North Korea: Not Just Nukes, But People Too
At a July 11 event sponsored by the Asia Program and the History and Public Policy Program, the speakers addressed various aspects of a changing North Korean society: the status of women, the influence of South Korean culture, and information technology training at the university level.
Wilson Center public policy fellow Miryang Youn noted that even at the beginning of the North Korean regime, in the mid-1940s, it was a priority of Kim Il Sung to "liberate" women by getting them out of the home and into the socialist workforce. A sex equality law was passed in 1946, purportedly giving women full legal equality, including equal pay for equal work. During the Korean War from 1950-53, while the men were at the battlefield, women were essential in keeping farms and factories running. However, after the war, as Kim Il Sung consolidated his political power, women's rights declined.
The subsequent model for women was to be loyal, obedient, submissive and compliant. This continued for several decades. However, with the economic breakdown and widespread famine of the 1990s, the role of women in North Korea began to change. During that decade, emphasized Youn, it was the women—not the men—who foraged for food, peddled goods, and did everything possible to provide food for the family. In this way, women liberated themselves. Today, they comprise 70 percent of the market workforce. Women in North Korea may be poor and have difficult lives, acknowledged Youn, but they are strong and play an important role in sustaining society.
Time reporter and Stanford fellow Donald Macintyre opened his presentation with three video clips. The first one, from North Korea, showed a family that drew inspiration from a portrait of Kim Jong Il, to stirring music accompaniment. The second, also from North Korea, portrayed a man who had heeded his country's call and gone to work in the countryside, happily riding on a tractor, while a woman worked in the same field spreading chemical fertilizer from a can strapped to her back, equally conveying her joy at working in the countryside to build up the nation. The third clip was from a South Korean cell phone commercial, with a heavy rock background, displaying young people dancing and otherwise gyrating, using all the usual MTV moves. The South Korean video clearly trumped its North Korean counterparts in appeal. Macintyre said that he had talked to many North Korean defectors in South Korea, and also interviewed North Korean traders and migrant workers in China. All had said they were bored with North Korean entertainment, especially movies and TV shows, and greatly attracted to songs and movies from South Korea, albeit in pirated form.
Inadvertently, the North Korean regime had started this attraction to South Korea. In the 1980s, the North Korean media had begun showing how "bad" things were in the south. What the North Korean viewing audience noted, however, was how well-dressed the South Koreans were, and how sturdy the buildings seemed. Also, as one woman told him, "When we saw demonstrations with South Korean people throwing bottles, we couldn't believe it. We would have kept the bottles."
Macintyre said that what mattered most today to the North Koreans he had spoken to was money and survival. Some are becoming fairly well off. Most rely on the black market for food supplies, and almost all rely on markets for the majority of their needs. The regime is aware of these trends. Anecdotally, Macintyre gave an example of one official Party document which had been made available to him. It stated that a bigger threat to North Korea than U.S. military might was cultural pollution. If not stopped, the document warned, "socialism will crumble like bricks soaked in water." He has also been told by people selling illegal videos that if their videos are confiscated by the police, they can always pay a bribe to get them back.
Stuart Thorson, professor of political science at Syracuse University (SU), heads the only U.S. university collaborative project with a North Korean university. The university in question is Kim Chaek University of Technology (KCUT), in Pyongyang, and the collaborative project is centered on information technology. Thorson credited the Korea Society of New York with playing a crucial role in enabling the collaboration to take place.
Thorson noted there are three levels of cooperation between SU and KCUT. The first level involves bilateral cooperation. SU has helped KCUT develop a digital library, which fully conforms to world standards. The digital library is now fully operational. SU is also working with KCUT on developing a computer laboratory. The second level of cooperation, said Thorson, is multilateral, the regional scholars leadership seminar (RSLS). Other member countries in this endeavor include the United States, China and South Korea. South Korea's representative is the Pohang University of Science and Technology, and China's is Wuhan University. The RSLS focuses on information technology; the language is English.
The third level of collaboration deals with a junior faculty leadership development program, which is scheduled to start this fall. This program will bring young academics from North Korea to universities in the United States. Thorson views this program as a possible precursor to a Fulbright-type program for North Korea. He said that 10 universities in the United States have already expressed interest in becoming part of the program.
Drafted by Mark Mohr, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program. Ph: (202) 691-4020