Women in North Korea: At the Forefront of Social and Political Change

March 17, 2023

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

A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 24, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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