The Role of Women in South and North Korea
Virtually, in all societies of the world, the position of women has been underestimated for some historical period. As a rule, the role of women is limited to the household responsibilities while men are considered the only breadwinners of the families; therefore, they can take part in the most important activities of the society. In the sports, politics, and administration, just to mention a few, women have been pushed to the periphery by many societies. It is done when the social roles and duties are divided to the masculine or feminine categories in some cultures. Women, therefore, are forced to live with the idea that men are superior to them in many fields. In North and South Korea, for instance, there have always existed the gender-defined roles that culturally permit what a woman can and cannot do. Despite this fact, the wind of change is rapidly transforming the way of how women are viewed; consequently, some of them take up active roles and participate in the life of the country. This paper provides the comparative analysis of the roles of women in South and North Korea in the political arena and society, in general. The paper argues that even today, in both nations, women have to overcome many barriers. For instance, in North Korea, they face ideological issues while, in South Korea, women must overcome both structural and institutional obstacles. In both countries, they are always excluded from participating in the policy and decision-making processes; this fact hinders the achievement of the women’s full potential.
The Role of Women in South Korea
South Korea is a republic state located on the Southern side of the Korean Peninsula. It borders the Yellow Sea, Japan, and North Korea. The latest reports indicate that its population is 50.4 million people with the percentage of women being slightly higher than that of men. These data show how important the contribution of women to the nation will be if their potential is maximized. On the contrary, for the better part of South Korea’s history, the total female submission has been a common feature with only a small number of females being actively involved in the important social activities.
The chauvinistic system has ensured that women receive little formal education, and hence, they can be subordinated. The Korean society has been influenced by the Confucian ideology that fails to recognize women and, at the same time, deprives them off their political rights. However, such way of thinking is slowly changing as women stand out for their rightful place in the politics alongside other social and economic roles. The legal provisions in the country’s constitution give the South Korean women right to vote and ran for office, as well as hold the ministerial and other important public positions.
With the gradual transition from the cultural inequalities to democracy, the women’s organizations in South Korea not only sought recognition but also obtained involvement in the gender-related decision and policymaking. According to them, South Korea is a patriarchal society with some aspects of conservatism still present. However, with democratization taking shape, a significant increase in women’s organizations took place; this way, the number increased from 23 organizations in 1960s to more than 3,500 in the early 2000’s. These entities have tried to deal with the biased treatment of women such as discrimination, sexual violence, and gender inequality.
Concurrently, the women\s participation in politics has greatly increased because of such unions. The Korean Women’s Organizations (KWO) has always advocated for the female involvement in the politics. Recently, it has succeeded in the enhancement and adoption of the quota systems in order to include the women candidates in representation. The results of this move are proved by the outstanding achievement of the reserved 30% of women’s seats in the National Assembly and 50% nominations in the local assemblies. Furthermore, the 17th National Assembly witnessed the first female Prime Minister. The local elections saw the participation of 8 women in the race for the post of the mayor and provincial governor. 46 women vied for the post of a governor and 214 for the post of a member of the municipal assembly. Even though, such figures are still low as compared to the male counterparts, who also vied for such posts, the women’s participation in politics has been increasing with time.
Generally, the roles of women are still dictated by culture in South Korea, and the household duties are mainly considered a woman’s destiny even if they work outside their homes. According to Bhatta, however, the industrialization and opening democratic space in South Korea have been the major boost, which have provided a significant number of women with the opportunity to play different important roles in the society. Even though, the gender division is still evident in the public life whereby men hold more positions, such tendency is slowly changing. More women are now working outside their homes in various companies and institutions. In the informal settings, for example, a family, women tend to be the decision makers on the financial matters. In the South Korean society, women have multiple roles to play ranging from the household chores to working for a pay check.
For a long period, Confucianism had influenced the concept of the gender roles in South Korea than other sectors of social life. Conventionally, the women’s roles were limited to the household chores. In addition, from the early childhood, the young girls were taught to be responsible wives and mothers. In 1948, the constitutional rights were put in place, and women were allowed to access the basic education and work beyond their households. This event was a great milestone for the women in the country. Since then, the traditional female position has continued to fade away with women being allowed to access more opportunities on the equal basis with men. Although, even today, there are traces of the male dominance in the Korean society, it is not as entrenched as it was before 1948.
Role of Women in North Korea
In North Korea, the roles of men and women are culturally defined. North Korea is a communist state that lacks democracy, unlike South Korea. Women in the political arena are not very vibrant as they have other socially-defined roles. In the recent times, the sister of the North Korea’s president was appointed to the head of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea. She is the only woman apart from Kim Kyong Hui, a close aide of the former North Korea leader, to hold such a senior position in the government. The North Korean women witnessed the immense changes in the post-socialist revolution era that had had an impact on the roles they played.
