By Andrei Lankov
In most post-socialist nations, the collapse of the state socialist system had a rather ambiguous impact on the social and economic position of women.
Clearly the advent of the market economy brought with it some advantages, especially in those countries where its introduction brought an economic boom. Women often have far more choice, freed from the necessity of queuing for hours to get what they and their families need and they can enjoy the new delights of political and cultural freedom.
However, there is also a pretty unsavory downside. Whatever you think of the socialist system, it took gender equality quite seriously and enforced numerous laws and regulations which meant that the special needs of women in the workplace were taken into account. Most of these regulations unfortunately disappeared together with monthly indoctrination sessions, labor mobilizations and other less attractive features of the same system.
In all of this though, North Korea is an exception. In spite of all the official rhetoric, North Korea can be seen nowadays as a post-socialist country where most of the population makes a living in the growing private sector. In the countries of post-socialist Europe, the new economy is dominated exclusively by men, but this is not the case in the North. Somewhat surprisingly, North Korean grassroots capitalism has a female face.
At least three-quarters of North Korea’s market vendors are women. Women also constitute a majority among the owners of quasi-legal workshops and among the managers of the private service industry like restaurants et al. Most of them are by no means rich but their income is significantly larger than the income of their own husbands. In essence, the sudden advent of capitalism brought with it the empowerment of women.
Why did things take such an unusual turn? To a very large extent this was the byproduct of an unusually strong patriarchal bent in North Korea’s official ideology. For decades, the state has taken men very seriously. Virtually all able-bodied men were expected to go to state-run workplaces, where they were also monitored and indoctrinated by the authorities. Meanwhile, women were deemed to be less economically valuable and less politically dangerous and thus were occasionally left out of the state’s area of concern. Unlike most communist states, North Korea did not promote labor participation with much zeal. It was seen as perfectly normal and acceptable if a married woman wanted to stay at home and become a fulltime housewife.
As a result, when, in the early 1990s the economy began to fall apart, this arrangement had much impact on the social position of women. Even though production at state factories came to a near complete standstill, the North Korean authorities insisted that all able-bodied men should continue to attend their officially designated workplace.
There was of course almost nothing to do there, since most of these facilities worked well below initial capacity and often came to a complete halt. But the government thought ― and continues to think ― that men must be kept under monitoring, and this monitoring system is centered on the workplace.
In this new situation, women were able to engage in the new grassroots economy. They started to make things at home and planting their own plots _ all while their husbands were sitting idle at their workplaces. Being housewives, women could get away with such things, without attracting undue attention from the authorities.
This situation put new burdens on the shoulders of women but also gave them economic power as they became the family breadwinners. From my interaction with North Koreans it is clear that the younger generation sees it as natural that women, not men, bring home most of the income for the family budget.
Predictably, these changes in relative economic power have also begun to influence the balance of power within the family itself. It is a common joke nowadays to describe men as “meong-meong-i,” an endearing name for a puppy. Husbands are, in other words, cute and dearly loved but have little or no economic value.
Another emerging phenomenon is the massive increase in the number of divorces, as well as the rise of extra-marital affairs. In this new situation, female merchants do not just make more money than their husbands on average but they also can and usually have to travel, often spending weeks on end far from their families and neighbors. Therefore it is seen as quite natural for such women to have affairs, especially when their husbands are less than perfect.
Of course, we should not paint an excessively rosy picture. North Korea remains a tough place to live and many women there suffer from malnutrition and other illnesses resulting from overwork. That said though, it is clear that there is a significant number of women who have benefited from the opportunities that arose from the crisis.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.