While women work, men take on family New Year’s preparations in North Korea

A couple in North Korea goes for a walk with their child, whom the husband takes an active role in watching after. Image: Daily NK

Despite vast shortcomings in comparison to the progress being made in South Korea, small changes in perceptions regarding women’s rights are appearing up in North Korea.

As women have largely taken over as the breadwinners in many households throughout the country’s nascent marketization, the notion of traditional gender roles and patriarchy in North Korea has begun to shift.

As women’s influence grows due to their integral roles, men have begun to take up more of the domestic work, purchasing of gifts for special occasions, and making preparations.

“It’s not just married women who are busy ahead of the new year, now their husbands are too. Many of the men are tasked with all the housework and preparing food for the celebrations,” a source in South Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

In North Korea, most people pay respects to the statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung throughout the country on January 1 in the morning, after which families generally gather for a large meal and to exchange gifts. In a departure from the past, men are starting to take care of most of these duties and are even purchasing special gifts for their wives to present in front of relatives.

Only a few years ago it was rare, if not completely unheard of, for a North Korean man to present his wife with a special gift on holidays or special anniversaries. While many men would have harbored such intentions internally, cultural factors often deemed it as embarrassing or emasculating, said the source.

“Women are busy conducting business at the markets, so men have to keep busy doing things like washing dishes and other chores. This is a massive change from the times when you never even saw a man enter the kitchen,” she said.

The proliferation of South Korean culture in the North is another influential factor. Gift culture has permeated society through the younger generation enjoying South Korean movies and dramas, and has made its way through to the older generation.

“Romantic relationships and family dynamics portrayed in South Korean media content were completely incomprehensible for North Korean men to understand at first. But slowly, things began to change. Now you need to actually earn your title as head of a household. It’s not just a given anymore,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.

“In the past, if you saw a husband helping out watching the kids and pitching in around the house, the assumption was that he was lacking in some way. Now it’s the opposite; most people expect it and it’s well-received and aspirational,” one newly-arrived defector in her 30s from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK.