(Hat tip to @Sino_NK!)
When he ascended as leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s PR machine distinctly involved the woman’s touch: being the son of a “revolutionary mother” and, later, husband to a chic Chanel-wearing comrade somehow added polish to his legitimacy.
This feminized framing of a North Korean strongman’s rise to power, and what that means in terms of evolving perceptions of a socialist woman’s role, is what Darcie Draudt, a master’s candidate at Yonsei University in Seoul and assistant editor at Sino-NK, addresses eloquently in her paper. (Read the full text here)
Through media portrayals and expert accounts, Draudt delves into the seeming gulf between the choson-ot-wearing Mother of the Nation (mom) and the handbag-sporting, “westernised” natural sciences graduate (wife). Draudt posits that maybe the latter’s image, borne of modernity (as much as North Korea can be modern), may be a challenge to the traditional or ideal views of the North Korean woman. Juche goes Gucci?
But she rightly notes that the provenance of these women are heavily idealized, and probably not accurate biographies. (I have the authorized biography of Kim Jong-il in my house from the trip to Pyongyang, and there’s some pretty fantastic, unicorn-level claims in there.)
Still, Draudt concludes in her paper:
Canonizing Ko Young-hee and introducing Ri Sol-ju are ways to reifymodel citizenship and more specifically the Ideal North Korean Woman for all North Koreans. … The consorts to the Kim clan are and continue to be a tool in upholding leadership (Page 239-240)
I remember a professor of mine saying that revolutionary women were often seen as just “wombs of the nation” — baby producers to continue the struggle. And that even in socialist movements, women’s roles remained gendered (i.e. domestic) like it had been pre-commune.
So in the North Korea narrative, amid hints of change, in the end, they’re still whatever the prevailing (male) regime wants them to be, as Draudt writes:
… give a glimpse into how the regime imagines the role of women in the supposed “women’s paradise” that is the DPRK: they are still mothers and wives, ready for (re)construction for the sake of the regime that play into normative family relationships, but that the ideal qualities for figurehead women reflect a challenge to traditional women’s roles. (same)
In other words, like many other facets of North Korea, getting there — but juuuust a liiitle bit.
Definitely worth a read!