Celebrating International Women’s Day in North Korea
North Korea is one of the few countries in the world where International Women’s Day is a national holiday – well, sort of.
In North Korea, what the free world calls International Women’s Day (IWD) is referred to as 3.8 (March 8th) International Women’s Day. North Korea is one of the few countries in the world where International Women’s Day is actually celebrated through various formal and informal events across the country. Here is a snippet from the Rodong Sinmun in 2012 celebrating some prominent women in North Korean society:
These women came from different industries across the country and were considered role models for women and young girls in North Korea.
For instance, a Taekwondo gold medallist is pictured in the second row, second from the left. Or, some may recognise the woman pictured in the middle of the last row, Hong Yong-hee, a famous North Korean movie star. Hong was well-known amongst North Korean artists as one of Kim Jong Il’s many women. In 1970s, when Kim Jong Il was deeply involved in the arts, he gave seventeen-year-old Hong the main role in the movie “Flower Girl”, although she had next to no experience. When the film was completed, she was awarded the title “Merited Actress”, which caused ripples of astonishment among other actresses who had worked their entire lives in the industry with no recognition. In 1993 she was awarded the title “People’s Actress” and was gifted with a luxury foreign car, among others, for her work in 1997. While many question her favourable treatment, she nevertheless is considered a role model for young North Korean women for her artistic ability and devotion to the state.
Most of these are examples of the narrative that “hard work conquers all” – that these women overcame obstacles and hardships purely through their labour and steadfast determination, in the jobs that they were assigned. It also helps if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to this narrative, if people continued to work like this, they could do whatever they want.
Of course, this is a positive message, even if it comes from North Korea. But the state mouthpiece also includes interviews with these women, who all direct their thanks to Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un for making all their achievements possible. It appears that IWD in North Korea celebrated not just women who worked hard, but specifically, women who worked hard to glorify the state. The main editorial also used strong political language to convey this message: “A woman must strive forwards in their position of a wheel in the machine of strong nation building.”
In 2015, Choi Ryong-hae, then-Secretariat of the Korean Worker’s Party, spoke at an IWD event at the People’s Culture Palace in Pyongyang, saying that “We must elevate comrade Kim Jong Un to the forefront of our party and revolution, and, like a snowstorm on the Baekdu Mountain, blizzard towards the final victory of the Juche Revolution.”
He also referred to Kang Pan-sok, mother of Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong-sook, mother of Kim Jong Il, as “our most precious legacies” and expressed the importance for modern North Korean women to adopt a similar revolutionary state of mind.
On this day, the Rodong Sinmun again encouraged women to “follow Party orders to fight for a sparkling future”. Further, it urged women to “devote unconditional trust and fervent support [towards the Party], for if we are with the Great Leader, happiness, sadness, and even tragedy are our honour.”
Interestingly, the Rodong Sinmun also reported in this “IWD Special Edition” about sex crimes being committed against women by the South Korean military. It used IWD as an opportunity to criticize South Korea and emphasise how happy the lives of North Korean women were in comparison.
This is quite ironic, because rape is a serious issue in North Korea, particularly Kangwon Province, where much of North Korea’s military is concentrated. In 2015, New Focus was told by sources in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, that acts of sexual assault committed by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army were becoming such a serious social issue that “even the police try to avoid them. This is because they try to contain the soldiers, but usually end up being humiliated. The soldiers in Kangwon Province are uncontrollable and virtually lawless. So the civilians of Kangwon Province have resorted to calling their hometown ‘Robbery Province’ or ‘Rape Province’.”
Then how do ordinary North Koreans really celebrate International Women’s Day? Lee*, a refugee from Pyongyang, was a member of the Chosun Democratic Women’s Union. “Most women over thirty have to be in the Women’s Union. 3.8 Day, for us, was the worst. We had tiresome chores, like receiving indoctrination through Party lectures, or walking long distances to lay flowers at the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il scattered around the country. Mass labour mobilisation was encouraged, so 3.8 Day wasn’t a holiday… Some people got breaks, depending on where they worked. Some women celebrated the day at home, having house parties and inviting all their friends. But really, it was just like any other day – working hard in the markets or in a factory and coming home to chores.”
International Women’s Day normally celebrates gender equality, women’s rights, and respect for women all over the world. On this day in North Korea, it appears that only one kind of women’s effort is celebrated – the kind that contributes to the propaganda machine.
* not her real name
By Shin Junsik, Park Ju-Hee and Joyce Williams.