Women Hardest Hit

Feature: Pushing gender equality for North Korea

Women in North Korea
Women walk in Pyongyang, most likely on their way to practice for events with the congress of the Workers' Party of Korea / AP

SEOUL—When my plane landed in South Korea earlier this week, the nation was much occupied with a controversy that seemed, to this American journalist, somewhat perplexing. Families of those killed by South Korea’s then-military regime during a 1980 uprising were upset because a conservative government minister had ruled against making a song called "Marching for our Beloved" the official anthem of the government’s observance of the anniversary. A choir would still sing it at the government’s ceremony—but joining in would not be mandatory for participants.

One English-language newspaper devoted four separate articles to the controversy in a single issue. On Wednesday, the day of the event, family members scuffled with the minister who had made the decision, physically blocking him from entering the ceremony.

The song’s lyrics purportedly commemorate a mystical wedding between Yoon Sang Won, who was killed in the fighting, and his girlfriend Park Gi Soon, also a left-wing activist, who had died accidentally a few years earlier. Some on the Korean right object that when the lyrics speak of "the beloved," that is in fact a covert reference to North Korea. Indeed, in 1991, a North Korean movie stirred the pot by featuring the song, and controversies about its true meaning and propriety have surfaced with some frequency at least ever since.

One’s attitude towards the North is substantially determinative of one’s politics in the democratic South, and quirky though it may be, this episode nicely illuminates many of the points of connection there between: The South Korean right’s hostility towards anything smacking of sympathy to the North, however ill-substantiated the association; the Left’s hostility to being accused of such sympathies, however well-justified the accusation; the air of romance, of being the way of life for idealistic young people and lovers, that the perceived socialism of the North has at times enjoyed, especially in the days when liberals turned their noses up at the South prior to its transition to democracy in ’87.

This was a particularly sick variety of joke, of course—socialism is bad enough, but the fascist slave state owned and operated by the Kim family can make it look attractive by comparison. Yet the fiction that the North’s regime was of the left, carefully cultivated by its founder Kim Il Sung, and maintained to a lesser extent by his fleshy, murderous progeny Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, earned it plenty of passes from human rights activists during the Cold War.

After all, why investigate, say, the treatment of women in a country that "outlawed" gender inequality as early as 1947, and which established laws for equal pay, maternity leave, and the protection of workplace breastfeeding soon thereafter? The North may have had its problems, sure, but equality was its very reason for being, the thinking went. Indeed, when Aeran Lee—now the president of the Center for Liberty and Reunification here, but once a young defector from the North—first arrived in the South in the ’90s, she was perplexed to read books asserting that women were "empowered" in North Korea.

This did not fit with Lee’s experience. Listening to her speak in a downtown Seoul ballroom to participants of the 2016 Symposium on North Korean Human Rights (which I attended as a guest of its corporate sponsor, Arirang TV) which this year took gender considerations as its focus, it was easy to appreciate the extent to which North Korean women have a particularly rotten deal. In a country where virtually everyone is kicked in the teeth by someone more powerful than him with great frequency, women, being last in the great chain of teeth-kicking which stretches from the Dear Leader to each and every village housewife, are going to endure blows of especial violence.

Kim Il Sung’s socialism was a paper-thin veneer on a deeply traditional society where, now thoroughly immiserated, domestic violence is epidemic, and rape is a hobby for those in any kind of authority. For females who escape and become refugees, being trafficked in the sex trade is a not uncommon fate. Lee, a charming woman with the manner of a popular college professor, told a story about the time she narrowly avoided being raped by an official at her local prosecutor’s office, only because the official, having been caught dealing in the black market for used cars, was himself dispatched to the prison camps before he could carry out his repeated threats to force her into sex. She appeared to exhibit something like humor as she recounted the tale—a testament to her character, as this call was a little too close for anyone’s comfort.

The worthiness of this cause thus established, suffice it to say that much of the language of contemporary gender activism deals with what I can’t help but think of as first world problems. When issues like "equal pay for equal work" were introduced into the context of the open-air prison that is North Korea, they acquired a plainly ridiculous edge. No more ridiculous, though, and perhaps somewhat less wide of the point, than when (multiple) symposiasts raised the issue of underrepresentation of North Korean women in official delegations to U.N. events, or to the Party conferences in Pyongyang, or among the staffs of local government offices. I won’t speak for you, but whenever I encounter a delegation from your average totalitarian hell-scape, my first thought is always "CAN WE GET SOME LADIES IN HERE, PLEASE?" We may as well advocate for gender parity among the camp guards for political prisoners.

I noticed through the course of the event that the people offering such tone-deaf observations tended more often than not to be Westerners, and particularly Americans employed somewhere in the vast U.N. and NGO human-rights bureaucracy. This class of panelist also tended towards a happy warrior’s approach, detecting "progress" because North Korea has of late participated in some paper-driven U.N. human rights process or another, making some very limited promises along the way that, to any reasonable observer, appear to have zero chance of coming to pass while the Kim family still rules. They appear not to have considered the possibility that many of these process-driven initiatives are, in the strict sense, worse than useless, because they generate the illusion of progress when there is only unaltered suffering.

Take the word of the keynote speaker, Marzuki Darusman, the courtly, outgoing U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. Speaking in a reflective mode, he appeared conflicted about accomplishments during his six-year watch (which ends next month) and conceded that the human rights community had to recognize the "lack of any impact on the ground" in the North.

The unfortunate tendency of the human rights bureaucracy to be one great self-licking ice cream cone aside, the application of pressure justified by such abuses as these is consummately worthwhile (so long as it is the kind of real pressure that states can apply), as is the act the act of bearing witness to the horrors of what Darusman, with some wit, described as "Juche, or socialism … whatever you want to call it … the long road of capitalism to capitalism."