A Woman’s Life

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

About a century ago, in the early 1900s, no major political movement could rival the Marxists in their commitment to gender equality. It was the time when women could not vote anywhere (well, anywhere apart from New Zealand and Australia), when their property rights were strictly limited, married unemployment was seen as the most natural state for “weaker vessels”, and most professions were not for women. In those days, the early Communists vocally demanded equal political and economic rights, equal pay, and also insisted that women should be given access to all professions, including the most manly ones.

When the Communists took power, for a brief while they tried to keep their promise. In the Communist Russia of the 1920s there were highly publicized cases of female air force pilots, military officers, and ambassadors. However, this drive did not last: Communism in power proved to be very patriarchal, and by the 1940s the earlier demands for gender equality were quietly scaled down in all Communist states.

Of all these states, North Korea probably proved to be most patriarchal, especially after its turn to nationalism in the late 1950s. Nationalism often goes hand in hand with anti-feminist sentiments, and North Korea was no exception. Soon North Korean women learned that they should know their proper place (of “wise mothers and kind wives”, of course) and be careful about their behavior, least it threaten public decency and morality.

This “proper” behavior was enforced through a number of restrictions: certain types of activity were denied women. North Korea has its own version of the “glass ceiling”, not allowing women to rise above a certain level. However, there are also bans on some mundane daily activities which for some reason are proclaimed to be “unbecoming of women”.

To start with, women are not allowed to smoke. In North Korea, female smoking is an absolute taboo, at least for young and middle-aged women. Female smokers in the South are disapproved of, but in the North the approach to the transgression is much tougher. As one defector put it: “A North Korean woman must be crazy to take up smoking”. There have been reports about women being sent into exile for their persistence with the smoking habit. I am slightly skeptical about these reports, but it is clear that in smoking a woman risks some serious “criticism” during an ideological study session, and this is not a good turn of events in North Korean society. This is in stark contrast with males’ behavior, since most North Korean males are chain smokers.

However, older women are exempted from this ban, and there are many North Korean women who begin smoking when they turn 50 or soon afterwards.

Pyongyang, the “capital of revolution” is somewhat notorious for many bans of seemingly normal things which are declared improper and unbecoming. Some of these bans are gender specific. For example, in Pyongyang and other major cities, for a long time women were not allowed to wear trousers. It was OK to work in trousers, but once the shift was over, decent North Korean women were supposed to dress in a “womanly manner” – that is, to change into a skirt. Those who appeared on the street dressed in trousers could be sent home by a police patrol. Once again, the ban did not apply to older women, and in the mid-90s trousers were partially pardoned.

In general, “proper female modesty” has always been extolled. In 1982 Kim Il-sung, while addressing the North Korean rubber-stamping parliament issued a warning: “It does not conform with the socialist lifestyle if women wear dresses without sleeves or a dress that shows their breasts!” North Koreans tried to ensure that the skirts were of an appropriate length to “conform to the socialist lifestyle”. Even nowadays, in the days of relative openness, skirts should safely cover the knees of the wearers.

Driving is not regarded as an activity suitable for a woman, and women are never issued a driving license. Of course, the number of private cars is very small, and their owners are naturally overwhelmingly male. It is remarkable that in the past, back in the 1970s and 1980s, even foreign women could encounter difficulties if they applied for a driving permit in Pyongyang. Obviously, North Korean officials could not comprehend how the female brain would be able to master such a technology.

However, the most bizarre of all these bans is one which deals with cycling. Bicycles were prohibited in Pyongyang for decades, and the ban was lifted only around 1992. However, this relaxation was not for everybody. In 1996, authorities decided that the bicycle was not suitable for women. The official press explained that “beautiful national customs” do not permit such debauchery. Allegedly, this judgment was the decree of Kim Jong-il himself.

At first, police worked hard to enforce the ban, and some female riders had their bikes confiscated, but then things cooled down and some women began to defy the prohibition.

However, it is increasingly clear that these and other bans are enforced by police with ever diminishing zeal. The North Korean dictatorship is running out of steam, not least because its own servants do not believe the official slogans anymore.


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