The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known as North Korea, employs a command-centralized economy, with the state controlling all aspects of production and outcomes. In this isolated, militarized, patriarchal society, an intriguing fact emerges: Women wield more economic power.
It is surprising that North Korea has a relatively small gender wage gap compared to many other countries, challenging common assumptions. However, there is a need to approach these findings with caution due to limited access to inside information about North Korea. Nevertheless, the available information offers intriguing insights into the economic dynamics within the country.
North Korea’s Economy Throughout History
During the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to a close, North Korea’s attempted economic recovery failed. This economic decline led to a devastating famine, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands to millions of lives. In the aftermath of these disasters, women took up the task of selling mushrooms and scrap copper cables to provide for their families and achieve sustenance.
As the hope for state rations dwindled, North Koreans turned to the informal economy, and it was here that women thrived. Despite the continued dominance of men in society, the military and the government, reports stated that “women earned more than 70% of household income…mainly as traders in the informal markets.”
According to numerous defectors from North Korea, women’s business skills and their ability to sell goods and services accurately reflect the living standards of the country, rather than the influence of the state or the military power of men. Consequently, the once male-dominated society needs to recognize the increasing influence and significance of women, who have emerged as the primary drivers of economic activity within the state. This transformation has led to a remarkable reversal of the gender wage gap in North Korea.
However, despite their entrepreneurial success within North Korea, defectors who flee to South Korea encounter yet another economic hurdle as they face discrimination in the job market.
Discrimination and Violence Against Women
In addition to the economic burdens they face, women in North Korea also actively experience gender inequality, as they confront daily discrimination that is socially accepted as an inevitable part of their lives. From a young age, society teaches girls to adhere to stereotypical gender roles, a practice prevalent in many countries and cultures, emphasizing their inherent differences and the contrasting standards they will be held to.
Moreover, social structures perpetuate discrimination against women on a daily basis, beyond disparities in education and unfair job opportunities. They are expected to use honorific forms of speech when addressing boys, reinforcing gender hierarchies. These detailed expectations persist throughout the lives of North Korean girls, extending from school to work, marriage and even the later stages of life.
Unfortunately, gender inequality represents just one aspect of the challenges that women in North Korea face. They also confront unaddressed issues of domestic violence, often dismissed as “private matters.” It is disheartening that only when such incidents occur in public do they have a chance of receiving some semblance of justice, yet most cases go unreported.
North Korea is an isolated country with strict border control measures in place to prevent foreign influence. However, despite the country’s isolation, there exist indirect channels through which aid can reach the citizens of North Korea.
One notable organization is Crossing Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides safety, counseling and medical care to North Korean refugees through its Refugee Care and Orphan Care programs. Supporting these initiatives would offer much-needed assistance to those in need.
Another organization making a difference is Helping Hands Korea, a Christian non-governmental organization located on the Korean Peninsula. Established in 1996, Helping Hands Korea, led by Tim and Sunmi Peters, has partnered with various international organizations to address the urgent needs of vulnerable individuals in the North Korean population. The organization plays a crucial role in providing aid to North Koreans during times of crisis.
The gender wage gap in North Korea exhibits intriguing dynamics where women hold significant power despite the isolated, militarized and patriarchal nature of the society. Although the limited access to information about North Korea necessitates caution, it is crucial to continue to address the challenging issues that hardly come to light. And efforts to support organizations like Crossing Borders and Helping Hands Korea can provide much-needed aid to vulnerable individuals in North Korea and contribute to positive change.
– Sandy Kang