Seol Song-a remembers when she decided it was time to “buy myself a husband”. Born in the late 1960s, Seol grew up poor and hungry in the industrial city of Sunchon, north of Pyongyang. But after years working on a construction site, her life changed in the early 1990s when she started selling penicillin pilfered from the pharmaceuticals factory where her mother worked.
It was a time of rising demand for medicine: the country’s economy and state-directed food rationing system had collapsed in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, leading to a famine that is believed to have killed millions of people. Armed with her mother’s expertise as a chemist, Seol started to produce medicines herself, hiring several employees and bribing public officials to protect her from arrest.
Yet despite the money she was earning, Seol still needed a politically-connected husband to make up for her own lowly status in North Korea’s patriarchal society as a woman from a family that languished at the bottom of the country’s political caste system, or songbun.
“I wanted to have a man with a good songbun background, which I didn’t have - so I ‘bought’ a man with those conditions,” says Seol. She opted for a handsome high school music teacher from a family that were members of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
“In the past, a woman with a pretty face and a certain job was regarded as a good bride,” she says. “After the famine, women who were good at doing business were considered the best. I could have any man I wanted.” With her capital and his political connections, she bought a large house and converted it into a confectionery factory, an illicit private enterprise that served markets across the entire province.
Seol – who escaped the country a decade ago – was one of thousands of North Korean women to develop a black market business under the nose of the authorities, filling the void left by a bankrupt and incapacitated state. In time, they emerged as a new entrepreneurial class, driving the spread of markets, taking on responsibility for feeding North Korean society, and challenging traditional gender roles in the process.
By the time North Korean leader Kim Jong-un imposed an extreme lockdown in January 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, women dominated an informal economy estimated to contribute more than 70 per cent of the country’s household incomes.
They were also much more likely to defect – 80.7 per cent of North Koreans arriving in South Korea in 2019 were female compared with just 12.2 per cent in 1998, according to the South Korean government – making them disproportionately responsible for the remittances sent by individuals in China and South Korea upon which many North Korean families depend.
Yet, despite their market power and newfound social influence, North Korean women remain vulnerable to antediluvian social attitudes and the predations of the state, say experts who have conducted extensive interviews with escapees from the country.
Deprived of social and political status, even those able to acquire large amounts of capital depend on “protection” from male officials and family members. Those unable to pay bribes or fulfil state-mandated quotas of cash and goods are routinely expected to do hard labour or can fall victim to sexual abuse at the hands of predatory officials.
And with Kim having sealed the country’s borders with China and Russia and forced out foreign diplomats, aid workers and NGOs since the start of the pandemic, North Korea’s women are expected to pay a disproportionately heavy price. The regime, fearful of unrest amid chronic food shortages, is moving to reassert state control over the very areas of the informal economy dominated by women.
“North Korean women are not just victims; they are entrepreneurs, market actors, and providers for their family,” says Sea Young Kim, a researcher at Yonsei University in Seoul. “These draconian border restrictions don’t just threaten their supply chains. They also prevent the women themselves – and their stories – from getting out.”
In July 1946, the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, a precursor to the present day Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), enacted a law on sex equality stating that “women hold equal social status and rights with men in all areas of state, economic, cultural, social and political life”.
North Korea has maintained the fiction ever since, claiming in a submission to the UN in 2016 that “all the policies, laws and sector-specific action programmes of the DPRK accord women equal rights with men on the principle of zero tolerance of discrimination against them in all their forms and any affront to their dignity”.
The reality is very different. In a country in which there is officially no unemployment and in which all citizens are assigned roles by the state, those women who are not registered as housewives tend to be confined to certain sectors of the economy such as health, education, or retail.
Those who work in other sectors are mostly assigned to back office or secretarial roles in overwhelmingly male-run public institutions, or forced to do hard labour cutting down trees, building roads or working on construction sites in areas where there are shortages of male workers.
This state-imposed patriarchy is upheld by the country’s public distribution system of food rations. Women are expected both by the state and society to marry, and their rations are then allocated to the husband, who is registered as the “master of the household”.
But if the public distribution system reinforced North Korean women’s dependence on their spouses, the country’s economic collapse in the 1990s afforded them an opportunity to forge a different role.
“Men were still expected to turn up to unpaid jobs in factories, state enterprises and public institutions, leaving it to women to go looking for food and engaging in grassroots market activity,” says Kim Sung-kyung, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul. “The irony is that their low status under this patriarchal system gave them more space to act independently.”
Many sold clothes or foodstuffs or offered services such as cleaning, child-minding or hairdressing. It led to the creation of trading networks in products ranging from shoes to baby formula, foreign pharmaceuticals, herbs and noodle and bread-making machines that spanned the country and stretched across the border into China.
“People often imagine market activity in North Korea as something stationary, like women sitting at market stalls, but it is actually very mobile,” says Hanna Song of the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) in Seoul. “Unlike North Korean men, the women aren’t necessarily expected to report to a certain place every day. They can bribe their local neighbourhood surveillance, train conductors and law enforcement officials to get around.”
Many women engaged in trade simply to help their families survive, but others formed the backbone of a new entrepreneurial class. In some cases, this caused tensions with male spouses as women became the main breadwinners.
