Women in North Korea: At the Forefront of Social and Political Change
By Lindsey Miller
Lindsey Miller is a musical director, award-winning composer, author, and photographer originally from Glasgow, Scotland. From 2017-2019, she lived in Pyongyang, North Korea, while accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. For Women’s History Month, she shares a rare glimpse into the experiences of North Korean women, who are finding ways to live life on their own terms despite the circumstances.
Her name is Min Jeong*.
She’s bright, funny and has a dry and cutting sense of humour that rivals that of any professional stand-up comedian. The kind that makes you worry for the heckler in the front row.
‘Why do you keep singing? You’re terrible at singing!’ she says with a straight face to the regular punters at The Beer House, a bar in Pyongyang, before taking their glass and kindly refilling it. ‘And don’t wear those shoes, they’re ugly.’ The other punters burst out laughing while Min Jeong allows a slight silly smile to make its way across the corner of her mouth. That’s the thing about Min Jeong, she has a magnetic and honest energy about her. It was refreshing in a place where simple honesty and truthfulness felt so packed down.
Min Jeong and I spent a fair bit of time together over the two years I lived in Pyongyang. I would go to the bar mainly to just talk to her and spend time with her. She was interesting. She loved hair accessories and jewellery – an increasingly common way for North Korean women to explore self-expression. I’d show her photographs of me and tell her about my different outfits while she’d rate them. I didn’t fare very well in her opinion. I often gave her my wedding or engagement ring to try on and she’d pose with them, comparing them to other things she’d seen foreigners wear. She’d tell me about the cosmetics that she liked to wear and make herself.
One of her favourite things was a face mask which I remember involving eggs. I never tried it but she swore by it, telling me how important it was to look after my skin and reminding me that there was nothing more important than my health. Min Jeong was very bright and regularly bounced between speaking in Korean, fluent English and often Mandarin. She loved animals and we spent a lot of time looking at photographs of dogs on our phones.
Min Jeong was in her early thirties and unmarried. She’d twirl her half-tied-back beautiful shiny black hair in her fingers while telling me about how much her parents were desperate for her to ‘find a boy’. She wasn’t interested and she didn’t have much time given that she only had one day ‘off’ a week which would have been taken up in part by state-enforced self-criticism sessions among other things. Having gone on many dates, the outcomes of which she summarised with a simple wrinkled nose, she seemed to be quite content being single. It was an attitude which I was surprised to learn was shared by a couple of Pyongyang female urban elite whom I met; women who spoke openly about their lack of desire to have children, who wanted to pursue a career. This directly contradicted my understanding of North Korean women’s experiences.
But I forgot that the experience of women is diverse and North Korea is no exception.
It’s very easy to think that North Korea isn’t changing but that is not the case. To say that there have been no social changes in the country would be insulting to the creativity, tenacity and drive of the North Korean people, particularly women who continue to be a major driving force of change. Driven by necessity following the devastating famine in the 90s, ordinary women had to become more economically independent in order to survive. While North Korean men were chained to jobs in faceless party offices, women had the time to create their own economic opportunities which could feed their families and keep them alive. Even now, in spite of living in a country gripped by widespread and pervasive human rights abuses including the most extreme forms of sexual and gender-based violence, women are often the breadwinners, women are the ones driving the private markets, women are the ones winning back more agency over their own lives and futures.
I only had to go to Tongil Market to see it for myself. Every vendor standing behind every one of the stalls laid out in long rows across the indoor market hall was a woman. Every staff member taking payments from the vendors for selling in the venue was a woman. The people counting the money in the cash exchange office were women. The people unloading sacks of vegetables and meat were women. Most of the customers were women.
Through having no choice but to fight to survive, North Korean women have driven changes that few could have predicted would last.
I sit at the bar and Min Jeong passes me a cup of black tea. She starts to scroll through her phone and goes back into her own world. I think about what is going through her mind and all the things she is experiencing but cannot talk about. I think about the millions of other North Korean women with names, voices and stories to tell; who we, on the outside of North Korea, will never get to meet. I think about the world who will never get to meet this generous, kind, extraordinary woman in front of me - my friend.
Min Jeong lifts her head and looks at me,
‘You really shouldn’t wear those shoes, Lindsey. They’re awful.’ She waits a moment and that same slight silly smile starts to creep across the corner of her mouth. ‘I’m kidding. They’re only a little better than yesterday’s.’
Lindsey Miller shares more extraordinary photos and stories from North Korea in her debut book, “North Korea: Like Nowhere Else," a testament to the hidden humanity and dynamism of the people. She also joined LiNK for a virtual Q&A in 2021 and continues to be a friend and advocate for this issue!
