Working Wife and Incompetent Husband

The results of a survey of 2,103 internet users conducted by an Internet portal site last month revealed that what South Korean men want the most is a household in which both spouses work (28%). In North Korea, the situation is not too different.

Since chronic food shortages and extreme poverty began to surface in the mid-1990s, North Korean women have had to be economically active. Indeed, it is now very common for wives to sustain the household in lieu of the husband, since regular jobs no longer guarantee adequate rations or wages to the man of the house.

Average citizens who do not have enough capital to start a business have to live day to day doing piecemeal work. Not only is earning money difficult in itself, there are additional pressures due to national regulations which are difficult for outsiders to fathom.

In North Korea, the arch nemeses of businesswomen are the security services; the Public Security Agency (PSA) and National Security Agency (NSA). The recent market regulation policy has been getting a lot of attention, but in reality whenever collective mobilization is required by the state, for example for national events or at rice-planting time, extra regulations are placed on women involved in trade.

During periods of high regulation, the PSA aggressively pursues women in the jangmadang, investigating whether or not prohibited items are being sold, whether or not trade has been or is taking place in prohibited areas and even whether or not the women are wearing tight-fitting pants. If a woman is fortunate then she can bribe an agent with a pack of cigarettes, but otherwise she faces the risk of having all of her goods confiscated and even having to pay a fine. A portion of the agents demand bribes or sexual favors from the women on a regular basis.

On the border between Kaecheon, South Pyongan Province and Yongbyon, North Pyongan Province, the No. 10 Checkpoint is under the auspices of the NSA. In order to turn a blind eye to the regulations, the agents who work at No. 10 tend to demand alcohol, cigarettes and cash from women crossing the provincial border. Some even force women in their 20s and 30s at checkpoints to stay with them overnight.

Such petty regulations are more than sufficient to stir up the stress of the women; a string of questions such as “Why are you not wearing a skirt?” or “Why are you riding a bicycle?” all being asked “by decree of the General” can drive them to distraction.

For example, women who engage in trade usually traverse the countryside acquiring goods to sell in the jangmadang. Such women must wake up before sunrise and go to the farms by bicycle to procure agricultural products, so an agent inspecting a woman’s pants or bicycle is a most unwelcome intrusion. Moreover, as a result, North Korean women who are hardened to this treatment will henceforth frequently get into arguments over the smallest incident.

Interestingly, households that are less affluent are those that strictly abide by the traditional gender role of husbands. Since the late 1990s, husbands who cannot earn money in North Korea get called derogatory names like “dogs” or “daytime headlights.” Husbands who understand the suffering of their spouses might accompany wives to the markets and prevent petty arguments from erupting. Those that cannot bring themselves to accompany their wives out of a sense of shame just prepare dinner at home.

There are many women who get into conflict with their husbands due to the lackadaisical lifestyle of their spouses. Such men mostly kill time with their friends drinking, gambling and smoking cigarettes. Husbands who cannot quit drinking and smoking are just another burden for working women.

The reason why the ratio of female to male defectors is double or even triple in favor of women is due to these trends in North Korean society. Among defector women in China, less than 1% lived comfortably in North Korea, assisted by their husbands. They were sick and tired of the conduct of their husbands, they lost hope for their future completely; and then they crossed the Tumen River.

It is a cause for optimism that ingrained paternalism has been drastically weakened by the passage of time and the march of poverty; extreme poverty has caused unforeseen changes in household economies. Unfortunately, however, those who have to make the biggest sacrifices and undergo the greatest suffering are women. (The end)