A joke making the rounds in Pyongyang goes: 'What do a husband and a pet dog have in common?' Answer: 'Neither works nor earns money, but both are cute, stay at home and can scare away burglars.'|
North Korea is still a strongly patriarchal society, so the popularity of jokes deriding men is a surprising sign of shifting attitudes. The cause is also a surprise -- women are running the country's booming unofficial economy.
A decade ago North Korea went through a man-made social disaster which exceeds everything East Asia has experienced since Mao's ill-conceived experiments of the 1960s. An estimated 600,000-900,000 people perished in the 1990s famine, which was largely a product of the government's unwillingness to reform the economy. The social and economic structure of a Stalinist society collapsed. Antiquated iron mills and power plants ground to a halt, and the rationing system did not provide enough food for the average citizen to survive.
Facing this challenge, North Korean society reacted in an unusual way: It rediscovered the market economy. Unlike China, where capitalism was re-introduced from above by Deng Xiaoping and his fellow reformers, in North Korea its growth has been largely spontaneous. Nonetheless, by 2000 market exchange, both illegal and semilegal, came to play a decisive role in the lives of North Koreans.
This worried the Kim regime's leaders, who understand full well how the marketplace undermines their political control. In recent years they launched a number of policies aimed at undermining markets. The recent currency reform was meant to deliver another blow to the markets by annihilating the capital of private businesses. It backfired, though, and the economic situation worsened considerably.
However, the nemesis of the regime, the market vendors of North Korea, are by no means the kind of street toughs one might encounter in the black markets of other countries. North Korea's 'new capitalism' of dirty marketplaces, ancient charcoal trucks and badly dressed vendors has a distinctly female face. Women are overrepresented among the leaders of the growing post-Stalinist economy -- at least at its grassroots level, among the market traders and small-time entrepreneurs.
This is partly due to a distinctive feature of North Korean society. Until around 1990, markets played a very slight role in the North Korean economy. Almost everything was rationed by the state. In those days, the North Korean state required every able-bodied male to be employed by some state enterprise. However, some 30% of married women of working age were allowed to stay at home as full-time housewives.
When in the early 1990s the old system began to fall apart, men continued to go to their jobs. At first glance this might appear irrational, since most state-run factories came to a standstill, subsidized rations were not delivered and an official monthly salary would barely buy one kilo of rice.
Nonetheless, North Koreans expected that sooner or later things would eventually return to what they thought of as 'normal' -- that is, to the old Stalinist system. They were not aware of any alternative. They also knew from experience that people who showed any disloyalty to the state -- for instance those who cooperated with South Korean authorities during the Korean War -- were discriminated against for the rest of their lives. Even the children of such 'unreliable elements' faced many official restrictions. So men believed that it would be wise to keep their 'official' jobs for the sake of the family's future.
The situation of women was different. They had time, and their involvement with private trade was seen as less dangerous -- precisely because of the patriarchal nature of a society where only males' behavior really mattered. In some cases women began by selling household items they could do without or homemade food. Eventually, these activities developed into larger businesses, and today at least three-quarters of North Korean market vendors are women.
For many North Korean women, the social disaster of the 1990s has become an opportunity to display their strength and intelligence. In recent months those women have become the primary target of government policies designed to destroy private enterprises. But the experience of the last two decades suggests that the women are likely to continue wearing the pants.
Mr. Lankov is a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a contributor to InLiberty.ru, an Atlas Economic Research Foundation project. This is the last of a series of articles on the state of North Korea.
AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service