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*Name has been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the individual
Empowering North Korean Refugees | An Overview of LiNK’s Programs
North Korean people live in the most authoritarian and closed country in the world, deprived of their basic human rights and potential. For decades, they’ve faced a brutal dictatorship, systematic oppression, and enforced poverty. Despite the circumstances, North Koreans are striving towards freedom from both inside and outside of the country, creating irreversible change.
Since its founding in 2004, Liberty in North Korea has not wavered in its vision- a day when every North Korean man, woman, and child can live free and full lives. Yet during that time, our approach has shifted, transformed, and evolved. With an issue as complex as North Korea and as fundamental as human rights, we needed a holistic set of programs to enact change at multiple levels.
Refugee rescues are just the beginning. Over the years, we’ve expanded our approach and developed new ways to support and build the capacity of North Korean people. Here’s how we’re working together to accelerate change.
Rescue and Resettlement Support
The journey to freedom is not an easy one, but it begins with a choice. A choice to hope, to live, and sometimes to leave. Over the last decade, more than 1,300 North Korean refugees and their children have made this difficult decision and reached freedom through LiNK’s networks.
LiNK provides critical humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees in China, helping them escape through a “modern day underground railroad.” It’s a dangerous 3,000 mile journey from the border of North Korea to Southeast Asia, from where they can safely resettle in South Korea or the U.S. The route is dotted with security checkpoints, state-of-the-art surveillance, and the constant risk of being forcibly sent back. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Koreans as refugees, instead cooperating with the North Korean regime. If caught, North Korean refugees are forcibly returned to North Korea, where they may face severe punishment, imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
Helping North Koreans escape has only become more challenging since the start of the pandemic. Extreme border lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions made the journey nearly impossible and left many vulnerable refugees stuck in hiding, at even greater risk of exploitation. But the North Korean people didn’t give up, and neither did we. Our field team worked tirelessly to establish new routes and adapt to the circumstances on the ground, making rescues a reality again in late 2022.
We were also able to work with the U.S. Government to help unique and exceptional cases of North Koreans in third countries come to the United States utilizing a process known as “Humanitarian Parole” (HP). HP cases do not arrive in the U.S. with refugee status. As a result, LiNK provides full sponsorship and support in housing, medical, and financial assistance; interpretation and translation services; and coordinating legal needs to receive status.
Though nothing short of a herculean effort, reaching freedom is just the beginning. And navigating this newfound autonomy comes with unique challenges in both the U.S. and South Korea. Resettled North Koreans face enormous social, cultural and technological chasms that must be bridged in a short period of time. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, fifty years into the future.
LiNK’s resettlement program helps support the success of North Korean refugees. Whether this means financial assistance, making home visits, connecting people to resources and services, hosting workshops, or organizing community gatherings, we work together to develop self efficacy for a sustainable future.
From rescue to resettlement, LiNK walks with North Korean refugees into their new lives. A world of endless possibilities awaits, and we’re excited to see them reach their full potential and achieve their dreams.
Empowering Agents of Change
Emerging from one of the most hostile regimes in the world, North Korean defectors have demonstrated strength and resilience that most of us can not even imagine. They’ve asserted themselves as their people’s greatest hope. One of our biggest opportunities is to go beyond just resettlement support and invest in developing the capacity of North Koreans as agents of change.
A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Koreans is English language ability. It’s not only an essential skill for access to educational and career opportunities–it’s a tool to promote self-efficacy and narrative agency. In response to this need, we launched the LiNK English Language program (LELP) in South Korea. As of Fall 2022, over 200 North Korean students have participated in this program and were matched 1:1 with volunteer tutors. They emerged with the confidence and communication skills to advocate for themselves and others, and new connections that will last a lifetime.
"Before taking the program, I always felt reluctant to respond whenever foreigners came and asked for directions. Now I am not afraid of speaking in English anymore! I was able to improve and make more complete sentences by practicing grammar lessons. As LiNK’s vision is to help the North Korean people achieve freedom, LELP helped me achieve freedom in my English!"
– Minjeong, LELP 2021 participant
For North Koreans who are interested in growing as activists through their studies and extracurricular activities, LiNK offers the Changemakers Scholarship. Recipients are provided with six months of financial support to increase their capacity for advocacy work. Before participating in the program, only 9.6% of participants felt financially stable. After the program, 58% felt financially stable, their part-time job hours decreased by 7 hours a week on average, and 45% of participants saw an increase in their GPA.
On the U.S. side, many North Korean refugees have a difficult time finding professional development opportunities and breaking into the industries that interest them. Through our Mentorship Program, we connect them with mentors who can provide guidance on everything from resume building and interview strategies to financial management, investing, and counseling.
By developing programs like this, we’re empowering North Koreans with the confidence and capacity to navigate the world and be an agent of change. They’re educating audiences about North Korea and mobilizing Allies (like you!) around the world. They’re sending money and information back to their families in North Korea, transforming their country from the bottom up. Most importantly, they’re proving the potential of the 25 million people inside North Korea still striving towards freedom and a better future.
