North Korea is soon set to release a unique collection of 11 postage stamps. The compilation lacks pizzazz for the most part, but there is one that catches the eye with its deliberate framing. This miniature photograph captures a barren, sweeping landscape, accentuated by an imposing monolith in the relative distance. Yet the lens is fixed on two figures, hand-in-hand, strolling away from it. The smaller appears to be a young girl, around 10 years old, wrapped in a large, quilted, dazzling white coat. She exudes an air of innocence and vulnerability as she softly smiles up at the other figure. This other figure is stocky – sturdy even – donning a dark khaki coat and cutting a formidable presence. Yet his head is bowed, attentively listening to the smaller figure.
The scene is a simple yet unadulterated portrayal of a tender familial bond: just a girl, her father, and a massive Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile.
This stamp captures the first of a slew of public appearances that have thrust the previously unknown daughter of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to the forefront of North Korean and international media. It alludes to a familial sense of nationalism, whereby the abstract, class-oriented imagery of socialism has been replaced with the more relatable and recognizable image of connection, love, and obligation for one’s family.
The world is abuzz with speculation about what this may mean. But beyond the discourse on succession and perfunctory tactics lies a subversive trend that is quietly taking root within the secretive regime. Kim’s “beloved daughter” is part of a growing list of women assuming prominent public roles in North Korea and redefining gender dynamics in North Korean society.
Kim Ju Ae – as the daughter is believed to be called – joins her mother and aunt as the only relatives seen publicly accompanying Kim Jong Un. This alone marks a notable departure from the reigns of her grandfather Kim Jong Il and great-grandfather Kim Il Sung, whose female family members rarely appeared in public.
But it’s not just in the realm of family relations that women are gaining more visibility and influence. Kim Jong Un’s cabinet is the first to appoint women to high-profile positions. This first generation of female politicians makes up nearly 18 percent of North Korea’s government, just 1.5 percent lower than that of South Korea, which has had high-profile female politicians since the 1980s.
And in spite of what is argued to be the rubber-stamp nature of female representation in North Korea, women are consolidating influence and power within the limits of their assigned roles.
For instance, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, is believed to hold considerable influence over North Korean affairs. She reportedly assumed state duties for her brother while he was receiving medical treatment and continues to make public statements on behalf of the regime.
Similarly, Choe Son Hui, a relative of the former premier, Choe Yong Rim, is the first woman to serve as the country’s foreign minister. She plays a pivotal role in North Korea-U.S. relations and nuclear talks.
For Kim Ju Ae, the work of these first-generation female politicians is sure to create more opportunities and greater possibilities for high-profile, well-connected women to come. They have defied the male-dominated mindset of the bureaucracy, bringing acknowledgment and recognition to the talents and capabilities of female leaders. It remains to be seen who will feel inspired and empowered to pursue leadership positions after these developments and what, if any, long term impacts female leadership will have on North Korean society and culture.
But while women of the upper echelons are hammering away at their glass ceiling, the not-so-privileged in North Korea are unlikely to come across such official opportunities. Despite constitutional commitment to equal opportunities and representation, the majority of women are often sidelined from significant participation in North Korean economy, society, and politics.
Early socialist rhetoric limited women to roles as mothers and housewives. Women’s policy was reformed in the 1950s, socializing women’s housework and mass mobilizing women for reproduction. “Feminine characteristics” of dedication and sacrifice for family and by extension, the country, were deified as revolutionary traits.
Juche, North Korea’s unique state ideology, further imparts the importance of sacrificial dedication and self-reliance upon North Korean women. In essence, the North Korean state has been using revolutionary ideology and policies to formally define gendered roles and proliferate them throughout the nation since its founding.
Yet, paradoxically, this same socialist rhetoric of “self-reliance” and dedication has facilitated women’s independence from the state.
In the face of limited official economic opportunities, women braved the risks of informal marketization as a means of supporting their families. What started as local bartering to counter the collapse of the public distribution system in the 1990s has led to women becoming the unofficial breadwinners of today. North Korean housewives are now thought to earn more than 70 percent of household income through these “grey markets,” where they trade smuggled goods, create handicrafts, and engage in other entrepreneurial activities.
As a result, women are gaining more and more economic power and autonomy, and men, who are mobilized to work even in the absence of a state salary, are becoming more and more dependent on their female family members for financial support.
The rippling effect of this bottom-up decentralization promises long term changes. Children of these pioneering women have grown up almost solely reliant on and exposed to these markets. The high dependence of recent generations on grey markets for their basic needs and the proliferation of foreign goods through its ever expansive network has cut away faith in the state. More and more North Koreans are disillusioned with their leaders and driven by self-interests. A domestic survey found that North Koreans are most opposed to the regime when their new found economic freedoms are jeopardized.
The state also depends on these markets, tacitly recognizing the failure of its command economy to meet the public’s needs. Over 400 such marketplaces are now state regulated, with taxes imposed on vendors and attempts made to control prices and profits.
The full impact of COVID-19 and North Korea’s ongoing border closure on these markets remains unclear. But as the Hermit Kingdom faces yet another severe food crisis, it’s likely that the influence, innovation, and independence of North Korean women will continue to grow, like stubborn, green sprouts breaking through the soil of a barren, sweeping landscape.