, women were expected to give birth to and rear male heirs to assure the continuation of the family line. Women had few opportunities to participate in the social, economic, or political life of society. There were a few exceptions to limitations imposed on women's roles. For example, female shamans were called on to cure illnesses by driving away evil spirits, to pray for rain during droughts, or to perform divination and fortune-telling. Few women received any formal education in traditional Korean society. After the opening of Korea to foreign contact in the late nineteenth century, however, Christian missionaries established girls' schools, thus allowing young Korean females to obtain a modern education. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The social status and roles of women were radically changed after 1945. On July 30, 1946, authorities north of the thirtyeighth parallel passed a Sex Equality Law. The 1972 constitution asserted that "women hold equal social status and rights with men." The 1990 constitution stipulates that the state creates various conditions for the advancement of women in society. In principle, North Korea strongly supports sexual equality.

The two most respected women in North Korea are Kim Il Sung mother, Kang Ban-sok, who is sometimes called the "Mother of Korea," and Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il.

In the 1970s, Edward Kim wrote in National Geographic: "North Korean maternal and grandparental influence seems weakened, day care centers and nursery schools give an early socialist indoctrination, and free women to join the labor force. Women make up a third of the industrial workers, and more than half of all farm workers. Military service falls equally on both sexes.” [Source: H. Edward Kim, National Geographic, August, 1974]

Gender Roles and Statuses in North Korea

"North Korea is a traditional male-dominated society and traditional gender roles remain," Juliette Morillot, author of “North Korea in 100 Questions”, published in French., told the BBC "Women are still seen ttukong unjeongsu, which literally translates as 'cooking pot lid drivers', and means that they should 'stay in the kitchen where they belong'." [Source: Megha Mohan, BBC World Service, November 21, 2017]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Division of Labor by Gender. In North Korea it is widely accepted that men run the heavy industry and women work in light industry. Beyond this, the division is highly diverse. For example, agriculture is not necessarily regarded specifically as a man's or woman's job. When it comes to the domestic division of labor, although the state and the party try to minimize the work by introducing canned food and electrical appliances, it remains that women do most of the housework and child rearing even while working as many hours as men outside of the home. This effectively doubles women's burdens in society. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women's status is not equal to that of men. Men have a far better chance in advancing in politics, while women, particularly after marriage, are seen as "done" with a political career. This is different for women from the high-ranking families, whose background and connections would outmaneuver handicaps that ordinary woman would have to bear. In North Korea, women are supposed to have certain mannerisms that are regarded as feminine. They are not supposed to wear trousers unless they are factory workers or agricultural laborers.

“In professional settings, however, women are often as assertive as their male counterparts. The only occupation where behavior is sometimes flirtatious or subservient is as a waitress, but for women it is an honor to hold this position as they are selected for their beauty, good family background, and educational qualifications.

Role of Women in North Korea

In contemporary North Korea, women are expected to fully participate in the labor force outside the home. Apart from its ideological commitment to the equality of the sexes, the government views women's employment as essential because of the country's labor shortage. No able-bodied person is spared from the struggle to increase production and compete with the more populous southern half of the peninsula. According to one South Korean source, women in North Korea are supposed to devote eight hours a day to work, eight hours to study (presumably, the study of juche and Kim Il Sungism), and eight hours to rest and sleep. Women who have three or more children apparently are permitted to work only six hours a day and still receive a full, eight-hour-a-day salary. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The media showcases role models. The official newspaper Pyongyang Times, in an August 1991 article, described the career of Kim Hwa Suk, a woman who had graduated from compulsory education (senior middle school), decided to work in the fields as a regular farmer in a cooperative located in the Pyongyang suburbs, and gradually rose to positions of responsibility as her talents and dedication became known. After serving as leader of a youth workteam, she attended a university. After graduating, she became chairperson of her cooperative's management board. Kim was also chosen as a deputy to the Supreme People's Assembly.

