top of page

North Korean Market Women as a Part of Larger Korean Women’s History

Kim Ki-Chang, Quiet Listening, 1934

Kim Ki-Chang, Quiet Listening, 1934

Research on women in North Korea has recently become a hot topic. As many readers will know, this is because of their activity in Jangmadang (markets). The intention of this post is to open discussion on North Korean Market Women which extends beyond their economic roles, and places them in the larger context of Korean women’s history, providing a closer inspection of significant social change of women in Korean history. As Bruce Cumings commented in his well-known popular history, Korea’s Place in the Sun (2005), “In the night of our ignorance, North Korea confirms all stereotypes. But closer familiarity confounds simple explanations” (404). My hope is that readers can draw on other events in women’s history in the South or before demarcation and relate them to North Korean Market Women. In this post, I will first turn to a brief history of the societal changes of Korean women in both the South and the North, and then place Korean Market Women in this trajectory of Korean women’s history, followed by brief concluding remarks.

II. Unified Korea

Chosŏn Women. The roles of women under Neo-Confucianism of late Chosŏn were much more restricted than the earlier Koryŏ years (Cumings, 2005, 47; Park, 1992-93). In late Chosŏn , patriarchy was structurally engrained as a part of the Neo-Confucianism which dominated all areas of life. The gendered public and private boundaries of the period are well known, however there was also some flexibility within actual practice. Upper-class, yangban women were socially expected to remain in the inner chambers of the domestic sphere, but they were also allowed to go out in certain hours of the night to meet with other yangban women. Other classes in the social hierarchy were allowed more of a public presence. Women who were slaves, servants, and commoners all had responsibilities in maintaining the yangban households or assisting their husbands with business or farm work; these activities allowed them to have a public presence even though they were women (Yoo, 2008, 15-33). Yet, women could not participate in the highest ranks of society and were still subject to the men of their households (Kwon, 1998, 382). Furthermore, the ideal for a woman in late Chosŏn was to continue her husband’s lineage and fulfil her duties as a “filial daughter, faithful wife, and sacrificing mother” (Choi, 2013, 5).

New Women and Modern Girls. As modernization efforts began in late Chosŏn, the “Woman Question” became a central topic of discussion. How women’s social and familial roles should be altered was a difficult societal question. Women’s education became a central point of this conversation as it was found to be one of the most significant variances between Korea and other nations (Yoo, 2008). In order to address this concern, the Chosŏn government sought to increase education availability for females. As women’s organizations formed in the late nineteenth century, such as Ch’anyang-hoe (Ch’anyang Association), they also advocated for women’s education (Park, 1992-93, 529-530). Even so, few schools were formed and most of them were for males (Choi, 2009). The number of schools increased as missionaries who entered Korea in the 1880s also provided and supported girls’ education efforts. (Kim & Kim, 2015). By 1907 there were 7,000 female students in Seoul (Shin, 2002). These students were the first “New Women.” The term “New Woman” was Initially in relation to one’s education status (Yoo, 2008), but later on, the term evolved as interests of New Women did as well. Another figure in Korean gendered modernity arose in the 1930s, known as the Modern Girl. The interests of New Women and Modern Girls were quite broad, including: education, employment, social engagement, political action, art and literature, free love and sexuality, marriage and divorce, motherhood, style, and consumption (Choi, 2013). New Women were often portrayed by contemporaries as socially deviant in thought and political action, while Modern Girls were more frequently represented as sexually forward and obsessed with consumerism. As can be seen in studies of New Women and Modern girls across the globe, these women held a variety of positions on social issues (Weinbaum, et. al 2008) and their interests in regards to these topics was largely predicated on the opportunities available to them via their geographical location, larger socio-political environment, economic status, and their own agency. Wealthier women, such as Na Hyesok, turned to expression through the arts. Rural women moved into the cities to find factory work for economic independence. Some women sought societal transition through Protestantism’s ideas of human equality. Others called for socialist revolution, arguing that the gendered hierarchy would not end until class hierarchy did (Choi, 2013). Modern Women of the period were divided by their positions on many things, yet, they had a common interest in improving the status of women in society.

