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
URGENT: North Korean Refugees At Risk of Forced Repatriation
A Call for Advocacy and Action from LiNK’S CEO, Hannah Song
There are currently large numbers of North Korean refugees being held in detention in China, including a group of individuals who were caught earlier this year while trying to escape through LiNK’s networks. As of last month, the Chinese government has started forcibly sending them back to North Korea where they are at risk of torture, imprisonment in horrific forced labor camps, and even execution.
This comes after the North Korean government has slowly reopened the country’s borders. During the pandemic, extreme lockdowns and increased security effectively brought forced repatriations to a temporary halt. At the same time, Chinese authorities continued to arrest and detain North Korean defectors, waiting for the opportunity to send them back. UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Elizabeth Salmon, estimated this number to have reached 2000 people.
On October 13th, in response to media reports that Chinese authorities had forcibly repatriated around 600 North Korean refugees, the South Korean government confirmed that “a large number” of North Koreans had been sent back.
We are deeply concerned about this situation and the imminent repatriation of more North Korean refugees, including specific individuals we have confirmed are currently in detention. We are closely monitoring these cases and continue to advocate directly with 10 other governments, the EU, and the UN on this issue. In September, LiNK also signed an open letter to China’s President Xi alongside civil society organizations, calling for humanitarian protection for North Korean refugees.
Right now, this issue needs more attention. The Chinese government needs to know that the world is watching and that North Korean refugees must be treated with humanity and dignity.
The Chinese government has 276 embassies and consulates representing their interests around the world, more than any other country. Please contact the embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN, through email and social media to send a simple but direct message of concern and support for North Korean refugees.
Here's What You Can Do:
Copy, and feel free to edit, the template letter below, and email it to the Chinese Foreign Ministry via the Chinese embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN:
Template Letter to Chinese Foreign Minister:
Twitter (X) Users:
Additionally, you can tweet at the Chinese Foreign Ministry using this template tweet:
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. The Chinese government is taking advantage of this diverted attention to quietly send North Koreans back, and it will quietly continue to do so. This is the time where we need strength in numbers and Allies around the world to clearly and firmly call out their inhumane actions.
Thank you for standing with the North Korean people.