Women: The Cornerstone of North Korean Society!

In some aspects, women are the backbone of the family and possibly also the economy in North Korea. While it is usually the men who hold the high-ranking offices and powerful military positions, the women are the ones who often keep society running. Women in North Korea are the main workforce of the marketplace, the factories, the service industry, and even self-initiated entrepeurships. 

North Korean women empower the economy. With North Korean men preoccupied in governmental jobs, it is the women who are the main workforce. Older, married women garden at home or make home-made products to sell in the local farmer’s market. Younger, unmarried women make up the workforce of the factories and foreign-owned companies in North Korea. Therefore, the jobs that women occupy in society are transforming the economy of North Korea.

North Korean Woman Working in a Foreign-Owned Company in North Korea

North Korean Woman Working in a Foreign-Owned Company in North Korea

It is when women are empowered that society transforms. This is demonstrated through micro-financing in other third-world countries, and it is true in North Korea, as well. As women work in the marketplace or at local factories and foreign companies, they improve the lives of their family members. Women invest in their children’s health and futures, in sharing their skills with neighbors, and in benefiting their villages.

But it is not only the working women that are vital to North Korean society, it is also the grandmothers and the homemakers that provide stability for the very fabric of society. A full-time housekeeper is essential in North Korea. Otherwise, there is no one to tend to the many hours of work it requires to keep a household running. Not only do children need to be looked after, but simple tasks like cooking, gathering firewood, and gardening are daily necessary chores that require many hours of labor.

Cooking rice in North Korea is not simple. The outer husk of the rice grain called chaff, is still separated from harvested rice in North Korea the old-fashioned way, by throwing the grain up in the air and beating it on the ground with straw brooms. As a result, there are often small rocks in the rice from this winnowing process. The upshot is that one must always sift one’s rice before cooking it. North Koreans are experts at sifting rice, but when we got there we were not. The first few times I tried, it took me about an hour each time to sift the rice before cooking a meal. That was just the sifting time. Add the other prep and cooking time and each meal took no less than two hours to fully prepare! North Koreans prepare their rice by swishing it in cold water in two specially grooved bowls, back and forth from one grooved bowl to the other. There’s a real art to the process. Being denser and heavier, rocks in the rice get stuck in the grooves. Once bit by bit all the rocks are painstakingly removed this way, the rice can be given a final wash and then cooked at long last. (Excerpt from Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea)

Most homes in North Korea still use wood cookstoves. Coal is used for heating, but wood fires are preferred for cooking because the cook can more easily control the temperature of the fire. When cooking rice, the temperature has to be hot enough initially to bring the rice and water to a boil but then reduced to a simmer to allow the rice to cook through without burning. After sifting and washing, a wood fire is made hot and then allowed to burn down to a lower temperature suitable for simmering in a large iron pot.

Most Korean side dishes (in both North and South Korea) require a lot of time and energy to prepare, so these dishes are usually made in large quantities and stored in the fridge. Common side dishes include pickled radishes, kimchi , cucumber, and a variety of root vegetables. North Koreans also often eat a dish that is called “imitation meat”. It is a form of bean curd hardened to a meat-like consistency. There are a variety of ways to prepare this imitation meat, but regardless of how it’s prepared, it is almost always accompanied by chili pepper seasoning. (Excerpt from Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea)

Without a full-time homemaker, food preparation would be extremely time consuming for working parents who each often work up to 12-hour workdays, six days a week. And without women in the workforce, families would not have additional revenue to support their state-given income. The real economic power behind the local currency in North Korea is the women of the country, I believe. As homemakers, they are the ones who make and sell items in the market, on the streets, or even from home, becoming self-made business owners who fuel the livelihoods of all ordinary North Koreans. Therefore, although men run the country in North Korea, it is the women who are the cornerstone for the very fabric of society.


Joy Yoon