“The system changed to one in which women feed the family and men go and sit all day at their workplace,” says Hyun Hyang (38), who before she escaped the country used to smuggle South Korean cosmetics from China and sell them out of her house in the northern city of Hyesan. “So gradually, the women’s voices got louder and men started losing their voice.”
All North Koreans belong to an inminban, a neighbourhood watch unit consisting of between 30 and 40 households that is typically presided over by an older married woman who monitors every aspect of its members’ lives on behalf of the state.
One woman who spoke to the Financial Times, whose name and hometown have been withheld to protect her identity, served as the head of an inminban in a rural area in the north of the country. She saw first hand how the lives of the women in her community changed during the 1990s.
“[Women] became breadwinners after the famine,” she says. “They had to be strong, persistent, tough and diligent in order to feed their families.”
When in 2002 the regime legalised and licensed the operation of a limited number of market stalls around the country, it amounted to official acceptance of the role that predominantly female traders had played in filling the void left by the collapse of the country’s rationing system.
By 2020, there were at least 436 official markets in North Korea, each with up to 20,000 stalls operated exclusively by women and raising approximately $56.8 million per year in revenue for the government, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But, as they have emerged as drivers of this grassroots activity, North Korea’s women have increasingly been targeted by the state.
Through the inminban, the regime has an intimate knowledge of each family’s circumstances. “We knew every detail of each household: births, deaths, jobs, children, who had relatives in China, how many guests dropped by,” says the former inminban leader who now lives outside the country. “We knew the contents of everybody’s home, down to the last spoon and chopstick.”
All North Koreans are expected to deliver their individual quotas to local authorities, which in turn are expected to meet the demands of ministries in Pyongyang. Even children are expected to participate in the construction and refurbishment of their own schools in order to be permitted to attend lessons, according to escapee testimonies.
“The North Korean government tacitly accepts that it cannot maintain its economy without the operation of black markets, so it extracts as much from them as it possibly can,” says Joanna Hosaniak of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.
The main vehicle for the state to extract cash, goods or labour from married women is via the Women’s Union, a Workers’ Party organisation that they must join unless they are a member of another party entity.
Members must deliver quotas to the Women’s Union to satisfy demands for everything from kilos of silkworm cocoons to kidney beans or matsutake mushrooms for the regime to sell for foreign currency, or scrap iron for a local construction project.
For female traders, their relative prosperity has become a double-edged sword. “The more you are able to accumulate, the more you will be exploited,” says Hosaniak, who has interviewed senior members of the Women’s Union. “Rather than empowering women, their earning power made them a target.”
As they are more likely than men to engage in mobile illegal or semi-legal economic activity, North Korean women are also more likely to find themselves at the mercy of officialdom in a country where sexual exploitation is rife, say escapees.
A 2014 UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea accused “agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains, and soldiers” of “committing acts of sexual assault on women in public spaces”. It added that “the male-dominated state [is] preying on the increasingly female-dominated market”.
This culture of abuse pervades all echelons of the state apparatus – something that has been acknowledged by victims and perpetrators alike.
“At some point in the night, each of us picked our favourite actresses from films we watched and asked the hotel lobby staff to bring them to us. Whomever we chose would be at our room door within the hour,” a former high-ranking secret police agent told US campaign group Human Rights Watch in 2016 when describing his monthly drinking sessions with colleagues.
“We were powerful and influential, we paid them, and they knew that if we liked them they could call us if they got into trouble or needed a favour.”
Against a backdrop of chronic food shortages, severe pandemic restrictions and a series of devastating droughts and floods, Kim Jong-un is moving to reimpose ideological orthodoxies redolent of the reign of his grandfather, founding leader Kim Il-sung.
In a letter read out to the Seventh Congress of the Women’s Union in June 2021, the young dictator exhorted North Korean women to wear traditional clothing, write encouraging letters to male soldiers, and protect children from “alien ideology, culture and lifestyles”.
“It is only in the last two or three years that Kim has started trying to reimpose traditional gender roles,” says Kim Sung-kyung. “North Korean women are marrying later, having fewer children, and prioritising market activity. To the regime, this represents a capitalist mindset that is getting out of control.”
Analysts say that many of the economic opportunities afforded to North Korean women in recent decades are likely to be closed off as the regime maintains its stranglehold on cross-border trade and Kim attempts to reassert his control over the market mechanisms that sprang up in response to the collapse of the rationing system.
What is less clear, say observers, is how generations of North Korean women with a newfound sense of agency will respond to the revival of the “male-dominated state”.
“The ability to make money by bringing in goods from abroad, and the ability to escape, were the two main pressure valves for many women living in North Korea, and now both of those are under threat,” says Song at the NKDB.
“Before the famine, women were able to stay at home – they didn’t know anything about earning money,” says Hyun. “But after experiencing these market activities, it would be very difficult for them to go back to where they were.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Seol Song-a. “I was bringing in all the money, and yet I kept asking myself why I was born as a woman, why I have to wash his socks. Who made the law saying that women should do the laundry?” asks Seol, who left North Korea – and her husband – in 2010 to set up a business in China, and now lives in Seoul.
“Before she died, my mother told me that she had spent her life waiting for rations,” she adds. “I have never forgotten that.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022