Academic journal article North Korean Review

Why Has Son-Preference Disappeared in North Korea?

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Why Has Son-Preference Disappeared in North Korea?

Article excerpt


This paper investigates gender disparities among children raised in North Korea, perhaps the last remaining bastion of communism. Ever since the separation of the Korean Peninsula into two Koreas in 1948, the socialist agenda of North Korea has aimed at equal status for women, whereas South Korea is one of the most strongly patriarchal societies in the world.1 Considering North Korea's official proclamation of being an egalitarian society, the question remains as to whether or not the communist system in the North has managed to reduce cultural gender gaps.

Previous studies on North Korean gender issues are scarce or rely on qualitative evidence, given the overall lack of information on North Korea. These studies usually limit themselves to examining the role of women in North Korean communist society. Conclusions are commonly drawn on material released by North Korea's Foreign Languages Publishing House, such as the collected works or speeches of North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung2 and the official constitution.3 The main conclusion of these articles is that women have become liberated in North Korean society. This is due to the communist agenda that has largely integrated women into the labor force and abolished the Confucian patrilineal family registration system. However, it is also noteworthy that the role of women in North Korean society is mostly limited to a producer or reproducer role.4

Recent studies on North Korean gender bias are based mainly on data from defectors. During and after the North Korean famine of the 1990s, the number of North Korean economic refugees increased drastically, allowing information to be obtained via the interviewing of North Koreans living abroad. For instance, 46 percent of the respondents in a 1999 survey conducted among 332 refugees said that their husbands were the main decision-makers when it came to purchases, whereas only 37 percent answered that the wife was.5 This indicates a clear, though not severe, patriarchal bias within North Korean households. In contrary, another refugee study suggests that the mid-1990s famine could have led to a change in gender roles, division of labor, and gender-preference within North Korean families.6 In the 1990s, the collapse of the heavy-industry-oriented North Korean economy combined with the food crisis might have strengthened the positions of females in North Korean society. Housewives found efficient ways to contribute to the family income by engaging in the emerging informal and light-industry-oriented economy, while mothers began to prefer daughters since they were perceived as requiring less food to survive during crisis periods.

In 1999, demographic researcher Daniel Goodkind raised an interesting question that shed light on the extent of gender discrimination in North Korea: Do parents in North Korea prefer sons? Child malnutrition data based on a 1998 UN survey report were analyzed along with sex ratios at birth taken from the North Korean population census data of 1993.7 The study did not find evidence of female disadvantage based on a lack of increased pre- and post-natal female mortality or a lack of aggravated malnutrition, both of which factors may be due to North Korea's socialist ideology.

This paper investigates gender disparities in North Korea in 2002. Methodologically, this study was based on quantitative and reliable data, and thus it goes beyond ad hoc, qualitative, and non-random data gathered from refugee interviews. Moreover, as distinct from Goodkind's study, this paper focuses on a more recent period while directly investigating intra-household allocation biases within North Korean families, as opposed to relying on demographic and anthropometric indicators alone.

Historical Gender Inequality and Socialist Achievements

Confucianism was adopted by Korea during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), and largely affected the status of women and girls in society. It has been argued that the status of females was higher before the Chosun Dynasty, as women could remarry, become head of the family, and receive equal inheritance. …

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