Despite such examples, however, it appears that women are not fully emancipated. Sons are still preferred over daughters. Women do most if not all of the housework, including preparing a morning and evening meal, in addition to working outside the home; much of the responsibility of childrearing is in the hands of t'agaso and the school system. The majority of women work in light industry, where they are paid less than their male counterparts in heavy industry. In office situations, they are likely to be engaged in secretarial and other low-echelon jobs.

Different sex roles, moreover, are probably confirmed by the practice of separating boys and girls at both the elementary and higher middle-school levels. Some aspects of school curricula for boys and girls also are apparently different, with greater emphasis on physical education for boys and on home economics for girls. In the four-year university system, however, women majoring in medicine, biology, and foreign languages and literature seem especially numerous.

Sex Ratio and Birth Control in North Korea

Sex ratio: at birth: 1. 06 male(s)/female
0-14 years: 1. 04 male(s)/female
15-24 years: 1. 01 male(s)/female
25-54 years: 1. 01 male(s)/female
55-64 years: 0. 91 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0. 53 male(s)/female
total population: 0. 95 male(s)/female (2020 estimated) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The figures disclosed by the government reveal an unusually low proportion of males to females: in 1980 and 1987, the maleto -female ratios were 86.2 to 100, and 84.2 to 100, respectively. Low male-to-female ratios are usually the result of a war, but these figures were lower than the sex ratio of 88.3 males per 100 females recorded for 1953, the last year of the Korean War. The male-to-female ratio would be expected to rise to a normal level with the passage of years, as happened between 1953 and 1970, when the figure was 95.1 males per 100 females. After 1970, however, the ratio declined. Eberstadt and Banister suggest that before 1970 male and female population figures included the whole population, yielding ratios in the ninetieth percentile, but that after that time the male military population was excluded from population figures. Based on the figures provided by the Central Statistics Bureau, Eberstadt and Banister estimate that the actual size of the "hidden" male North Korean military had reached 1.2 million by 1986 and that the actual male-to-female ratio was 97.1 males to 100 females in 1990. If their estimates are correct, 6.1 percent of North Korea's total population was in the military, numerically the world's fifth largest military force, in the late 1980s. Library of Congress, 1993]

Contraceptive prevalence rate (percent of women aged 20-49): 78. 2 percent (2014). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Elizabeth Shim of UPI wrote: Contraceptive use among women in North Korea of childbearing age is higher than the global average, although birth control is illegal in the country. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the contraceptive rate is 70 percent for the relatively isolated country, or 36th in the world. The rate, which applies to North Korean women between the ages of 15 and 49, is higher than the average for the Asia-Pacific region, which is 69 percent, and higher than the global average, which is 64 percent. [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, November 16, 2016]

“Methods of contraceptives used in North Korea include surgical sterilization, condoms, birth control pills and intrauterine contraceptive devices. The report states the majority of North Korean women who use contraceptives opt for intrauterine devices, including the "Loop," which can be placed to closely fit around the contours of the uterine cavity. Contraceptives are banned in North Korea but are available in the unofficial markets that have grown in the country. A female North Korean defector told VOA contraceptives and birth control treatments are expensive, but more women are becoming "westernized and liberalized," a trend that is bumping up demand.

Presenting a different view, Luke O'Neil wrote for Playboy: “Sex education and information about sexual health and functions are nonexistent. Contraceptives of any kind are rare, though South Koreans occasionally send balloons filled with condoms over the border. (It’s unclear if this initiative has led to any significant change.) The pill can be found on the black market for a price, and as in other poor countries, abortions might be performed by surgeons off the books or by citizens who’ve learned how to do them. [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]

In North Korea, Women Make the Money

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: “North Korea is a militarized, male-dominated society, but it is women who are making the money as the insular nation allows an unofficial market-based economy to take shape. Women earn more than 70 percent of household income in North Korea, mainly as traders in the informal markets that have proliferated in recent years, research by the South Korean government-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) found. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, n May 24, 2015]

“That is despite women making up only about half of the 12 million economically active North Koreans, experts say. Most men are stuck in state jobs that pay little or serve in the army. "We North Koreans say men are fighting on the socialism front but women are fighting in the battle of life," said a 26-year-old surnamed Jung who fled to South Korea in 2012 and regularly sends money north to support her mother's gray-market business raising pigs and selling corn-based alcohol. "There are no state provisions and my father has an unpaid job, which he must do almost as a duty," said Jung, a college student in Seoul who asked that her full name not be used to protect her family members still in the North.”

