Women in North Korea: At the Forefront of Social and Political Change
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 Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.