Prior to 1945, women in North Korea had few rights. The expectations were to assure the family line continued with male heirs. Opportunities to participate in political, economic or social society were few. An academic education was considered unimportant for women. The Christian missionaries created schools for girls during the 19th century enabling Korean females to acquire an education. The exceptions were the female shamans who drove away evil spirits to cure illnesses, performed fortune telling and divination and prayed for rain in a drought.
The social status changed after 1945. A SEX Equality Law was passed by the thirty-eighth parallel authorities on July 30th of 1946. The 1972 constitution provided women with rights and social status equal to men. The 1990 constitution created conditions to enable women to advance in society. Women began participating in the labor force and gaining educations but were still considered inferior to men. Girls and boys were separated in elementary and middle schools. Economics was emphasized for girls and physical education for boys. By the fourth year in a university, women majored in literature, biology, foreign languages and medicine.
North Korea is a patriarchal society. The role of women has changed from the conclusion of World War II until today. Women helped rebuild the country after the war but the improvement in the economy placed women in more traditional roles. Most families survived on state rations until the famine of the 1990’s. They looked for financial support elsewhere because they were not paid for mandatory government jobs. The government is reliant on free labor from the males. Men are required to pay twenty to thirty times their salary to be free from work to find a profitable job. If the payment is not made, the men go to jail. Women in the informal sector are exposed to exploitation, sexual violence and sexual harassment and bribes from the government officials.
North Korea is well known for political prison camps. The deaths due to starvation were between 450,000 and 2 million people. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry found the government of North Korea guilty of crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, religious, gender, and racial persecution, enslavement, sexual violence, torture, causing prolonged starvation, forced abortions, rape and imprisonment. The women of Korea lower in the songbun system were forced into prostitution due to poverty. Medical care and drugs were unavailable causing some to use opium in the impossible hope of preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Thousands of women escaped to China and became the pawns of traffickers.
The North Korean prison camps were especially cruel to women. They feared being assigned to the mines during the night shift because they were raped by the guards in Political Prison Camp No. 18. These guards targeted teenage girls and the female inmates were sexually abused by one of the senior officials while visiting the camp. Once the women were raped, they were killed. Once raped by officials, several of the women disappeared. Women are also sexually assaulted and beaten in public. The officials are corrupt and use violence and sexual abuse as punishment and penalties. The dire food and economic situation has left many women responsible for feeding their families. This places them in public places to transport and sell goods. Acts of sexual assault are becoming more frequent by inspectors aboard trains and police in the marketplace. There are severe punishments for raping a minor but raping an adult is not a crime.
The most famous North Korean woman is Ri Chun-hee. She has been seen on television across the globe when the nation becomes interested in boasting about current achievements. She was believed to have retired but reappeared as a veteran news anchor for Kim Jung Un, the dictator of the country. She state the hydrogen bomb tests by North Korea had been executed.