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NORTH KOREA: Women Wear Pants, Revive Markets

SEOUL, Sep 18 2011 (IPS) - North Korea’s communist government frowns upon women wearing pants, seeing it as a mark of ‘rotten bourgeois lifestyles.’ Yet, wives, literally wearing pants, are selling goods in the local markets to supplement their husbands’ meagre pay packets.

While the dads toil in decrepit factories and dismal mines, moms sail by on bicycles to the nearby market to sell whatever sells and bring in cash that may represent the family’s main income.

“Dad’s wages have drastically dropped, while the money mom makes at the markets has increased significantly,” Hyun Geong, an expert on North Korean affairs, told IPS in an interview.

“Mothers, who are good sellers, may bring in 10 – 20 times more than what the fathers earn as monthly wages,” said Hyun, who works for the Seoul-based Free North Korea (FNK) Radio, founded by North Korean defectors to broadcast programmes across the border.

South Korean visitors to some of the markets scattered across the impoverished country bring back tales of enterprising women, typically in their 30s and 40s, confidently running stalls.

“They are witty, but aggressive,” says a South Korean evangelist who visits North Korea frequently to deliver food assistance. He added that it is common to see young mothers attending to buyers while their babies, thin from malnutrition, sleep by their side.

“While moms are selling goods in the market, fathers are usually idling off at home or factories that are barely operational due to lack of electricity,” explains Kim Chung-Chull, 26, who fled North Korea a few years ago.

“In the 1980s we used to wait for dad to bring the rations. But by the 1990s we were waiting more eagerly for mom to return from the market with something to eat,” says Kim.

A new breed of street-savvy women is bringing home the bacon, breaking the Confucian ideal of the wife following two steps behind her husband in subservience.

“Food rations in the 1990s ranged from 300 grams to 600 grams per person, depending on many factors, including his ranking. It was insufficient but steady enough to keep the women at home,” says Hyun.

By the end of the 1990s, famine-like conditions began to take a toll on millions of North Korean families, forcing the wives to take to the marketplace as hawkers ready to trade away their possessions just to get a little rice.

There was a setback in 2007 when the regime devalued North Korean currency resulting in the worth of cash saved by enterprising wives plummeting.

But the markets recovered much of their momentum in 2010, thanks to the supply line from South Korea opening up and a steady demand for consumer goods.

“North Koreans love anything from the South – from chocolates and rice cookies to South Korean drama DVDs. Most of these goods come via China or are sent by relatives working in South Korea,” says Lee Ban, 38, who fled to South Korea in 2003.

This sudden perking up of the markets was a departure from the picture in the 1990s, marked by long queues for rations.

“At that time (in the 1990s), even if there were markets, there was virtually nothing to sell and barter in North Korea. Now a market exists, since it has found a new supply line from South Korea via China,” says Shin Sun-Dae, a publisher.

South Korean cultural products are seen as “outside pollution” that the people need to be protected from as well as a direct challenge to the North Korean regime.

The ‘Hermit Kingdom’ has even threatened to impose the death penalty on those caught trading in or watching CDs and DVDs of South Korean TV dramas, films or music.

Despite the risks, South Korean TV soaps remain immensely popular. “When I first saw a South Korean TV drama, I was stunned to see South Koreans living in decent homes, eating good food and driving beautiful cars. I was taught from childhood that we must help our starving South Korean peers,” says Kim Hyun-Ji, 28, a North Korean defector.

“Nowadays, the demand (for South Korean culture) is so overwhelming that the North Korean government is almost helpless,” says Kim Seong-Min, who runs FNK Radio to which many North Koreans are known to tune in, illegally.

Kim says that thousands of computers, though outdated, have been pressed into service in North Korea to burn copies of popular soaps and films. “A single copied CD of a South Korean TV drama costs the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker, yet the demand is enormous.”

Mothers and sisters, who take on jobs as domestic workers in South Korea, at wages that look like small fortunes by North Korean standards, are the main sources of CDs and other coveted items.

One such item that North Korean women send back home unfailingly is a piece of confectionary called Choco Pie, which is penny cheap in the South Korea, but is traded as a treat in markets around Pyongyang at prices that could buy several meals.

Choco Pie is especially popular in the Kaesong Industrial Park, 10 km north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which employs thousands of North Korean women who are given two or three pieces daily as dessert.

Instead of eating the cookies that come sealed in foil, the women find ways to smuggle them out of the free industrial zone to be sold at a premium or bartered in the North Korean markets.

Shin Sun-Dae suggests that instead of sending rice as food aid to North Korea it might be better if Seoul donates chocolates. “If we send rice, the North Koreans will eat it up quickly. But if we send chocolates, they will sell or barter them and the markets will boom.”

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