Andrei Lankov: Why Women Have Taken the Lead in Bringing Capitalism to North Korea

[Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, the Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.]

A defector from the North, a typical tough Korean auntie with trademark permed hair, smiled when asked about "men's role" in North Korean families: "Well, in 1997-98 men became useless. They went to their jobs, but there was nothing to be done there, so they came back. Meanwhile their wives went to distant places to trade and kept families going."

Indeed, the sudden increase in the economic strength and status of women is one of manifold changes that have taken place North Korea over the past 10 or 15 years. The old Stalinist society is dead. It has died a slow but natural death over the past decade and, in spite of Pyongyang's frequent and loud protestation to the contrary, capitalism has been reborn in North Korea. The old socialist state-managed economy of steel mills and coal mines hardly functions at all, and the ongoing economic activity is largely private in nature.

But the new North Korean capitalism of dirty marketplaces, charcoal trucks and badly dressed vendors with huge sacks of merchandise on their backs demonstrates one surprising feature: it has a distinctly female face. Women are over-represented among the leaders of the growing post-Stalinist economy - a least on the lower level, among the market traders and small-time entrepreneurs.

This partially reflects a growth pattern of North Korean neo-capitalism. Unlike the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union or China, the "post-socialist capitalism" of North Korea is not an affair planned and encouraged by people from the top tiers of the late communist hierarchy. Rather, it is capitalism from below, which grows in spite of government's attempts to reverse the process and turn the clock back.

Until around 1990, the markets and private trade of all kinds played a very moderate role in North Korean society. Most people were content with what they were officially allocated through the elaborate public distribution system, and did not want to look for more opportunities. The government also did its best to suppress the capitalist spirit. The rations were not too generous, but still sufficient for survival.

And then things began to fall apart. The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics brought a sudden end to the flow of the Soviet aid (which was, incidentally, happily accepted but never publicly admitted by the North Korean side). This triggered an implosion of the North Korean economy. In the early 1990s people discovered that the rations were not enough for survival, and thus something had to be done. In a matter of years acute shortages of food developed into a large-scale famine, and in 1994-96 the public distribution system ceased to function in most parts of the country....

Perhaps, had the state given its formal approval to nascent capitalism (as did the still formally "communist" state of China), the men would be far more active. But Pyongyang officialdom still seems to be uncertain what to do with the crumbling system, and it is afraid to give to unconditional approval to capitalism. Thus men are left behind and capitalism is left to women.

This led to a change in the gender roles inside families. On paper, communism appeared very feminist, but real life in the communist states was an altogether different matter, and among the communist countries North Korea was remarkable for the strength of its patriarchal stereotypes....

Recently, when it is increasingly clear that the "old times" are not going to return, some men are bold enough to risk breaking their ties with official employment. But they often go to market not as businessmen in their own right but rather as aides to their wives who have amassed great experience over the past decade. Being newcomers, males are relegated to subordinate positions - at least temporarily. ...

For many women, the social disaster became the time when they showed their strength, will and intelligence not just to survive, but also to succeed.

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