While in the car I recently listened to an NPR story by Louisa Lim called Out of Desperation, North Korean Women become Breadwinners. Although considering North Korea’s traditionally patriarchal society this rise in female power and responsibility may seem like a positive step, a disturbing rise in domestic abuse has occurred alongside it.
As the lives of all North Koreans have become more difficult, it has been up to women to keep their families alive. Men in North Korea are trapped in state-mandated jobs that often pay nothing or, incredibly, force them to pay the government. As one North Korean woman told NPR, her husband “had to pay not to work for about six months of last year. You have to pay, even if you can’t afford to eat. It’s mandatory.” Men often have to pay twenty or thirty times their salary not to work, or they are sent to prison. Because of this, women take part in private trading to bring food and income to their families.
The new responsibilities of North Korean women have brought them power…as well as consequences. The traditional societal structure that prescribed women must obey their husbands is undermined because they are the providers, giving them more freedom and authority. In fact, women have become the main protestors against the government’s corruption. Young women no longer rely on marriage for survival. In fact, many consider postponing their marriage to avoid taking on more mouths to feed. Men without wives die of starvation because of their inability to provide for themselves.
And yet, domestic violence against North Korean women is also at its pinnacle. According to some of the North Koreans interviewed, violence against women is an everyday occurrence. It is so common that it is no longer a surprise to them. A man’s anger in his transient power could be to blame for the dramatic rise in violence. Women have become the beacon of hope and survival for their families, yet they are abused in the very homes that they sustain.
As a feminist, I find it hard to celebrate North Korean women’s new strength, responsibility, and independence, since the causes for that power are so appalling. The resistance that women face from the very people who are relying on them for survival is also harrowing. How can a woman, whose worth is so blatantly obvious now (although her worth always should have been obvious) face such oppression? Although men are suffering incredulous injustices of their own, being treated as slaves by their own government, the women in their lives should have their love and respect. I am not condemning all the men of North Korea, but rather want to point out that in this new cultural shift in North Korea, where the family hierarchy is being altered, women should find the respect that they have always deserved. And more than that, we have to face the horrible situations both men and women in North Korea are forced into just to survive.
Women should have respect whether or not they are financially supporting their families or if they have families at all. The women of North Korea should have had access to jobs long before this time of turmoil in North Korea. Women should be recognized as just as capable of men, and if they happen to be more capable and have access to more resources, like the women in North Korea, they should not be subjected to violence as a byproduct.