GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 406 June 8, 2011

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.]
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Editor’s Note: “Women are not ‘flowers.’”
Women Forced into Prostitution to Make a Living
Illegal Prostitution Widespread in a Number of Pyongyang Restaurants
Unconcealed Prostitution Rises in Wake of Currency Reform
What if You are the Only Breadwinner?
Husband’s Extramarital Affair not Legitimate Grounds for Divorce
Fathers Suggest to Daughters: "Flee North (Korea)."
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Editor’s Note: “Women are not ‘flowers.’”
It has been a growing phenomenon that young women in North Korea have become involved in prostitution to survive. When they reach the point where they must decide “whether to do nothing and starve to death or to find a way to survive at any cost,” they do not have many options from which to choose.

While they struggle to carry on with their own life, North Korean women have been burdened with the role of looking after their families. They do whatever it takes to feed their family, from toiling in a patch of field, to trading, or to becoming a maid. However, there are still days that pass without food. If a woman in such a situation winds up “selling her flower,” a euphemism for selling sex, no one can blame the woman for her immorality.

There is a North Korean song about women as flowers: “Women are flowers. Flowers for life. Flowers that take care of the family.” If one knows the underlying meaning of the ‘flower’ and the current situations in North Korea, it will not sound cheerful; it is rather degrading. What is actually needed for North Korean women is not the praise with such a song but better means to survive without having to sell their “flower.”


Women Forced into Prostitution to Make a Living
Some say that if women are more advantageous than men to survive in times of famine, war and disaster, it is probably due to the reason pertaining to sexuality. When a person is driven into a corner as to the point that there is no breakthrough, a woman’s body often becomes a means of survival. The poorer the society, the more unequal is the status of women, and women’s body easily ends up falling into an instrument to provide sex in return for payment. North Korea is not an exception. There is a condonation of society and a voluntary or forced agreement by women who try to find a way to survive, along with a power of men who are ‘equipped with resources’ to purchase sexual services. Whether it is about selling ‘flower (sex)’ on the street, or serving customers within the Convenient Service Networks such as a restaurant in a more stable and settled manner, or living a life as a concubine by having an affair with a wealthy and powerful married man, these are all ‘ways to make a living’. If people do not have to worry about food, the number of women who would choose to be a concubine will be substantially smaller.

Ha Young-Mi (alias) met her ah-jeo-ssi (Korean word referring to a gentleman, usually middle-aged) when she was twenty and has continued a relationship for six years. The wife of the ah-jeo-ssi has been ill, so he is living with Ms. Ha behind his wife’s back. Ms. Ha cooks and washes laundries for him. Of course, her friends and workplace does not know this secret. Although her family does not explicitly mention the matter, they have noticed it a long time ago. They have already guessed it when she purchased a gunnysack filled with rice which was way too expensive for her to afford with her salary. Ms. Ha says she is indeed a lucky one. Although there are more than 20 years of age gap between them, this huge age gap enables him to cherish woman and to be gentle like a father at times. She says that the greatest gift was that she does not have to worry about eating as he belongs to a powerful institution and that she has never thought she was prostituting herself. Still, she is extremely careful to make sure that others would not say about her having an affair with a married man. It is embarrassing that the adultery be discovered but most importantly, it is because the disclosure may terminate his financial support. Ms. Ha says it is difficult for her to take care of her younger sister who suffers from pyelitis and to support her aged parents at the same time all by herself and therefore has no intention at all to end this relationship.


Illegal Prostitution Widespread in a Number of Pyongyang Restaurants
Pyongyang has become home to restaurants that serve food normally during the day and change to houses of prostitution at night. Officially, the restaurants belong to government establishments, but the real owners of these restaurants are commonly powerful party cadres or wealthy foreign trade officials. Restaurants commonly have separate rooms available for prostitution to take place secretly. Appearance is considered top priority when restaurants hire new employees. Pretty female waitresses serve food and drinks to guests before moving to the bedroom. These establishments are generally frequented by wealthy or powerful men, but judiciary officials are by far the most numerous. Illegal activity would not be possible if not for these officials, and women are instructed to serve them almost on a daily basis. Women who catch the eye of one of these officials begin meeting on a regular basis, and some even decide to live together. Many of unmarried restaurant waitresses have been very successful in meeting men this way. According to one manager of a restaurant in Pyongyang’s Daedong River District, “Most of the young women working at our restaurant are poor and they all want relationships with those who come by the most frequently, the party cadres, businessmen or wealthy men. They all prefer men who they can carry out a long-term stable relationship with, not the men who are just looking for a one-night stand. It would be more strange, actually, if the young women from poor households were not tempted to do so.”


