Women with Economic Ability are the Best

A current MBC drama, “The Queen of Assisting Her Husband” has achieved the highest program rating among dramas in South Korea.

The plot of the drama involves a husband who graduated from Seoul National University but is poorly adapted to social life. He has just obtained a job with a conglomerate and the leading character, his wife, has to put up with all kinds of humiliation and disdain from others in order to support him.

[imText2]This woman’s story reminds me of modern North Korean heroines who support their husbands and families by working actively in the jangmadang. This is the model of an ideal woman that North Korean society has demanded since the famine-stricken mid-1990s; the “Super Woman” who can fulfill her duties in society as well as in the home.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. There have been various models of the ideal North Korean woman down the years, depending on era and class.

Since the law on the equality of the sexes was pronounced on July 30th, 1946, women’s activities have been expanding in every social field and several systems have been established in order to reduce women’s burden of housework and childcare; increasing women’s power in state-run organizations and building kindergartens in both urban and rural areas, for instance.

However, regardless of state campaigns and efforts, for a long time most women simply dreamed of marriage to a man with abilities, power and a good family background, and then becoming a house wife. This trend remained unchanged even in the early 1990s.

[imText1]If a woman met a powerful, capable spouse, she could get a good job more easily, work comfortably and get lots of additional income from many sources. Even in the Union of Democratic Women, women were treated differently according to their husband’s position and skills.

Going through the North Korean economic crisis of the late 1990s, however, the mindset of married women changed. At that time, women started saying, “The dumbest women are those who work for enterprises, the next dumbest women are raising domestic animals, but the smartest women are those who do business in the jangmadang.”

North Korea’s traditional, patriarchal social system was a pre-modern system in which military order and a strict organizational system based on awareness of discrimination between classes and family backgrounds were mixed.

Before the famine, this pre-modern social system had been maintained by centralized controls over food provision and labor power distribution, but after the collapse of the planned economy, followed in short order by the central provisions system, the North Korean patriarchal social system was itself destroyed.

As men’s role and power, as guaranteed by the food distribution system, collapsed, the concept of a married woman assisting her husband was rendered impossible. Housewives had to rush into the battlefield of life.

Conventionally, North Korean men always thought that pretty, obedient women were the model of a wife. However, since the famine, women who are able to support a man’s rise to a high position and be responsible for the family economy simultaneously have become the most desirable.

Just like the woman in the drama.