After the collapse of the North Korean economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the famine in the 1990s “women began selling foraged mushrooms and scrap copper cable to feed their families. With state rations a distant memory, North Koreans have increasingly turned to the informal economy to support their families, and women are playing a disproportionately active role.

The money earned by most independent traders is not big. A survey of 60 women who defected from impoverished North Korea in 2011 and 2012 by the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights found many of them earned informal monthly incomes of 50,000 to 150,000 North Korean won per month, or about US$6 to US$18 at current black market rates tracked by Daily NK, a Seoul-based website. By comparison, state jobs pay 2,000-6,000 won a month - less than the 8,490 won cost of a kilogram of rice in the city of Hyesan, according to Daily NK data. Most defectors come from the rural northeast and traders in urban areas are believed often to earn far more.

“With women holding more economic power, more of them are also seeking divorce, according to experts. The main reason cited is financial incompetence, according to a recent survey of 103 defectors by the Seoul-based Korean Bar Association. In recent years, most North Korean defectors to the South have been women. Less tied to workplaces, women often have more freedom of movement.

North Korean Men Still Call the Shots But That’s Changing

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: “Still, men dominate North Korea's military and government, which command absolute power in the nation of 24.5 million. The only women seen in the upper echelons of Pyongyang's current elite are both relatives of leader Kim Jong Un - his sister Kim Yo Jong and his aunt Kim Kyong Hui, the sister of late leader Kim Jong Il. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, n May 24, 2015]

Some of the most eligible bachelors in North Korea nowadays are the party cadres who supervise the marketplaces, women defectors in Seoul say."If you want to live better up there, you'd better be a woman selling stuff in markets or marry a man who lives on bribes or taxes from these women at markets, or works for the regime's trading firms," said Kim Min-jung, a defector who runs a matchmaking service for 1,500 women who left the North.

In the countryside, many North Korean men have a short, wiry build, an indication of their low-calorie diet and hard-labor lifestyle. “North Korean women, Kim said, complain that men there are like "lights that are switched off all day. That points to how useless males are in terms of making money for their families," she said. Jung, the college student defector, said: "North Korean women are independent and strong but will get more so as the state can't provide much for individuals."

“The female takeover of North Korea's main street economy is changing a paternalistic culture that considers the ideal women a stay-at-home wife. While state media promotes institutional gender equality, society has long been dominated by men. Money is changing that. "North Korea's living standards depend on women's business abilities and skills, not on the state. Women are replacing the role of the state via the market economy," said Kim Eun-ju, who heads the Center for Korean Women and Politics in Seoul and regularly interviews recent defectors."Now men are even looking for potential wives in marketplaces," she said.

Women Prisoners in North Korean Labor Camps

One female defector told the Washington Post said she was worked to exhaustion, forced to run barefoot in the snow to carry bricks to a construction site, and fed a watery soup with cabbage and a few corn kernels while at a North Korean labor camp. Fifty women slept in a room. Every night after work 160 women were lined up. Those who were said to have not worked hard enough were whipped or had their head slammed against a wall.

“You go to sleep,” the defector said, “and the next morning the person next to you is cold, dead. The older women would die right away...I didn’t feel anything. You just don’t think about anything. You really have no fear of death. At that point you’re just a machine with no emotion.” She said she saw one woman bite off the ear of a woman who had just died and put it in her pocket to eat later. Pregnant endure abortions in which salt water is poured in the wombs. If that doesn’t work, babies are strangled after they are born.

