I had the opportunity to listen to a North Korean refugee speak at a lecture in Busan. Hundreds of us sat there, all photography banned for fear of retribution on her extended family by North Korean hackers, waiting anxiously to hear her story. This timid, unsure woman spent over an hour describing the horrors she had seen. She told us of her life in North Korea, of her family and her village. She told us of her mother and sister who had gone missing in their own attempt to flee and of the death of her father, which finally gave her the freedom to attempt her escape. She told us about her path to the Chinese border, the ordeals and the friends that she made. And then she wouldn't tell us about anything else until she the time she arrived in Korea. This time she spent in China, the time we were most curious about, is the one part she could not share. I'm not sure if it was because she wanted to protect those that helped her along, or if it because it was still so fresh in her mind, but her she maintained her silence despite the soft prods of the crowd. Her story was daunting; it was hard to even listen to - I can’t imagine having lived it. Unfortunately, this is a horror than many North Korean women face.
The recent military situation has reminded me of this talk I heard over a year ago. We read so much about how war could affect the Americans and the South Koreans, the Chinese and even the Taiwanese, but we forget to think about how much this war could affect those in the North, what they have to lose from this ordeal. Or gain.
The role of women in North Korea, those not fortunate enough to be associated with the military elite, is precarious at best. They face many of the same troubles as their male counterparts, but many of their own as well. The law of the land calls them equals. Everyone must work, for the benefit of the nation, but their duties differ greatly. After men finish their military service, they are mostly put to work in the government, or in heavy labour. Here the work can be unreliable, and the pay more so. Men can go months at a time without being allowed to go into their jobs because there is no work to be done, and are forced to pay many times their salaries to help the struggling companies. This leaves no money for their families, so the women must work. Women are now in control the private, and highly illegal, sector. They smuggle meat, fruit and vegetables, grow secret gardens and sell secret crafts. They make deals across the Chinese border, and their husbands, the "lights of daytime" mope, or do what small jobs they can on the side. This does not make them immune to the physical abuse unfortunately. These women are the ones making the money, and this makes their husbands angry. And violent. Spousal abuse is the norm, not even hidden from neighbours. But the women, they are gaining power. They are the breadwinners, and they are starting to demand respect. It is a curious irony that it is only when the nation is so impoverished, so broken that it cannot feed its own people, that women finally begin to gain some clout. Men without wives become beggars, and so the men are learning to bow their heads and show a little respect. They women are still beat down, but they are finding their voices.
Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un's wife, has been a veiled light in North Korea, though she has not gone without punishment. She is beautiful and intelligent, currently working on her PhD in sciences at the Kim Il-Sung University. In 2012, standing by her husband’s side, she wore a 2 piece suit - a far cry from the traditional garb that women are supposed to wear. On it she pinned a flower broach where the red Kim lapel should have been. A small thing, but large changes begin with small actions.
Most North Korean women are not so fortunate. Many are slaves to the regime, and many others are locked away in prisons, trucks and even bags, heading in ignorance to places they can’t even fathom. Every year tens of thousands of women are trafficked into China for prostitution and forced marriage. Some are tricked by men offering to help them find work across the border or safe passage to South Korea, some are sold by their families to provide food for the other children, and some are blatantly kidnapped by men who can afford to bribe the right people. These women can sell for 1500$, more if they are desirable enough. They are shipped all over China, sold to men desperate for wives, or shut into brothels where they are forced to service entire villages. Some who are forced into marriage might even be better off than they were in North Korea, a sad and sick irony. They might find themselves with 3 meals a day, and a husband who only occasionally beats them. But still, this is not a choice. Others may be sold to a group of men who were forced to pool their money together, because each on his own is unable to come up with the necessary fee. Then she must care for all of the men, clean all of their houses, make all of their food and satisfy each of their sexual desires. She can try to escape, but where would she go? There is a whole village that wants to keep her there, she has no legal papers and she cannot speak the language. If she goes to the police they might help her, but help means being sent back to North Korea where she will be imprisoned for fleeing the country, or they might just sell her off to the next buyer.
Women in North Korea hold the same legal rights as men. Technically. Functionally they have a lot less and ultimately neither sex really has any. War isn’t going to happen, but I wonder what it would mean for the women of North Korea if Kim Jong Un made a move? What little law exists in North Korea would fall apart. I expect this would be almost exclusively beneficial for these women. Their black-market skills would become even more crucial and in this way they would gain power. The porous Chinese border would be shut off and in this way they would gain freedom. Some would take up arms and fight with their male counterparts. Others would escape in the chaos. And when Kim Jong Un fell, and the North was forced to open up to the rest of the world, the women of North Korea would gain opportunities that they don’t even know are possible. I don’t want to see any anyone die and I certainly don’t want to see war break out, especially nuclear war. But I can’t help but think of all the benefits for the people of this small, unstable country. For years the countries of the world have been feeding the North’s army with stolen humanitarian supplies. What could we do to actually help the people?