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Defectors discuss womens rights at International Womens Day event

Colin Zwirko, intern  |  2017-03-15 16:13
South Koreans joined the global community in celebrating International Womens Day last week. While most activity focused on circumstances in their own country, it was also an opportunity to put a spotlight on the lack of womens rights and human rights in general just over the border in North Korea.
Human Asia, a Seoul-based NGO dedicated to improving human rights in Asia, worked with the New Korea Womens Union to organize the event Women do not exist in North Korea, held at the Seoul Museum of History. Human Asias Secretary-General Kwon Somi explained that with this title they wanted to express in stark terms the complete nonexistence of womens rights in the country. Four women from North Korea joined host Kim Hee Young for a free discussion of their experiences and the treatment of women in the North.
North Korea actually celebrates International Womens Day as well, encouraging men to take over household chores and treat the women in their lives especially well on the day. Guest Lee Mi Yeon, who was previously an elementary school teacher in the North, explained to the audience the lesson she would give to her class about the holiday. She would describe the intent of Kim Il Sung to bring education to women who had no such opportunities before, providing equal rights and boosting them into positions as scientists and heroes [of socialism].
However, defector testimonies suggest that men generally expect subservience from women, occasionally leading to physical abuse with virtually no justice for the victims. A video shown at the event described one womans tragic story in the traditionally male-dominated culture of the North. She was a young telephone operator of just 20 years old with aspirations of joining the Workers Party and rising in the ranks. She testified that her superior physically molested her on many occasions, and threatened her saying that she could never advance if she were to tell anyone. Her testimony may someday be used as evidence in court proceedings against the man she accuses of these crimes.
One of the guests of the event, and the only one of the four who is married to a North Korean man, spoke about gender dynamics in a typical marriage, explaining that her husband has changed since coming to the South, but that old habits die hard. When living in North Korea, her husband very strictly expected her to have breakfast and dinner ready and waiting for him at the right times. Though she said that he has loosened up a bit since coming to South Korea, host Kim Hee Young spoke of her surprise when she overheard the husband, even now, call her asking bossily where she was and when she would have dinner ready.
These kinds of expectations extend through to every aspect of social life in North Korea. Just like in South Korea, respect is expressed through an emphasis on rank and titles as well as honorific language. Lee Mi Yeon explained that this is taken to a more extreme level in the North and is accompanied by more gender-specific norms. Ms. Lee said that due to mandatory military conscription and the longer requirements for men, her classmates in university were around 80% female. With older male classmates in lower grades, she was still required to refer to males using honorific language, while the males always used casual language toward the females.
But limitations are not only enforced through social norms. Guest Lee Da Eun, having served for 9 years herself, talked about the strict ceiling placed on ranks for women in the military. A woman could have served for the same amount of time. She could have the same rank, the same abilities - everything - as her male colleagues, but she would still eventually be forced out, Lee explained.
The fact that women in North Korea have come to be seen as the primary breadwinners in many families through their work in the markets further highlights their lack of rights overall. However, one of the guests did say that women have gained more clout in divorce proceedings if their husband is not contributing enough to the family. She went on to describe that in these matters, a local judge will consider her earnings as a legitimate factor. This follows a more general trend across the country where in some cases money is becoming more important than ideology and tradition.
Market forces notwithstanding, North Korea still does not recognize equal rights for females in institutional or social terms, let alone human rights for all. Many defectors see an opportunity to take these stories and retell them through broadcasts and other means of disseminating information back into North Korea, helping to educate citizens about their rights.
When asked towards the end of the event what the audience can do to contribute, head of the New Korea Womens Union Lee So Yeon encouraged people to stay interested in North Korea and to condemn discrimination against defectors. Host Kim Hee Yeong also encouraged more engagement with the various organizations that are helping to spread information in the North - a viable channel of cultural exchange already in action. The events organizers are confident that such simple first steps will go a long way towards increasing awareness of human rights in general across the peninsula.

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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