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
North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.