How is the role of women portrayed and idealized in North Korea? In official discourse, the DPRK has long claimed that it is a champion of women’s rights. Although this has never been applied in practice, Pyongyang’s professed allegiance to female equality stems from a core tenant of Marxist-Leninist statecraft which has placed emphasis on equality, vowing to create a revolutionary order of society and liberate women from oppression. This is outlined in the state’s highest discourses, the North Korea constitution declares that “Women are accorded equal social status and rights with men” and promises a whole range of benefits, including “maternity leave” and so on.
But of course, there is more to the story: as North Korea’s historical and ideological trajectory has deviated significantly from that of other socialist states, so in turn has its ideational depictions of women and their relationship to the core narratives of the regime. March marked international women’s day, a commemoration of female solidarity initially established in 1910 by the Socialist Party of America and then brought to international prestige by the Soviet Union. Given its normative relationship to the communist world, the holiday has gained political currency in North Korea. In the run up to the 2019 day, DPRK state media produced a series of articles emphasizing the contributions of women to the country’s cause.
However, separate to mainstream international discourse concerning women’s rights and equality, the published articles did not place significant emphasis on these areas, but instead focused on emphasizing the role of women as idealistic patriots who work to serve the regime, party and country. Despite utilization of the name “international women’s day”- the significance of women were in fact exclusively rendered within the boundaries and importance of the state itself and its legacy politics, with no reference to the outside world offered whatsoever. The below assessment explores these themes within the given publications in detail:
Women as Soldiers, Patriots and Revolutionaries- Female Legacy Politics
Those familiar with North Korean politics will already be aware of the glorified role of Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong il. As noted in “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics” by Chung & Kwon (2012), Jong-suk rose in the late 20th century to occupy a position in the state’s personality politics as the “mother of songun”- enveloping the role of women within the state narrative of the guerrilla resistance against Japan, the Korean War and the country’s post 1990s economic struggles
In commemorating international women’s day, the state media projected these discourses by celebrating the role of the women with emphasized reference to state’s legacy politics. Every single piece followed this lead. In opening, a DPRK today piece, titled “Korean Women Play Important Role in Achieving Country’s Prosperity” notes: “The people still remember women heroes including An Yong Ae, Jo Ok Hui, Thae Son Hui, Ri Sin Ja and Kil Hwak Sil who performed great feats in the Fatherland Liberation War and devoted their all to the prosperity and development of the country in the period of socialist construction.”
Another DPRK today piece, titled “Papers on Korean Women, Genuine Patriots” takes a similar line, noting “The Korean women displayed matchless heroism and the spirit of self-sacrifice by devoting themselves to the country and revolution during the days of the anti-Japanese war and the hard-fought Fatherland Liberation War… [travelling] a road of patriotism following the Party even when the country went through harsh ordeals as they bore in mind the faith that the socialist country protects them and the happiness of their families.” Rodong sinmun also made a similar tribute in its coverage of an official meeting held in honour of the day, highlighting the “Juche-oriented Korean women’s movement in the flames of the arduous anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle” and of course “the anti-Japanese war heroine Kim Jong Suk and the revolutionary careers of the great mothers of Korea”.
Feminity as Loyalty and Devotion
Feeding from the revolutionary narratives, each piece proceeded to render the continuing contributions of women to the “Korean Revolution” and frame the work of women as an exemplary loyalty, devotion and obedience to the state itself. As KCNA comments: “the Korean women were genuine patriots who serve the socialist country with love and devotion.” The terminology of “Love and devotion” is again noted in Rodong Sinmun’s coverage, outlining how women are: “performing heroic feats in the accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche and genuine patriots who are serving the socialist country with ardent love and devotion”. Comparatively, DPRK today stated: “women have creditably played the role of powerful force for the prosperity of the country, being loved as a flower of society, collective and family”- the article proceeding to list the many achievements of women in science, sports, industry and agriculture.
Family and Parenthood
Finally, in elaboration with the above and striking strong contrast with western feminism, coverage of international women’s day celebrated the importance of women as mothers and child bearers in view of the nation. KCNA highlights the women in the country who were awarded the title of “Labour Hero” for “Giving birth to lots of children”, whilst Rodong Sinmun presents parenthood as a form of honourable sacrifice, praising women who “give birth to many children to put forward them before the country, regard other’s trouble as their own and take care of comrades and neighbours with true love and affection. Their laudable deeds are proud picture that can be seen only in our country.”
Conclusions: Feminism with Juche Characteristics
North Korea’s discourse of international women’s day is rendered exclusively within the paradigm of political obligation to the cause of nation, party and the Korean revolution. Diverging widely from the ideals of internationalist feminism, it does not emphasize women as an end in themselves, but as an idealism serving the ends of the state. Despite the DPRK’s origins in the world of socialist internationalism and thus, its lip-service to female equality and justice, in tandem with the evolution of the Juche Ideology and its historical shift away from Marxist-Leninism, the discourses of women similarly shifted in tandem from worldwide liberation, to the particular focus on serving the state and nation itself.