Kim Young-soon was imprisoned many years in North Korea and ultimately escaped and defected to South Korea, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il “destroyed her life, and killed her family. In the 1970s, on a whim, the mercurial strongman sent her entire family to the Yodeok Political Offenders' Concentration Camp. The move was a virtual death sentence because few of the unfortunates sent there ever return alive. She only found out years later what her crime was. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2011]

“Born in 1937, Kim Young-soon was a trained dancer and a close friend with Sung Hye-rim, the first wife of Kim Jong Il. The marriage circumstances were scandalous: Sung was already married, with a child, whom she left to be with Kim – who was five years her junior. Pyongyang officials worried that the sordid details of the union wouldn't exactly make school textbook reading. So the regime did the kind of unspeakable things that regimes do. They rounded up everyone who ever knew Sung Hye-rim and sent them to prison. Kim Young-soon was part of the roundup.

“She spent a decade in cruel confinement, and she was lucky. Her parents died in the prison camp. So did her husband and eldest son. Her younger son was later shot to death trying to escape North Korea. Kim Young-soon survived the concentration camp. Years later, at the age of 65, she defected to South Korea and later wrote a 2008 book about her experiences entitled "I was Sung Hye-rim's Friend," in which she described her own fate at the hands of a dictator she had never met:

"I was best friends with Sung Hye-rim, Kim Jong Il's first wife. We were the same age and we attended the same junior high. Sung was a popular actress who was five years older than Kim. Kim Jong Il lost his mother at an early age, so this might be the reason why he was attracted to an older woman. Kim Jong Il is short, and he always wore shoes with about 3 inches of heel. Sung was a divorcee with a daughter. Kim Jong Il did not tell Kim Il-sung that he is living with a (once) married woman.

"I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung [Kim's father and then ruler of the nation] was not aware of Kim Jong Il's relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security."

“Once, in prison, she met another luckless family. The wife's relative had worked in a hospital where Sung Hye-rim gave birth to the strongman's first son. She gossiped about what she saw, alerting the state security officials. To quash rumors about the birth, countless numbers of the woman's family members of hospital workers were sent off to jail. That's when Kim Young-soon realized why her life had been stolen.

North Korean Women Fleeing to China

Roughly 70 percent of the North Korean defectors in China are women. That is at least partly because they have more ways of surviving once they arrive in China, such as buying goods to for sale in North Korean markets, being sold to farmers as wives or working as prostitutes. One human rights worker told the Los Angeles Times, “The women keep coming out. They are looking for a chance to survive. They don’t expect happiness out of marriage, only survival.”

Due a preference for boys, there is a shortage of brides in China. In northwest China, North Korea women are helping to take up the slack. North Korean women are desired by Chinese because they are regarded as prettier and more obedient than Chinese women. Some of the North Korean women in China have university degrees.

There are brokers in North Korea and China that specialize in finding “work” and marriages for North Korean women. The prices for a North Korea n bride vary from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, often depending on how young and pretty the bride is. Brokers that work in North Korea are mostly ethnic Korean Chinese citizens, who also help the women escape from North Korea.

Hardships Faced By North Korean Women Fleeing to China

In some cases, North Korean women are married three of four times over a couple of years in China. In worst case scenarios the women end up with abusive husbands who severely beat them. There have been stories about women in remote areas being shared by brothers, traded among men and locked up in their homes to prevent them from running away.

One woman told the Los Angeles Times she “married” her fourth husband the day after she met him. Her husband drunk and gambled and had a hunchback as a result of work accident. She was grateful however. Her previous husband was violent was later imprisoned for killing his own mother.

The “marriages” are often not formalized. This means the North Korean women are not protected by Chinese law and that legally they are no better off in terms of being dragged back to North Korea than other people who have fled North Korea. If they get into trouble they can not seek help from authorities or even go to a hospital or clinic for medical help. Their children can not go to school.

Despite the hardships many of the women are glad about the decision they made to leave North Korea. Life in China married to man that they don’t necessarily love is better than facing starvation in North Korea. Some are happy with their husbands and many have had children with them. Their greatest fear is being sent back to North Korea.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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