Accelerating Change in North Korea
A crucial way the North Korean government maintains control is by preventing the people from accessing outside information and media, instead bombarding them with propaganda. Despite this, North Korean people have found ways to access foreign information through smuggled devices and the proliferation of grassroots market activity.
Foreign media can have a powerful influence on how North Koreans perceive the outside world. Consuming smuggled movies, television shows, and music is not just entertaining–it’s educational. A screen can become someone’s window to the world. Through it, they see what it means to live in freedom and can begin to call their own reality into question.
"As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction. Much more needs to be done to increase the flows of information into North Korea.”
– Thae Yong-ho, Ex-North Korean Diplomat
North Korean defectors consistently say that increasing people’s access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to accelerate change inside the country. LiNK Labs is our space to innovate new ideas that empower North Korean people with information and technology from the outside world.
While much of this work must remain highly confidential to be effective, some key strategies include:
- Collaborating with external partners, including recently arrived defectors for the latest intel on the information landscape in North Korea
- Creating and curating content tailored for North Koreans inside the country
- Localizing existing technologies for safer distribution and consumption of information
With ongoing pandemic-related border closures and restrictions on movement, the information landscape in North Korea has become even more challenging in recent years. The regime has increased the severity of crackdowns and punishment for consuming and sharing foreign media, including credible reports of executions. This shows not just where the regime’s priorities lie, but that these social changes are a real threat to the regime’s control in the long term.
Changing the Narrative on North Korea
While dictators and nuclear missiles command headlines about North Korea, they erase the real heart of the country– its people. This is what the regime wants, to control the narrative both domestically and internationally. So when North Korean defectors share their authentic stories and perspectives, it’s a powerful act of defiance and a crucial way to change the narrative on North Korea. LiNK amplifies North Korean voices through online media, documentaries, and events, and empowers North Korean people to take authorship over their own stories.
LiNK’s Advocacy Fellows program supports and develops the next generation of North Korean leaders, storytellers, and advocates. We believe they will be the ones to create a new vision for North Korea and spearhead that change. Fellows participate in workshops to improve their knowledge on the issue, English language, public speaking, and storytelling skills before traveling across the United States. They speak at churches, community centers, universities, and Fortune 500 companies, and also brief key policy makers and stakeholders. Audiences have included the United Nations, State Department, The White House, National Security Council, the intelligence community, and embassies and think-tanks. Ultimately, Fellows are working to bring a greater focus to the North Korean people and human rights issues rather than just politics.
75% of people who attended an Advocacy Fellows event said it was their first time meeting a North Korean person, and 81% said their perspective on North Korea had been forever changed.
Young South Koreans also have massive potential to be a greater force for progress. Despite sharing a border and heritage with North Korea, the general public in South Korea has become increasingly disengaged from the issue. For decades, the narrative has been centered on politics and the threat of war, and this has contributed to creating an unwelcome environment for many North Korean refugees resettling in South Korea. We’re working to humanize people’s perspective of North Korea and raise a new generation of South Korean activists through our Co-Creators Program.
Each year, Co-Creators brings together North and South Korean students to work on collaborative advocacy projects, tapping into their potential as changemakers and activists redefining North Korea for their generation. They pitch ideas, train with us to improve writing and storytelling skills, and then execute their concept in the public sphere. In 2022, Co-Creators organized a Jangmadang (North Korean market) experience where visitors could learn more about the issue through interactive booths. They reached a total of 242,423 participants both online and in-person over the course of three days.
We believe it will be this new generation of young North and South Korean activists who will influence government policy and public attitudes towards North Korea, and will be crucial in shaping the country’s future when North Korea is finally free.
All around the world, we’re mobilizing a movement of support for the North Korean people. Our goal is to rally 25 million Allies – one Ally for every person in North Korea – who will help us inspire this generation, advocate for change, and stand with the North Korean people. Helping us to achieve this are LiNK Teams, student and community groups across the globe that are committed to seeing the North Korean people achieve their liberty in our lifetime.
Up until now, the scale of humanity’s response to this issue has not matched the scale of the challenge and oppression that the North Korean people face. By changing the narrative on North Korea, we believe that we can change the way that people, institutions, and governments respond to this challenge, and provide the support and resources the North Korean people deserve in order to determine their own future.
A Story of Human Triumph
From helping North Koreans in their escape to empowering a new generation of changemakers, our work is only possible because of the Liberty Community - monthly donors who enable us to develop and sustain these life-changing programs. Because of this community, we can rise to new challenges and sustainably develop long-term solutions.
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To ensure that the story of North Korea is one of human triumph, freedom, and the fulfilled potential of 25 million North Korean people!