In the early years, New Women were publicly perceived as champions of Chosŏn reform (Suh, 2013). However, shortly after the Korean New Woman emerged, Chosŏn was annexed by Imperial Japan. Discussions of imperialism, colonization, and nationalism were present in every aspect of Korean society in the late 1800s through the colonial period—New Women notwithstanding. Through this complexity, New Women and Modern Girls became scapegoats in the 1920s and 1930s for issues regarding tradition and reform (Kwon, 1998). They were ideologically criticized by all sides for being “too Western” (Yoo, 2008) and eventually their efforts to turn over patriarchy were quieted in the larger pull of emancipating the nation from colonial grip.

Wise Mother, Good Wife. In the 1930s the “Wise Mother, Good Wife” gender construct gained momentum as the “best” way to be a modern woman who supported the nation. This concept was an adaption of the Japanese “good mother, wise wife” archetype. This model of womanhood, although “new,” was unlike the social reform New Women and Modern Girls argued for. However, it is also vastly different from the “old woman” (a period term used as the opposite of New Woman) gender constructs of Chosŏn where progeny was primary (Choi, 2013). In contrast, the responsibilities of a Wise Mother, Good Wife were to carefully, intelligently, and hygienically take care of the domestic sphere in a scientific manner and to educate her children (Shin, 2002). The first part of the phrase, “wise mother” was an entirely new role as the education of women was a recent phenomenon. Many scholars comment on the continuity of the Wise Mother, Good Wife construct in Korea today. Seungsook Moon (2002) comments that throughout “capitalist industrialization over the past decades, modern gender division of labor between housewife and provider/husband has been superimposed on the Confucian gender division of labor” (478). In other words, she notices a refashioning of Confucian gender roles throughout modernization which has reinforced the responsibilities of women to the domestic sphere, making the Wise Mother, Good Wife an accepted social adaption of older gender roles.

III. Peninsular Demarcation

The division of the Korean peninsula had significant implications on societal gender roles. For one, many new women who had socialist leanings went North. For another, the approaches to the “Woman Question” on both sides of the peninsula varied. Both maintained aspects of the Wise Mother, Good Wife construct, but altered them according to their ideological leanings.

South Korea

“Factory Girls” and Minjung Feminism. As is frequently documented, the economic growth in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” invited many women into the industrial sphere. In the 1970s approximately 600,000 women, about 30% of the workforce, worked in manufacturing (Cumings, 2005, 373). These women lived and labored in a grim environment. Cumings (2005) comments on their working conditions stating, “young women were truly the foot soldiers of the export-led ‘take off’ in the 1960s. Bulking into the 18-22 age group, having either a junior high or a grade school education, with nearly half living in company dormitories on the company food with one day off per month” (373). Factory Girl literature provides a window into these poor working conditions and the sexual assault and harassment which was often a part of factory work (Barraclough, 2012).

Women in factories began to protest labor conditions in the 1970s forming the Yo'kong undong (factory girls' movement). The labor protests of these women became a "symbolic beacon" for the harsh labor of the period (Moon, 2002, 479). Ching and Louie (1995) even regard this movement as a major foundation for the minjung undong (Minjung Movement) (418-419). Through protests, Factory Girls advocated for women’s issues as part of labor reform. However, as their movement gained traction and led into the Minjung Movement, the diverse goals of civil society groups were streamlined in order to obtain the collective goal of democratization (Lee, 2007). In these efforts, gender-specific reform was lost. Furthermore, scholars have recently commented on the gendered nature of the minjung movement itself. Opposite to the goals of Minjung Feminism, the greater Minjung Movement contained nostalgia for traditionalism which equated "Confucian patriarchal tradition with the core of national or cultural identity" and reaffirmed the gendered separation of labor (Moon, 2002, 485). Additionally, Moon (2002) notes that the movement’s deliberate use of historical Confucian women demonstrated the patriarchal society’s rejection of "changes in women's consciousness and lives, in particular, their questioning of conventional gender roles and their growing entry into the public sphere as professionals, politicians, and social activists” (487).

However, at the same time, beginning in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s women began to organize and institutionalize Minjung Feminism. Continuing into the 2000s, significant progress took place during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations (Suh, 2011a). Topics on the table for reform were wide-ranging, covering issues such as "sexual violence and harassment, domestic violence, work in urban and rural areas, prostitution, the environment, consumer issues and housework, children's education, childcare, lesbian rights, disability, peace, and unification" (Moon, 2002, 490). Several women's organizations were formed such as the Korean Women's Hot Line and Korean Women's Association United. Groups like these advocated for instituting national policies to recognize the full rights of women as equal citizens under law (Suh, 2014). The following policies (found in Suh, 2014) resulted from their efforts:

• Gender Equality Employment Act (1987)

• Mother and Fatherless Child Welfare Act (1989)

• Infant Care Act (1991)

• Act on the Support of Livelihood Stability for Former Comfort Women Drafted

into Japanese Forces under Japanese Colonial Rule (1993)

• Act on the punishment of Sexual Crimes and Protection of Victims Thereof (1994)

• Framework Act on Women's Development (1995).

• Act on Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection, etc. of Victims (1997)

• Act on Prohibition of Gender Discrimination and Remedies, etc (1999)

• Act on the Support for Female-Owned Business (1999)

• Act on the Fostering Women Agricultural and Fishery Population (2001)

• Act on Fostering and Supporting Women Scientists and Technicians (2002)

• Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic (2004)

Further, the hojuje, a male-based family headship system, was replaced in 2008 after heavy lobbying from women’s groups (Suh, 2011b). These acts, and the organization of women's movements in the 1990s, mark a significant change for South Korean women. However, as previously mentioned, struggles in society against entrenched notions of Confucian womanhood as well as the Wise Mother, Good Wife construct have persisted. Most recently, Korean women are voicing their social frustrations through the Me Too movement (Kim, Choi, Kwon, 2018).

North Korea

As all readers know, it is difficult to access information on North Korea, however, several scholars have attempted to gather information on the conditions for women in North Korea from state-produced materials such as speeches, newspapers, and books, while others have considered data from interviews with refugees in the South. I draw on these studies in order to reconstruct the major points in the history of North Korean women since the peninsular division.

Socialist Revolution and State Efforts. The Revolution in the North was an attempt to begin a utopian egalitarian society. The North Korean state from the top levels of governance immediately instituted several progressive policies for women’s rights. Park (1992-93) breaks down the state's priority of emancipation for women through policies on "liberation from the patriarchal family and social systems, liberation through social labor, and the creation of a socialist woman" (532).

In 1946 the Democratic Women's Union of North Korea was established in an effort to unify the women’s movement as part of the Korean Worker's Party and was strongly backed by Kim Il Sung (Park, 1992-93, 533-534). Soon after, the family registry system was abolished. Moreover, the Law on Sex Equality of July 30, 1946, was instituted to "encourage women to participate fully in cultural, social, and political life” and to have “equal rights in all spheres, free marriage and divorce, and equal rights to inherit property and to share property in case of divorce. Further, the policy “ended arranged marriages, polygamy, concubinage, the buying and selling of women, prostitution, and the professional entertainer system" which is an important issue for Korean feminists (533). Additionally, the Law on Land Reform granted women shares of land equal to men. Furthermore, the North Korean Labor Law in articles 14-17 gave special labor rights to mothers and pregnant women, allowing them paid maternity leave among other benefits such as breaks for feeding babies and lighter labor while pregnant (533-534).

Ch'ŏllima (flying horse) Movement. In the 1950s the government created a campaign to mobilize laborers for industrialization and production. This mass mobilization effort was especially directed at reorienting women's labor. As women participated actively in production, housework was transferred to the social sphere through laundries and child-care services. Female labor increased significantly from 1956 through the 1980s with approximately 19% growth annually (Park, 1992-93, 537). In 1972, 20 percent of the seats in the Supreme People's Assembly were held by women (538). The labor sectors most common for women, however, were agriculture, education, and light industry (Park, 2011, 160). Education for women was also encouraged, and by 1988 there were over 200 women with doctorates (Park, 1992-93, 538).

Even though there were some improvements in the status of North Korean women through law and a star-system of representative women, the actual practices of the state and society at large in this period continued to reflect a patriarchal order for common women. Labor was gendered with men getting higher positions and wages (Park, 2011). Furthermore, some scholars comment on women’s dependence on the male-centered government for social services and food (Jung & Dalton, 2006). Even the state’s emphasis on filiality to Kim Il Sung as the oboi suryong (“the fatherly leader”) (Cumings, 2005, 422) posited women in a subordinate role. This ideology seeped into other aspects of North Korean women’s seemingly private, familial lives as well. Sonia Ryang (2012) finds that romantic love between men and women has often been represented in state novels as a triangle that includes Kim.

Moreover, in actual practice, motherhood was still recognized as the central role for women through the 1960s as the cultural revolution was underway. Leaving behind Confucianism and turning to Juche did not free women from the “wise mother” construct. Women were expected to become educated in Juche before raising children, enabling them to pass it on to new generations (Park, 1992-1993, 538-539). In this way, women continued to be relegated the responsibility for child-rearing and most married women worked only in the domestic sphere (Park, 1992-93). Patterson (2017) calls the pressure to be a Juche Communist Mother “the best example of social gender inequality idiosyncratic to North Korea” (73).

IV. Jangmadang Women

Economic Collapse. North Korea and South Korea were economically comparable in the 1970s (Robinson, 2007). However, as is well documented, North Korea experienced a disastrous economic collapse in the 1990s. The resulting famine claimed hundreds of thousands of lives with some estimates up to three million deaths (Fahy, 2012, 535). The “March of Suffering” became the acceptable term in North Korean public discourse for the famine, but it was referred to in a “double-discourse” by the public with terms such as “frostbite” or death by cold (Fahy, 2012, 540-544).

As the economy plunged, the Public Distribution System and compensation for labor did as well (Park, 2011, 164). The sudden drain of income for families as well as the decrease in rations caused a huge strain on households. This led to a "mass exit" of North Koreans to China, which mostly consisted of women (Park, 2011, 173). More of interest for this piece, however, are the internal efforts for increasing household economy which were also underway. Illicit trade, as well as severely limited legal trade in markets, became a favored means of boosting income (Patterson, 2017,70). The rapid increase in markets was a bottom-up process instead of the top down social ordering common to North Korea (David-West, 2013). At several points, the state attempted to restrict market activity, however, the constraints repeatedly failed (Yang, 2010, 77). Currently, markets continue to thrive even as the famine has ended, and this trend is likely to continue as market activity is now mostly decriminalized (Patterson, 2017, 71).

Consequences for Women. Because women were disproportionately affected by layoffs during the economic collapse (Park, 2011, 161), the famine caused women to become the main actors in market creation and operation (Schwekendiek & Mercier, 2016). As the market sector has rapidly grown and men continue in their state positions, women have become the primary breadwinners across the country (118). This drastic change has had a range of consequences for North Korean Women. Scholars assessing the conditions of North Korean Market Women typically find similar results, though they will lean more heavily on the positive or negative aspects in their interpretations.

On the one hand, negative effects can be found on individual, familial, and societal levels. Individually, many women experience increased workloads as they are expected to fulfill market roles, as well as domestic roles (Park, 2011, 167 and 174) and recently mandatory military service if they are between the ages of 17 and 20 (Choi, 2015). Additionally, the burden of expectations on women to act as “communist mothers” has not waned (Patterson, 2017, 74). Furthermore, on the familial level, the famine and consequential food-seeking activities have caused an increase in family breakdown (Park, 2011, 174). However, as mentioned later, this could be because of increased opportunities for women to escape undesirable marriages. Nevertheless, an unambiguous negative result for women is that as men lose economic and social power there is an increase in violence, both domestically (Park, 2011, 170) and in the penal system (Haggard & Noland, 2012). Additionally, on the societal level, the sexual division of labor seems to be problematic. As women reign in the inferior private sphere, men retain public roles. As Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland (2012) find, “Women have been disproportionately shed from state-affiliated employment and thrust or drawn into a market environment characterized by weak institutions and corruption” (61).

On the other hand, North Korean women’s participation in markets has increased their mobility and social leverage. The most oft-cited positive effect of markets is the increased economic power of Market Women. Andrei Lankov and SeokHyang Kim (2014) claim “the work of women has increased in value” and women “have gotten relatively privileged access to more profitable kinds of economic activities. Therefore, a women’s [sic] economic power has increased significantly” (89). Similarly, Kyungja Jung and Bronwen Dalton (2006) state, “at the very least this new role in the informal economy has effected a change in women’s economic power” and “new ventures outside of the home may have translated into improved social standing” (760). The social aspects which they refer to include higher divorce rates, as well as delayed marriage and childbirth which indicate that women have increased personal decision-making power (Jung & Dalton, 2006, 760). Moreover, women now have stronger voices in family decision making and have a “self-consciousness and awareness of their own rights” (Park, 2011, 174). Lankov and Kim (2014) optimistically state “for decades women were marginalized in North Korea, but in the 1990s and on, women became suddenly became [sic] socially and economically important and North Korean women have made the most of this sudden and stunning reversal” (90).

V. Conclusion

In this post, I have pieced together a timeline of the major transitions in Korean womanhood. In late Chosŏn through the colonial period, Neo-Confucianism was a starting point from which two opposing forms of womanhood emerged. These were: first, the New Women and Modern Girls who were boundary pushers and second, the refashioning of the Confucian “old woman” into the Wise Mother, Good Wife. The latter became socially dominant through the end of colonial rule. From there, the peninsula was divided into opposing state-structures. In order to create economic gains, both states encouraged women to become laborers, however, the expectation of women to become mothers after factory employment remained. Since then, both states have created laws for women’s rights—in the North, it was immediate from the top-down, and in the South, it was much slower through a bottom-up process. Throughout these efforts thick, deep, change has been difficult to come by, though progress has surely been made.

As I have worked through the major changes in gender construction and the collective action of Korean women, a few trends emerge. (1) Increased labor and economic power alone in both the North and the South historically did not transform the gendered roles of women away from the Wise Mother, Good Wife construct. (2) Political pressures have tended to overshadow Korean women’s efforts to resolve gender inequality. (3) In the South, reforms for women have come from the bottom up, whereas in the North they are generally from the top-down.

The collective action of Market Women is intriguing as it lies outside the general pattern in the North and the South. However, as many others have noted, this “bottom-up” action cannot truly be considered a collective effort to pressure the government for social reform (David-West, 2013; Haggard & Noland, 2012; Park, 2011). Additionally, as Korean history shows, the new roles of women in the workforce does not guarantee societal change for them. Furthermore, concern over state politics has consistently been primary over changing gendered roles. Even so, perhaps North Korean women are breaking out of the Wise Mother, Good Wife pattern in small ways, through acting as the primary breadwinners, upsetting the domestic order, and making choices regarding their current and future roles in the family unit, all of which contribute to the slow process of shaping new social norms.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Works Cited

Barraclough, R. Factory Girl Literature: Sexuality, Violence, and Representation in Industrializing Korea. (2012).

Ching, Miriam, and Yoon Louie. "Minjung feminism: Korean women's movement for gender and class liberation." Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 18. No. 4. Pergamon, (1995).

Choi, Hyaeweol. New Women in Colonial Korea: A sourcebook. Routledge. (2013).

Choi, Hyaeweol. Gender and mission encounters in Korea: New women, old ways. GAIA Books, (2009). 14.

Choi, Song Min "North Korea Introduces 'mandatory Military Service for Women'" in The Guardian. N.p., (31 January 2015). Web.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's place in the sun: A modern history (Updated). WW Norton & Company. (2005).

David-West, Alzo. "North Korea and the Contradiction of Inversion: Dictatorship, Markets, Social Reform." North Korean Review 9.1 (2013)

Fahy, Sandra. "Famine Talk: Communication Styles and Socio-political Awareness in 1990s North Korea." Food, Culture & Society 15.4 (2012): 535-555.

Haggard, Stephan, and Marcus Noland. "Gender in transition: The case of North Korea." World Development 41 (2013): 51-66.

Jung, Kyungja, and Bronwen Dalton. "Rhetoric versus reality for the women of North Korea: Mothers of the revolution." Asian Survey 46.5 (2006)

Kim, Sarah, et al. “Me Too Movement Keeps Building up Steam.” Korea JoongAng Daily, Korea JoongAng Daily, (2018). Web.

Kim, Sebastian CH, and Kirsteen Kim. A history of Korean Christianity. Cambridge University Press, (2014).

Kwon, Insook. "‘The New Women's movement’ in 1920s Korea: rethinking the relationship between imperialism and women." Gender & History 10.3 (1998): 381-405.

Lankov, Andrei, and Kim SeokHyang. "Useless Men, Entrepreneurial Women, and North Korea's Post-Socialism: Transformation of Gender Roles Since the Early 1990s." Asian Journal of Women's Studies 20.2 (2014): 68-96.

Lee, Namhee. The making of Minjung: Democracy and the politics of representation in South Korea. Cornell University Press, (2007).

Moon, Seungsook. "Carving out space: Civil society and the women's movement in South Korea." The Journal of Asian Studies 61.2 (2002): 473-500.

Park, Kyung Ae. "Women and revolution in North Korea." Pacific Affairs (1992-93): 527-545.

Park, Kyung Ae. "Economic crisis, women's changing economic roles, and their implications for women's status in North Korea." The Pacific Review 24.2 (2011): 159-177.

Patterson, Zachary. "Political, Social and Economic Inequality in North Korea." North Korean Review 13.1 (2017).

Robinson, Michael Edson. “Going It Alone: The DPRK” in Korea's twentieth-century odyssey. University of Hawaii Press, (2007).

Ryang, Sonia. “Love” in Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry. Harvard University Asia Center, (2012).

Schwekendiek, Daniel, and Nova Mercier. "A Contemporary History of North Korea: The Socioeconomic Rise of Women in the Post-Cold War Era as Witnessed in Different Regions." Asian Women 32.4 (2016).

Shin, Jiweon. "Social construction of idealized images of women in colonial Korea: the “new woman” versus “motherhood”." Women and the Colonial Gaze. Palgrave Macmillan UK, (2002). 162-173.

Suh, Doowon. "Institutionalizing social movements: the dual strategy of the Korean women's movement." The Sociological Quarterly 52.3 (2011a): 442-471.

Suh, Doowon. "The Dual Strategy and Gender Policies of the Women's Movement in Korea: Family Headship System Repeal through Strategic Innovation." Sociological Focus 44, no. 2 (2011b): 124-148.

Suh, Doowon. "What happens to social movements after policy success? Framing the unintended consequences and changing dynamics of the Korean women’s movement." Social Science Information 53.1 (2014): 3-34.

Suh, Jiyoung. "The" New Woman" and the Topography of Modernity in Colonial Korea." Korean Studies 37.1 (2013): 11-43.

Weinbaum, Alys Eve, et al. "The modern girl as heuristic device: Collaboration, connective comparison, multidirectional citation." The modern girl around the world: consumption, modernity, and globalization (2008): 1-24.

Yang, Un-Chul. "Reform without Transition: The Economic Situation in North Korea since the July 1, 2002, Measures." North Korean Review 6.1 (2010)

Yoo, Theodore Jun. “Women in Chosŏn Korea.” The politics of gender in colonial Korea: Education, labor, and health, 1910–1945. Vol. 3. Univ of California Press, (2008).

Image citation:

Kim, Ki-Chang. “Quiet Listening.” Artnet, Artnet Worldwide Corporation, Web. (April 9, 2018)

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Instagram
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page