Unconcealed Prostitution Rises in Wake of Currency Reform
“With life becoming harder because of the currency reform, it seems to me that the wealthy, party cadres and judiciary officials are buying women for sex more conspicuously than before.” These are words of a Pyongyang security official. Attempts by the Central Party to crackdown on rising prostitution have been consistently ineffective in the face of corruption among justice officials. These officials instead pretend to conduct crackdowns while making sure none of their own are in harm’s way. The Central Party at one time established a special unit to crackdown on anti-socialist elements that produced tension among the lower ranks. However, corrupt officials were able to find out about the operation beforehand and restricted their illegal activities accordingly. A man’s ability is now measured by how many women he has around him. The Central Party has made cracking down on this behavior a priority; however, there is a deep relationship between this atmosphere and the silent recognition of cadre’s relationships out of wedlock.

A Pyongyang City Party official interviewed does not pay much attention to government crackdowns. “Once or twice each year, the government conducts crackdowns on prostitution saying it will punish the capitalist elements agitating and polluting society. However, just surviving these crackdowns is all you need to do to walk away scot-free.” An employee working at feeding and clothing care center in Chungjin City, North Hamgyong Province shared more about this situation in more detail. “I am currently in charge of managing the restaurants in the city. When I conduct surveys to see how the restaurants are operating, I find that not only have the lives of residents becoming harder after the currency reform, but also that cadres and businessmen are the only ones that frequent restaurants. In the past, everyone was hush-hush on the subject, but now they form together in groups and go around buying women. When high ranking cadres from the Central Party or provincial party come down to manage city or military projects, they generally stay for several days and expect to be provided with women. This kind of thing happens in restaurants and in underground bars as well. High-ranking cadres prefer to sleep with girls than to be given bribes. This has all become much more blatant recently.”


What if You are the Only Breadwinner?
Suh, Hyangsuk (pseudonym), working as a waitress at a restaurant in Daedong River sector in Pyongyang, supports her family of five on her income alone. Her mother used to work as a merchant at a market only to lose all the money through currency reform, thus with little money left, she ends up gardening in some backyard. With no other options, her retired father helps her with the gardening. Her two younger brothers are still in middle school, so they need much more financial support until they go to college. Ms. Suh was exhilarated when she got a job at a restaurant after middle school, but soon she discovered that she was not able to buy even 1kg of rice a month with the money she earned. She said, “My family is totally dependent on me since my elderly parents cannot manage a business. We needed to survive with my wage, so I was so scared when we ran out of corn rice. I was determined to work when I thought about the desperate situation my family was in and that their livelihood was in my hands; they could even starve to death without my sacrifice. I met the manager and I told him to give me the same work as the other women. I haven’t really told this to anyone, but it may be beyond one’s imagination how much I suffered. Even my mother and father are not aware of it. I thought I was dead at that time.” She continued to say that her family’s lives are up to her, and that is the only reason she is involved with the work. She is not working because she likes her job, but because she needs to work for her family. She also expressed her hope to live as a good housewife with a decent husband in the future.


Husband’s Extramarital Affair not Legitimate Grounds for Divorce
Lee Kyounghwa (pseudonym) in Joong District in Pyongyang recently has her mind occupied with worry about an affair her husband is having. The affable and outgoing husband has always had some women interested in him, but most of the relationships were for a short-term. However, he started living with a woman last year and fathered her baby.

Lee was raised in affluence as her father was a trade official. She also had quite a number of offers for arranged marriage because she was good-looking. Nevertheless, she chose her husband when he was still in college. He was from a decent class background but poor. Without the financial support for him from Ms. Lee’s family, he could not have graduated from Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. Since college students in North Korea are not allowed to date, let alone get married, they lived together while in college, and registered and had their wedding after graduation.

Ms. Lee’s husband was popular with women since he was handsome and had a great sense of humor. He could even attract more women as he became a trade official with the help from Ms. Lee’s father, made overseas business trips, and had some money in foreign currency. Though she was seriously distressed to learn about her husband’s affairs, Ms. Lee managed to get over them because each relationship was transient.

However, a whole different story began last year. Ms. Lee’s husband started seeing a woman who worked at a famous hotel in Pyongyang. Good looking and proficient in English, the woman could not get married by the time she turned 26 only because she was from a non-privileged class background. Then she met Ms. Lee’s husband. She has since quit her job and moved into the apartment that the man bought her. The relationship lasted more than a year and she became pregnant.

