New Internationalist

Desperate escape

Issue 349

The backbreaking work of North Korean women

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported in July this year that ‘tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands’ of refugees are now attempting to flee from North Korea and are hiding along the Yalu river near the Chinese border. The risks for border crossers are high. The number of North Koreans forcibly repatriated by the Chinese authorities rose sharply last year. Once repatriated, these refugees face a minimum seven years’ detention, forced labour and torture in a reform institution; in ‘extremely grave’ cases, they face the death penalty. Most of the refugees are taking such risks to escape starvation, which has killed an estimated one million North Koreans since 1995. Many are also trying to escape political repression. Information reaching Amnesty International suggests that almost three-quarters of North Korean refugees in China are women. Here is the testimony of one of those women refugees which may help explain why.

North Korea has always celebrated 30 July each year as the day of gender equality: the news media unanimously declare that women have been liberated from home and receive equal treatment in all walks of life. In reality, however, women have remained bound by traditional yokes of inequality. I am now convinced that the hidden purpose of the slogans was merely to extract cheap labour from women for the development of communist industry.

Women get only 80 per cent of what men get for the same hours and type of work. It is women who bear most of the farm work in the co-operatives. Women have to work hard at factories during the daytime like men and have to do additional hard work at the end of the day in ill-equipped kitchens to prepare meals for the family. On top of this, each rural household in North Korea is obliged to produce a pig a year for the army for nothing. It goes without saying that the work of raising a pig is for women. If you fail to produce a pig of standard weight, your food ration is accordingly reduced.

The difficulties in obtaining food, clothing and houses have made the lives of women more painful and difficult. This is because it is generally considered that it is women’s responsibility to feed the family.

North Korea is a communist country that is supposed to be responsible for the supply of daily necessities to its people. This does not mean that everyone gets equal distribution. The people are divided into four classes. The first class comprises senior party members and close associates of (the country’s President) Kim Jung Il who are entitled to a daily ration of meat, cooking oil, fruit, vegetables and cigarettes. The second class of people (including central party members, government officials and high-ranking military officers) is entitled to a weekly ration. The third class of people (such as junior members of the party and families of anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters) is entitled to a ration every other week. Ordinary people (class four) receive only a rice ration fortnightly. The quantity of ration differs according to your social status, occupation and age. If you take three meals a day, the ration will be exhausted in about a week.

You can get food in black markets. The price, however, is simply prohibitive. Then, how do people survive? Everyone, high class, middle class or low class, is engaged in some kind of commercial activity. Under the circumstances, the women in North Korea are compelled to do anything within their means for survival. Women pick up household items of any value for exchange for bean, barley and corn because the prices of grains often vary from area to area. They use the money earned to buy grain to feed their family. Officials abuse their power to extract income from ordinary people. The police, for example, may use the excuse that commercial transaction is the first step to capitalism to rob you of your food on the train or in the black market.

Like their mother and mother’s mother, women in North Korea today live a most miserable life of fatigue, endless backbreaking work and despair.’

Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) is gathering accounts from refugees who have escaped North Korea. This is an edited extract of one such account. Other testimonies can be read at their website: [http://nkhumanrights.or.kr]

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