In recent months news reports have talked about North Korea's verbal attacks on various important international figures, most notably, South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Her primary failing it seems, is her gender. Being a woman, or rather a 'babbling peasant woman', a 'childish girl' and a 'witch' seems to have struck a nerve with the North Korean government in a big way.
These statements against Guen-hye's gender are far from unusual as a by-product of the sexist nature of the North Korean regime, and bring into view a much wider issue facing both female North Korean citizens and refugees - their systematic exclusion and increasing exploitation.
In the years since the famine in 1998 the role of women in North Korea has dramatically changed. On a trip there in 2004 Andrei Lankov said 'men are left behind and capitalism is left to women' referring to the increasing tendency for women to operate small businesses during the famine years while men continued to work in their government sanctioned jobs. Taking on this role has allowed women to also take control of the family's finances and prove themselves capable of existing without the help of men, or the state.
However this experience is not reflected in the official rhetoric of the regime.
The 1972 Constitution gives women equal rights, as well as outlining the importance of maternity leave, providing crèches and kindergartens and other key policies in order to ensure women realise their full potential in society. However Sonia Ryang argues that the official interpretation of this potential puts emphasis on the woman as 'producer, reproducer, child rearer' and largely ignores other aspects of female existence.
The category 'mother' commonly exists in North Korea; however 'woman' is hardly recognised.
As a result women are expected to work, but receive lesser pay. They are expected to continue in their post while men are encouraged to take work exams that ensure promotions. They are expected to provide for their families, increasingly by operating small businesses from home, but receive no recognition for their contributions.
However, most concerning is the reported widespread sexual harassment across the country that receives no official acknowledgement. With cultural value placed on the purity of a woman, many who face sexual harassment are reluctant to come forward and report such incidents. A KINU report in 2003 showed that harassment was widespread and the demand for sex in exchange for privileges like party membership was common practice.
In recent times the strict sexual normalities in North Korea have weakened. Along with the increasing desperation in the years since the famine, this has created a culture of street prostitution and has made women the targets of sex trafficking, kidnapping and sexual violence. These practices spill over into North Korea's bordering countries, and remain a considerable problem for female refugees.
For the first time in 2002 there were more female than male defectors in South Korea. From testimonies it seems that this statistic is at least partially due to the fact that it's easier to get into other countries with a body to sell in exchange for freedom. One refugee said:
'if you are a woman crossing the border, it is almost impossible to survive without being abused or sold. It happens to almost all of us because they know that we are vulnerable.'
Much the same is true of female refugees travelling to China, where the market for North Korean brides is particularly lucrative. Nearly two-thirds of all North Korean refugees are women, with up to 80% trafficked into marriages and exploitative labour. Women are often sold to Chinese men who have been unable to find a wife through traditional means, often resulting in an environment of abuse, violence and constraint.
These abuses and injustices, as well as the policies and words of officials in Pyongyang, paint a picture of backwards, venomous sexism on a massive scale. Certainly the North Korean regime produces extreme challenges for its entire population, regardless of sex. However it is worth noting the institutionalised prejudices of North Korean society specifically towards women, and the very real effect it has, if we are to understand the wider issues of human trafficking and the global exploitation of North Korean women.