North Korea: Market forces have female faces

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

A defector from the North, a typical tough Korean auntie with trademark permed hair, smiled when asked about “men’s role” in North Korean families: “Well, in 1997-98 men became useless. They went to their jobs, but there was nothing to be done there, so they came back. Meanwhile their wives went to distant places to trade and kept families going.”

Indeed, the sudden increase in the economic strength and status of women is one of manifold changes that have taken place North Korea over the past 10 or 15 years. The old Stalinist society is dead. It has died a slow but natural death over the past decade and, in spite of Pyongyang’s frequent and loud protestation to the contrary, capitalism has been reborn in North Korea. The old socialist state-managed economy of steel mills and coal mines hardly functions at all, and the ongoing economic activity is largely private in nature.

But the new North Korean capitalism of dirty marketplaces, charcoal trucks and badly dressed vendors with huge sacks of merchandise on their backs demonstrates one surprising feature: it has a distinctly female face. Women are over-represented among the leaders of the growing post-Stalinist economy – a least on the lower level, among the market traders and small-time entrepreneurs.

This partially reflects a growth pattern of North Korean neo-capitalism. Unlike the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union or China, the “post-socialist capitalism” of North Korea is not an affair planned and encouraged by people from the top tiers of the late communist hierarchy. Rather, it is capitalism from below, which grows in spite of government’s attempts to reverse the process and turn the clock back.

Until around 1990, the markets and private trade of all kinds played a very moderate role in North Korean society. Most people were content with what they were officially allocated through the elaborate public distribution system, and did not want to look for more opportunities. The government also did its best to suppress the capitalist spirit. The rations were not too generous, but still sufficient for survival.

And then things began to fall apart. The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics brought a sudden end to the flow of the Soviet aid (which was, incidentally, happily accepted but never publicly admitted by the North Korean side). This triggered an implosion of the North Korean economy. In the early 1990s people discovered that the rations were not enough for survival, and thus something had to be done. In a matter of years acute shortages of food developed into a large-scale famine, and in 1994-96 the public distribution system ceased to function in most parts of the country.

But men still felt bound to their jobs by their obligations and rations (distributed through workplaces). Actually, rations were not forthcoming, but this did not matter. Being used to the stability of the previous decades, the North Koreans saw the situation as merely a temporary crisis that soon would be overcome somehow. No doubt, they reasoned, one day everything will go back to the “normal” (that is, Stalinist) state of affairs. So men believed that it would be wise to keep their jobs in order to resume their careers after eventual normalization of the situation. The ubiquitous “organizational life” also played its role: a North Korean adult is required to attend endless indoctrination sessions and meetings, and these requirements are more demanding for males than for females.

Women enjoyed more freedom. By the standard of the communist countries, North Korea has always had an unusually high percentage of housewives among its married women (for example, in the northern border city of Sinuiju, up to 70% of married women were estimated to be housewives in the 1980s). While in most other communist countries women were encouraged to continue work after marriage, in North Korea the government did not really mind when married women quit their jobs to become full-time housewives.

Thus when the economic crisis began, women were first to take up market activities of all kinds. This came very naturally. In some cases they began by selling those household items they could do without, or by selling homemade food. Eventually, this developed into larger businesses. While men continued to go to their plants (which by the mid-1990s had usually ceased to operate) women plunged into market activity. In North Korea such trade involved long journeys in open trucks, and nights spent on concrete floors or under the open skies; they often bribed predatory local officials. And, of course, women had the ability to move heavy material, since the vendor’s back tends to be her major method of transportation.

This tendency was especially pronounced among low- and middle- income families. The elite received rations even through the famine years of 1996-99, so the women of North Korea’s top 5% usually continued with their old lifestyle. Nonetheless, some of them began to use their ability to get goods cheaply. Quite often, the wives of high-level cadres were and still are involved in resale of merchandise that is first purchased from their husbands’ factories at cheap official prices. It is remarkable that in the case of North Korea such activities are carried out not so much by the cadres themselves, but by their wives. Cadres had to be careful, since it was not clear what was the official approach to the new situation of nascent capitalism. Thus it was assumed that women would be safer in such undertakings since they did not, and still do not, quite belong to the official social hierarchy.

But for the cadres’ wives, these market operations were a way to move from being affluent to being rich. The lesser folks had to do something just to stay alive.

Perhaps, had the state given its formal approval to nascent capitalism (as did the still formally “communist” state of China), the men would be far more active. But Pyongyang officialdom still seems to be uncertain what to do with the crumbling system, and it is afraid to give to unconditional approval to capitalism. Thus men are left behind and capitalism is left to women.

This led to a change in the gender roles inside families. On paper, communism appeared very feminist, but real life in the communist states was an altogether different matter, and among the communist countries North Korea was remarkable for the strength of its patriarchal stereotypes. Men, especially in the more conservative northeastern part of the country, seldom did anything at home, with all household chores being exclusively the female domain. But in the new situation, when men did not have much to do while their wives struggled to keep the family fed and clothed, many men changed their attitude that housework was something beneath their dignity (at least this is what recent research among the defectors seem to suggest). As one female defector put it, “When men went to outside jobs and earned something, they used to be very boastful. But now they cannot do it and they become sort of useless, like a streetlight in the middle of the day. So a man now tries to help his wife in her work as best as he can” to keep the family going.

Recently, when it is increasingly clear that the “old times” are not going to return, some men are bold enough to risk breaking their ties with official employment. But they often go to market not as businessmen in their own right but rather as aides to their wives who have amassed great experience over the past decade. Being newcomers, males are relegated to subordinate positions – at least temporarily. Or alternatively, they are involved in more dangerous and stressful kinds of activity, such as smuggling goods across the badly protected border with China. As one woman defector said: “Men usually do smuggling. Men are better in big things, you know”.

Economic difficulties and change in money-earning patterns as well as new lifestyle and related opportunities in some cases led to family breakdowns. In South Korea the economic crisis of 1998 resulted in a mushrooming divorce rate. In the North, the nearly simultaneous Great Famine had the same impact, even if in many cases the divorce was not officially recognized.

Of course, we are talking about a great disaster here, and a large part of the estimated 600,000-900,000 people who perished in those years were women. Of the survivors, not all women became winners, bold entrepreneurs or successful managers: some were dragged into prostitution, which has made a powerful comeback recently, and many more had to survive on whatever meager food was available. But still, it seems that years of crisis changed the social roles in North Korean families. For many women, the social disaster became the time when they showed their strength, will and intelligence not just to survive, but also to succeed.


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