The Role of Women

North Korea Table of Contents

In the Chosn Dynasty, women were expected to give birth to and rear male heirs to assure the continuation of the family line. Women had few opportunities to participate in the social, economic, or political life of society. There were a few exceptions to limitations imposed on women's roles. For example, female shamans were called on to cure illnesses by driving away evil spirits, to pray for rain during droughts, or to perform divination and fortune-telling.

Few women received any formal education in traditional Korean society. After the opening of Korea to foreign contact in the late nineteenth century, however, Christian missionaries established girls' schools, thus allowing young Korean females to obtain a modern education.

The social status and roles of women were radically changed after 1945. On July 30, 1946, authorities north of the thirtyeighth parallel passed a Sex Equality Law. The 1972 constitution asserted that "women hold equal social status and rights with men." The 1990 constitution stipulates that the state creates various conditions for the advancement of women in society. In principle, North Korea strongly supports sexual equality.

In contemporary North Korea, women are expected to fully participate in the labor force outside the home. Apart from its ideological commitment to the equality of the sexes, the government views women's employment as essential because of the country's labor shortage. No able-bodied person is spared from the struggle to increase production and compete with the more populous southern half of the peninsula. According to one South Korean source, women in North Korea are supposed to devote eight hours a day to work, eight hours to study (presumably, the study of chuch'e and Kim Il Sungism), and eight hours to rest and sleep. Women who have three or more children apparently are permitted to work only six hours a day and still receive a full, eight-hour-a-day salary.

The media showcases role models. The official newspaper P'yongyang Times, in an August 1991 article, described the career of Kim Hwa Suk, a woman who had graduated from compulsory education (senior middle school), decided to work in the fields as a regular farmer in a cooperative located in the P'yongyang suburbs, and gradually rose to positions of responsibility as her talents and dedication became known. After serving as leader of a youth workteam, she attended a university. After graduating, she became chairperson of her cooperative's management board. Kim was also chosen as a deputy to the Supreme People's Assembly.

Despite such examples, however, it appears that women are not fully emancipated. Sons are still preferred over daughters. Women do most if not all of the housework, including preparing a morning and evening meal, in addition to working outside the home; much of the responsibility of childrearing is in the hands of t'agaso and the school system. The majority of women work in light industry, where they are paid less than their male counterparts in heavy industry. In office situations, they are likely to be engaged in secretarial and other low-echelon jobs.

Different sex roles, moreover, are probably confirmed by the practice of separating boys and girls at both the elementary and higher middle-school levels. Some aspects of school curricula for boys and girls also are apparently different, with greater emphasis on physical education for boys and on home economics for girls. In the four-year university system, however, women majoring in medicine, biology, and foreign languages and literature seem especially numerous.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress