The Role of Women During the North Korean Revolution

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Women gained an unprecedented amount of social and legal reforms during the North Korean revolution (1945-1950). The laws promulgated by Kim Il Sung’s regime formally accorded women rights that during the Japanese colonial era and previous generations were denied to them. Women were allowed to enter the workforce alongside men and were granted privileges- the right to an education, the right to own and inherit property, the right to political participation- that incorporated women in the public realm. Various women’s organizations such as the Democratic Women’s League propped up to maintain these laws and nurse the auxiliary needs of the regime. The DPRK continued to shoulder neo-Confucian virtues that extolled sacrificial motherhood and added a new emphasis on the nuclear family.

Legal reforms

The North Korean government initiated a series of social reforms that sought to reintegrate the traditionally underprivileged elements-workers, peasants, women, and youth into society during the early years of the revolution (1945-1950). These sweeping social reforms brought a measure of women's liberation and active participation in civic life. For the first time in Korean history, the recognition of women as a category of people with rights was quite novel for its time. Kim Il Sung and the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee immediately legalized equality between the sexes in order to garner more popular support. The Labor Law of 1946 and the Law to Eradicate Feudal Practices of 1947 laid out the basic framework by which women's roles would be defined in North Korean society in the public and private spheres.Template:Sfn These laws allowed women to express social and economic rights that included: the right to an education, the right to own and inherit property, the right to obtain a divorce, the right to acquire maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, the eight hour workday, and choice in marriage. Women’s increased freedoms in the public realm copied the Marxist-Leninist tradition that promoted women’s entry into the socialist workforce as paid workers. However, the North Korean regime still maintained the traditional Confucian beliefs that extolled the centrality of family and praised revolutionary motherhood. This was articulated in a 1949 text on DPRK law crafted by the People’s Committee in Kangwon Province described how "marriage and family are protected under the state."Template:Sfn In fact, the eradication of the traditional family, the mild discouragement of divorce, and the assault on feudal practices such as concubinage and arranged marriages paved the way for the modern nuclear family.Template:Sfn The propaganda and images spurred by the DPRK continued to praise revolutionary motherhood and represent women who embraced the traditional Korean virtues of feminine purity, self-sacrifice, and morality.Template:Sfn

The Democratic Women's League

Established in November 1945, the North Korean Democratic Women's League was one of the first organized groups to rally behind the leadership of Kim Il Sung and the NKPPC with the intent of upholding democracy, eliminating fascists and national traitors, building a strong and wealthy government, and working to overthrow feudal customs and superstitions. The Women's League worked to effect new laws regarding women and bring women more actively into political and social life, including local People's Committee elections. By April 1949, membership had swelled significantly and every village contained roughly 5,500 members with 112 local groups.Template:Sfn Some of the earliest projects the Women's League took on were educating women and families to enroll their children in school. Among some of the duties of members of the Women's league included engaging in economic planning, agricultural production, and various lectures and concerts for women. Some of these activities often replicated the traditional roles of women as women were often the ones expected to conserve rice in the home and mobilize for the donation of “patriotic rice.” However, some women criticized the conservatism of the League because the League's program continued to pigeonhole women into the traditional roles of caregivers. Other criticisms centered on female leadership in the Women's League, which was largely held by elite wives married to high ranking party officials, school teachers, and housewives, instead of working class women.Template:Sfn

Competing perspectives on historical significance

Most scholars agree that the North Korean government's espousal of pro-family policies deviated from the Marxist tradition, mostly propagated by Friedrich Engels, that necessitated the dismantlement of the traditional family. There are three perspective views.Template:Sfn The first is by anti-feminist conservatives who see North Korea's communist policies leading to the disastrous breakdown of traditional society. The second is that the juxtaposition between North Korea's continual privilege of women in the public spheres and praise for women's role as educators of young children represents a new form of totalitarian patriarchy, with only lip service to women's rights.Template:Sfn This is evidenced by the lack of female representationTemplate:Sfn in North Korea's majority male political leadership and highlights the failure of the North Korean government to enforce the radical policies written in the gender equality laws; the only two prominent female political figures during the revolution was Pak Chong'ae who was the first chair of the Women's League and Ho Chongsuk the first female DPRK cabinet member who later became minister for culture and propaganda. The third view generally held by feminist progressives, acknowledges the double standards placed on women during the revolution, but still celebrates the ideals carried that opened more opportunities for women.Template:Sfn An alternative perspective on North Korean women's status posits that the inherent contradiction found within North Korean society that relegated their status to motherhood was integral to the revolution as a whole. According to this alternative view, the North Korean government idealized motherhood in order to support policies that protected the nuclear family, which was seen as an extension of the nation-state. The North Korean government paradoxically co-opted this ideal from the Japanese government, which mobilized Korean women to work in factories during WWII, in order to satisfy the colonial government's need to accrue more industrialized labor.




Further reading