With the March of Tribulation as the clear starting point, a big shift in the attitude of women towards divorce has been taking place in North Korea. Women are no longer heavily restricted by societal or economic pressures, and divorce is growing more common every year.
The most recent issue of Open Radio for North Korea’s newsletter (Issue 43) cited the case of Shinuiju, commenting that with women’s attitude to divorce changing, the divorce rate is on the rise.
The newsletter said that the rate had increased five-fold, explaining, “In Shinuiju, which has a population of approximately 220,000, the incidence of divorce between 1993 and 1994 was reported to be approximately 10, but in 2007 and 2008 it was around 50.”
Mr. Choi, a Japanese-Korean who defected in 1998, explained more, “The March of Tribulation dramatically changed the attitudes of women. In contrast with the past, women nowadays don’t hesitate to get a divorce, if they are economically independent.”
“If the women come from affluent families or make good money from doing business, then divorce does not pose a difficult challenge.”
However, another defector, Mr. Lee (42) explained why women vacillate with regards to divorce, “A system existed in which divorce caused harm to the family members or relatives of the person seeking a divorce. This system had an influence on family members, even cousins of the woman, at the Party, security agency and army levels.”
Mr. Kim (36), who defected in 2006, said more, “In North Korea, a husband’s place of work provides the family’s home, so after divorce the woman has no place to go. Even if she goes back to her parents’ home, she faces extreme contempt for getting a divorce and maybe hardship due to the difficult economic situation of her parents.”
Societal discrimination against women in North Korea remains dire, and women have even come to bear the burden of sustaining the family in recent years.
Although the North Korean authorities maintain that the North is an “egalitarian society with no gender differences,” the patriarchal order of the old era, which clearly perpetuates, and ongoing discrimination against women has become well-known through the testimony of defectors.”
Since the mid-1990s, as radio broadcasts and CDs containing South Korean dramas and movies spread via China, the influx of outside information has been increasing, but discrimination against women has not shown any notable signs of easing.
However, the newsletter points out, “Despite the preexisting societal discrimination against North Korean women, those women now constitute 90 percent of the merchants in the jangmadang, and have even taken on the burden of sustaining the livelihood.”
“Men in the jangmadang are mostly those over 60, veterans and handicapped people. In the case of the jangmadang in Shinuiju, just 10 percent of the 500 merchants are male.”
“North Korea is a society where gender roles are strictly defined,” he added, “In the case of men, they have to report to work regardless of whether or not provisions are provided.”
The newsletter included the testimonies of defector Mr. Kim (38), who worked in an obstetrics and gynecological hospital in Musan, North Hamkyung Province until 2006, and Ms. Choi, a housewife who defected from Pyongsung in 1998.
Mr. Kim explained, “With the exception of overseeing women in maternity care and the people in charge of medical examinations, there was a dearth of work, so we sat around doing nothing most of the time. Even when the hospital stopped operating due to the economic crisis, we still had to report to work and receive our attendance stamps.”
Choi said, “We think it is shameful for a man to work in the jangmadang. As a result, women work in the jangmadang or on street stalls instead.”