On September 26th, 2013, Penn received a guest speaker who spoke about her experiences living and defecting from North Korea. The speaker went by the pseudonym, Azalea Kim, in order to protect the identity of her family still living in North Korea. At the end of her speech, a 15-minute interview was arranged with Azalea to discuss women’s rights issues. The interview was led by Helen Kim, Vice President of Programming, and co-transcribed by Tomas Piedrahita, Vice President of Outreach.
To what extent do women come together to work for a common cause?
Azalea: In North Korea, It is impossible for women to organize advocacy or support groups like they do in the US or in South Korea. In North Korea, women are restricted because the government decides what is necessary and so they create organizations that you must join, depending on your sex and age.
Can you tell us more about these organizations?
Azalea: For instance, there are organizations that are created specifically for boys, and others, for girls. Children are obligated to join when they turn 5 years old. As children mature, they are placed into junior-level organizations. Eventually, they move onto young adult and adult associations. Because of these reasons, women do not form their own interest-oriented groups.
What is education like for a female growing up in North Korea?
Azalea: Males and females basically receive the exact same education. Although, in terms of “female specific” education, when young women turn 14, they receive a two-hour course on menstruation. When they turn 15, they begin a two-year study of homemaking skills, such as learning how to sew clothes.
What kinds of jobs are available for women?
Azalea: Of course, farming is always an option. However, the best-paid career is working as a governmental official – though women never fill the highest posts. Since only the upper class can work in the government, the average woman can try to become a teacher, a doctor, or an accountant.
Which of these jobs is considered most ideal?
Azalea: Actually, when I was still in North Korea, the most prized job was to work as a member of Kim Jong Il’s Happiness Group. Members of this group have the opportunity to sing and dance in public ceremonies in celebration of the President. They are highly respected because they dedicate themselves toward celebrating his life. Additionally, only the most beautiful women can be selected for the Happiness Group.
How does the government address women’s health concerns, such as pregnancy and delivery?
Azalea: Why would we need to deliver a baby at the hospital? Having a baby is a natural process. All women should be able to manage labor. The government does not provide the resources for women’s health. There are few doctors who specialize in women’s health because the government does not pay them well enough. Because of the lack of hospital resources, it makes no difference whether the woman delivers at home or at the hospital. With these conditions, you might as well deliver at home and save yourself the trouble.
To what extent are women’s bodies used as a sexual commodity?
Azalea: In the 90s, North Koreans were starving due to a great famine. We refer to this long suffering as the Arduous March. People were no longer receiving rations and were dying of hunger. However, women had a useful instrument that men did not have, and that was their bodies. Prior the the March, prostitution was conducted on an individual to individual basis. During and after the March, prostitution became collectivized. Some women were able to stay alive by arranging weekend brothels. These women would rent out houses on the weekends so that mothers could get their daughters, their cousins, and their neighbors, to join them in providing sexual services for men. This was all done underground, though many of their clients worked in the government.
If the women were caught, were they sent to prison camps?
Azalea: No. Even though prostitution was illegal, it was not considered a major offense. On the other hand, stealing or speaking poorly about the President was not taken lightly and could be cause for a life sentence.
**Many thanks to the Penn International Affairs Association for hosting this event, and for working with Seneca International to arrange this interview.