By Shruti Nallappa, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
January 28, 2022
Across the world, women are often marginalized, discriminated against, and suffer from harmful gender norms. North Korea is no exception. While the country may be secretive, it cannot hide the fact that life for women in North Korea is brutal and challenging.
The North Korean Government’s Discourse on Women’s Rights
According to Kim and Easley, “North Korea references gender equality in its socialist constitution, but the de facto social and legal circumstance that women face in the country are far below the de jure status they are purported to enjoy.” While North Korea passed the Women’s Right Act in 2010 in response to international criticism, the actual implementation of the law is questionable. In 2017, at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, North Korea’s representatives indignantly refused to provide details on rape, sexual assault, and violence against women when asked about measures taken to address the UN Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 findings of serious human rights violations committed against women who were forcibly returned from China.
By referencing gender equality in its laws, North Korea can attempt to mask the reality of what its women face daily. Actions and declarations that purport to ensure better treatment of women by North Korea are solely for maintaining an image on the international stage.
Workplace Hierarchy and Lack of Control over Career Choice
“No ajumma should become a manager. […] [To control the workers], the managers do not let workers talk, and they speak in vulgar language.”
- Female Worker from North Hamgyong Province, Escaped in 2017
Since Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, women’s issues have frequently appeared in policy discussions. North Korea has advocated for women to take an active role in the official labor force. However, evidence has shown that a gendered division of labor persists in the form of a “male-official labor and female-unofficial labor dichotomy.”
Cho, Yee, and Yi report that the formal economy incentivizes women to exit into the informal economy. State-designated jobs are characterized by gendered divisions of labor. Women are sent to “low-paying fields that require ‘feminine traits.’” This gendered division of labor shapes women’s career preferences. In Cho, Yee, and Yi’s interviews with women who escaped North Korea, most answered teacher, doctor, nurse, and accountant when asked about career preferences. The gendered division of labor in North Korea is a perfect example of the power of harmful societal and gender norms.
Single women must use bribes, come up with medical excuses, or fake marriages if they want to leave their state-allocated “official” jobs and participate in the informal market. Married women typically leave their official jobs after marriage and then participate in the market. In addition to being restrained from working in the market to earn a living, women in North Korea also face a strict workplace hierarchy. Older male managers tend to control young female workers. The gender hierarchy coincides with an age hierarchy. Women in North Korea are thus not able to freely voice their opinions or fully participate in the formal economy. These structures perpetuate and reinforce existing inequalities.
Despite supposed “efforts” by the state to bridge gaps in gender equality, women in North Korea have little autonomy over their own lives. In the workplace, they are discriminated against and have no say or power in what they desire to achieve. They face a gender hierarchy and a gendered division of labor. North Korean women face numerous barriers, such as the fear of persecution by regime officials, lack of access to the outside world, and prohibitions on the freedom of speech. The international community must continue to amplify the voices of North Korean women, send outside information to the North Korean people, and scrutinize North Korea’s continued violations of human rights. Gender equality cannot be achieved if all do not come together.
Shruti Nallappa is an M.A. Candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
 Kim Sea-Young and Leif-Eric Easley, “The Neglected North Korean Crisis: Women's Rights,” Ethics & International Affairs 35.1 (2021): 19–29.
 Heather Barr, “Don't be fooled by North Korea's denials on women's rights,” Human Rights Watch, November 21, 2017. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/21/dont-be-fooled-north-koreas-denials-womens-rights.
 Cho Jeong-ah, Yee Ji-Sun, and Yi Hee-Young, Daily Lives of North Korean Women and Gender Politics (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification), 33.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 29–30.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 33.
An image taken by Roman Harak displaying “luxury items” for sale three days before the North Korean National Day.
By Abraham Reiss, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Michelle Dang, HRNK Research Intern, and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
October 4, 2021
Since North Korea’s jangmadang market system first emerged during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s, it has become a central pillar of life in the country and has brought about drastic changes to life under the regime. In addition to introducing commercial trade and economic opportunities, molding new roles for women, and connecting the population to an information distribution network, these markets have begun to turn many young North Koreans away from their government’s propaganda. However, while the new perspectives of the “Jangmadang Generation” create hope for change, immense hurdles remain as North Koreans face a deteriorating situation headlined by food shortages and worsening human rights denial under the repressive control, coercion, and surveillance of the state.
By Eric Ryu, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Sophia Hapin, HRNK Research Intern, and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
August 10, 2021
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 intends to protect human rights and freedom in North Korea, including the promotion of humanitarian or legal assistance to North Koreans escapees. Granting North Korean refugees  the opportunity to come to the United States was an important factor in adopting the act. However, since the United States formally began accepting North Korean refugees in 2006, the annual number has continuously been decreasing with a total of only 220 refugees resettled in the United States.  In fiscal year 2020 alone, the United States only accepted two refugees.  There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in the number of North Korean refugees to the United States. North Korean escapees will generally choose to resettle in South Korea as the country had accepted a total of 33,752 refugees as of January 27, ,  but the process of resettling in the United States is much more time-consuming than in South Korea and navigating through the United States immigration system is very complex. Therefore, it is important to identify and understand why the number has decreased significantly, so the United States can address these concerns to facilitate North Korean refugee resettlement in the United States.
By Seshni Moodley, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Carter Thompson, HRNK Research Intern, and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
August 5, 2021
Women’s rights violations are a global issue. Women are continuously disadvantaged in many spheres of everyday life. There are various social, political and cultural constraints that hamper the promotion of women’s rights in North Korea.
Amongst the various barriers that are hampering the promotion of gender equality in North Korea, the most prominent are the laws of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as these laws enforce the idea that women play an inferior role in society.
By Michelle Dang, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Eric Ryu, HRNK Research Intern and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs
August 3, 2021
As the Biden administration has recently affirmed its commitment to fostering a well-grounded U.S. policy toward North Korea, it is critical to revisit the role of the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea and push for the speedy reinstatement of this senior official. Denuclearization will continue to take center stage in the Korean peninsula’s peace process. However, human rights concerns in North Korea will have to be equally addressed if North Korean reintegration into the international community is to be expected. The reappointment of this Special Envoy would highlight the urgency of revitalizing human rights discourses and implementing effective enforcement of existing recommendations and policies.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.