SEOUL — Shortly after Kim Jeong-ah graduated from military college in North Korea, a senior told her she should embody a woman’s sensibilities and characteristic attention to detail. Female enlistments were a new reality, and she thought his remark signaled a newfound appreciation for women in the workplace.
North Korea’s first daughter emerges. Could women one day run the country?
“The patriarchy will never change,” said Kim, who defected to the South in 2009. “At the end of the day, men are the heaven and women are the earth.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has fueled widespread speculation about his succession planning after recently showing off his daughter for the first time. But the question of whether a woman could run North Korea is a complex one, female defectors and researchers say.
Certainly, more women hold powerful positions in the government than ever before. The regime has three women in first-tier positions, an unprecedented feat for female representation: Kim’s sister and top aide, Kim Yo Jong; Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; and Hyon Song Wol, who directs security and logistics for the leader’s public events.
The number of female members in the central committee of the country’s main political party doubled from 2016 to 2019, and women have long been represented in higher numbers in local organizations, according to research by Michael Madden, who runs North Korea Leadership Watch.
This progress suggests that the ranks of women with substantive political standing will continue to increase, Madden said: “This might be accurate over the next 10 to 20 years, particularly as the next generation of North Korean officials begin to inhabit more influential or prominent positions in the regime.”
Women also play an important role in the North Korean economy and are often the main breadwinners of their homes. They run the private markets, or jangmadang, selling and bartering goods imported from China to earn money. Men are required to work jobs that support the regime and so have capped wages, which limits how much money they can bring home.
Even so, North Korea remains a deeply male-dominated society, where women are routinely subject to sexual violence, trafficking and discrimination, especially as they work and travel to trade goods.
The country’s three most powerful women — Choe, Hyon and Kim Yo Jong — are “from special families and are different from ordinary women,” said Kim Seok-Hyang, North Korean studies professor at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul. “They are women, but occupy a place in society that is like other elite men.”
During the pandemic, North Korea has tightly closed its borders. Trade with China plummeted, and its leader limited cross-border travel throughout the country, which constricted the local market economy. He also has cracked down on smuggled entertainment and media in recent years, cutting a key source of unfiltered access to information about the outside world for much of the population.
The restrictions on movement risk the safety and potential of ordinary North Korean women who run the markets, said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Every single element that empowered women … he’s actually taken away,” Yoon said. “If this is really going to be the trend going forward, women are actually in a worse-off situation in terms of empowerment than ever before.”
Their role as moneymakers has meant they could exert some domestic power and limit household spending, researchers and defectors say. But when they did not bring enough money home or were not particularly good at business, they often became victims of domestic violence. Yoon fears lockdowns and covid restrictions may have exacerbated such violence.
The country’s most educated and privileged women are in the capital, Pyongyang, where women work a range of jobs, such as interpreters, tour guides, restaurant servers, bus drivers and employees at state-owned enterprises. Many have studied in other countries.
Lindsey Miller, who lived in the city from 2017 to 2019 with her husband, a British diplomat, recalled the conversations she had with elite Pyongyang women about dealing with expectations of marriage and motherhood. She said several confided that they wanted to delay both as long as they could so they could move up in their careers or travel abroad — struggles reminiscent of women’s experiences in other countries, including the United States.
Today’s attitudes about marriage have roots in the 1990s, when North Korea experienced a devastating famine. Many women recognized that they couldn’t rely only on the state to provide food and realized that having a child meant adding another mouth to feed, making tough times even harder, Kim Jeong-ah, the former military officer, said.
She now runs Rights for Female North Korean Defectors, an organization based in greater Seoul for those who were separated from their children when they left the country. Many of the women she helps, promised money they could send back to their families, became victims of human trafficking. Those who tried to return home were treated as pariahs.
“These women essentially sold themselves to save their families. … Rather than being supported, they were ostracized,” she said.
It is impossible to know who might follow Kim Jong Un in leading North Korea. His daughter, whom South Korean officials have identified as Ju Ae, is believed to be about 9 or 10 years old.
“It’s nonsensical for her to become Supreme Leader, a position that has been handed down in the Kim family for generations. Moreover, it doesn’t make sense because she’s a girl, not a boy. The state controls its people and teaches them that,” a female reporting partner told Asia Press.
Kim Jong Un’s motivation in releasing his daughter’s picture was not to depict her as a potential future leader but to portray himself as a fatherly figure for political purposes, said Kim Seok-Hyang of Ewha Woman’s University. Breaking the ultimate glass ceiling is not yet politically viable given the country’s male-dominated hierarchy, she added.
But when it comes to North Korea, among the most closed-off places in the world, anything is possible.
“It’s certainly interesting … not even just if a woman could do that job and would be accepted, but how other women might think about that,” Miller said. “If there are women already thinking about the fact that they don’t want to have children or they want to prioritize their careers or they want to travel … how might that affect their aspirations?”