When Ms. Lee visited them, she faced terrible humiliation and had a severe head injury from getting hit by an ash tray that her husband threw at her. She was devastated especially because this incident happened in the presence of the lady who was 12 years younger than her. Ms. Lee was also frustrated because she failed to yell back at her husband. Nonetheless, divorce is not a feasible option available for her because it’s very difficult to get divorced in North Korea.

“A marriage can be dissolved only by a court decision” (Article 20 of the Family Law). In most cases, a husband’s adultery is not sufficient grounds for dissolution. According to Article 21 of the same law, which was amended in 1993, marriage may be dissolved if marriage cannot be sustained for reasons such as when a spouse severely betrays the other’s love and trust. However, the court does not apply the law strictly and it tends to interpret the article in a way that favors the male spouse.

Seo Jeonghee (pseudonym), who was in the same situation as Lee, petitioned for a divorce and had to give up halfway through. Ms. Seo said, “They asked me why I’m getting divorced, so I told them that my husband had an affair with a waitress. (The law official) said, ‘cheating is a transient thing. Reflect on yourself to see if you are to blame and find a way to please your husband. All officials in Pyongyang are having affairs. It is just a trend. You’d better not be picky.’ I was so angry that I walked out of the room. Men are all same. They are on the same side. Getting divorce won’t bring any benefits to me, so I quit.”


Fathers Suggest to Daughters: "Flee North (Korea)."

Kim, Young-nam (alias), a worker at a mine in the Obong Labor District, Eunduck County, North Hamgyong Province, suggests to his two daughters who had graduated from a high school about 1 -2 years ago: "As long as we stay here, we won't see any better days. All our lives, we would be stuck in the situation where even the corn is difficult to get. So even though it may be belated, both of you go and find a way to live." It's because for the past several months they had to skip meals too frequently. He'd rather let their daughters leave him than have them die of hunger. "Nowadays you seldom see even corns. Today it is more difficult than the time of Arduous March and it doesn't look like going to end while my wife and I are alive. Those households that have daughters who had fled to China during the Arduous March are now living well. It's not that (we) want to benefit from our daughters who have to risk their lives while attempting to cross the Tumen River. We hear that in China even dogs eat steamed rice. All we want is for our children to eat as much as they want and live well, and that's why we suggested them to flee the North." A father's mind works in this way.

Kim had not reported to work for several months because there was no ration. His wife had no money to pay for a stall in the market so she had some sunflower seeds, chewing gums, cookies, and sundry items spread out on the ground to sell. Many days the total sale did not reach 500 Won. Some days there was no sale at all. Since mid-January this year they had porridge or noodle made of powdered hull of corn kernel once or twice a day. He cannot send his son, an elementary school student, to school. His two daughters who had been dispatched to a food processing plant have not received any full wages or rations. Kim asked his old colleague who has some connection in China to transport his two daughters to China but he's waiting for a good opportunity because of the tight security along the borders. There is no guarantee that his daughters will safely be transported, but that's his only hope.

In Eunduck County there are many households (whose members) had gone to China from the time of the Arduous March to present. The number is steadily increasing this year. "If a woman from a house escapes the North, that household would somehow survive," is seemingly the orthodox view, and most escapees are women. A law official who works in the Obong mining area says, "When you analyze the residents' livelihood, those who don’t have to depend on farming or trading are the households that have 'lost person.' Lost person is just rhetoric; in reality it means the one that crossed the river (border). If a woman goes to China, she sends money once or twice a year. If the amount is 1,000 Won, it can solve the problem of food; some sends 1,500 - 2,000 Won. These households don't have to work desperately hard to make a living. When they farm a small patch plot or trade at a market additionally, they can easily buy side-dishes and show up at work. They can afford to submit any non-tax obligations that their children’s school requires. Therefore there are many households that indirectly suggest their daughters to escape the North." There are women who, without being nudged, are seeking a connection to go to China. (These women) go there to get married in name but in fact they well know that they are being sold. And yet, they figure that it's better than doing nothing and dying of hunger. Kim, Sung-Hee (alias) who is 23 years old says, "No matter how hard I work, there would be no wages, and it's not easy for an unmarried woman to do trading business. If I go over to China, the number of mouths to feed in my family would decrease by one, and if I work in a restaurant, I would be able to send money to my mother. Even if it means that I am sold to the men there, there's nothing I can do. To live, we have to do anything, don't we? I can sell myself here or be sold to the men in China. If I have a choice, it would be better to be sold to the men who’re going to feed me all the rice I want to eat."

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