In these times, the leaders of North Korea changed the economic, traditional, and social systems by instituting the new social and legal provisions with an effort to ensure equal rights to both men and women. North Korea went ahead and introduced a number of laws such as the Sex and Equality law advocating the equal rights for both sexes in all spheres. Purposely, it aimed at defining the traditional position of women. These laws acted as the basis for the women’s emancipation from the contemporary patriarchy and their engagement in the state-building activities. However, with the current authoritarian regime prevalent in North Korea, the concepts of equality and women’s participation in politics remain alien.
The equality of both sexes, as depicted by North Korea, is nothing but a political slogan as the women’s participation in politics is not a reality. The recently conducted symposium, sponsored by South Korea meant to address the issue of the human rights in North Korean and elimination of any forms of discrimination on women, was not a success. There are few women appointed to the senior positions. Furthermore, Yeol and Winscombe note that, even if such appointments are extended to women, the aspects of bribe, favors, and sexual offers will be prevalent. The national bodies, including The Union of Democratic Women, which aim to protect the rights of women, are societal organizations that have no major political influence. The demand of politics in the country has led to a shift in the gender roles as women are forced to become the breadwinners for their families.
The North Korean women constitute about half of the active population and do not have freedom to choose their preferred occupation. It is the reason for why, in order to feed their families, the majority of them end up in the market or other similar positions, which are mostly despised by the rest of the society. Men are required to participate fully in running the state’s activities such as the road construction, building the bridges, and participation in the military while women are left to fend for their families. The state-sanctioned extortions have made men somewhat dependant on women because it is mandatory for each man to participate and promote the communistic ideology of the country. The politics demand the women’s roles to be more practical than those of men are.
The economic crisis that occurred in the mid-90’s led to the collapse of the distribution system of food and other amenities previously afforded by the state. This event led to a shift in the gender roles as women became the first culprits to be laid off, as traditionally, they were not considered the breadwinners. Together with this fact, many of them had to seek for the other roles such as being the homemakers or jobs in the informal sector with the low wages.
The economic crisis in the country has increased the women’s roles making them carry out the heavy burden of feeding the family no matter how hard it might be. According to Lee, the role of men is to go to work early in the morning while obeying the policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea; consequently, men depend on women to feed them. As a result, domestic violence is on the rise as men feel stressed when they come back to their homes empty- handed with no salary. In addition, they have to obey what their wives tell them since they have been handed the role of feeding the entire family. Consequently, women exercise their control and stamp their authority in some private matters of the family.
The economic participation of women in North Korea ranges from vending, food peddling, trading, and sewing to even smuggling some commodities, for example, the South Korean natural resources and ancient items, to China. The market ventures in North Korea, therefore, are considered the women’s destiny. Apart from taking care of their families and still acting as the breadwinners, the deteriorating economy of North Korea demanded the women workforce and, hence, was piling more roles on women. The state required women of the age over 30 to participate actively in the mobilization programs with their labor required in other fields such as the road repair and construction, as well as recycling the consumer products. With the further deterioration of the economy, the North Korean women were required to join the military since the majority of male recruits were in poor health conditions and were also decreasing in number.
In line with the hard economic times, Park notes that the majority of women’s roles twisted; some became desperate to the extent of opting to prostitution in order to survive. Many women sold themselves into sex slavery; hence, they could feel financially more stable than working in the low-wage businesses that could not satisfy their needs. However, not all is lost when looking at the roles of the Korean woman. On a positive note, the wives look after the household. Women have a voice in different matters while becoming more aware of their rights albeit the changes that take place at a slow rate. More women are acquainted with the economic abilities; they begin questioning the sexual divisions of labor at home while demanding their husbands’ participation in sharing the domestic chores.
Comparing the Roles of Women in North Korea and South Korea
There are various similarities and differences concerning the roles of women in South and North Korea. North Korea works in a socialist system while South Korea is a capitalist one. In politics, for instance, the women’s participation in North Korea is evident but is not as common as in South Korea. Even though, women have been appointed to the positions of power before, such number remains insignificant as compared to the positions held by men. South Korea, on the other hand, has opened up the avenues of democracy. Today, women can challenge men in higher offices through free and fair elections, and their appointments to public offices are evident.
Both North and South Korea have the bodies meant to protect the rights of women from being overlooked by the male-dominated society. In general terms, the roles of women in the two countries appear similar with the very minor differences. For instance, the boy-child is favored more than the girl-child with the socially-constructed roles based on gender. Men are supposed to assume jobs that require masculinity while women are expected to conduct domestic roles of taking care of the family.
In both nations, women are the principal decision-makers in the family issues. It is worth noting that, even though, there are efforts to ensure equality of both genders in both countries; the entrenched traditions of patriarchy still exist and determine the division of labor between men and women.
The socialist revolution in North Korea and the rapid modernization in South Korea did not sufficiently contribute towards liberating women. In both countries, women are subjected to discriminatory activities in the male-dominated societies. This fact makes them inferior even as they participate in the development-related activities. In North Korea, as opposed to South Korea, the position of women has been greatly enhanced by the state. This phenomenon is especially visible in the economic arena. Even though, the role of women in both nations depend on the traditionally defined masculine and feminine duties, the dynamic changes have taken place, and women have been actively involved in most spheres, pre-determined for men.