Changing North Korea’s Future Through Its Women


  • While the women in Kim Jong Un’s family seem to gain prominence, ordinary North Korean women are also ready to be empowered.
  • The North Korean regime puts greater focus on women amid a declining birth rate.
  • The international community should encourage the regime to further empower women.


  • While the women in Kim Jong Un’s family seem to gain prominence, ordinary North Korean women are also ready to be empowered.
  • The North Korean regime puts greater focus on women amid a declining birth rate.
  • The international community should encourage the regime to further empower women.

News reports over the past few years featuring Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, or his daughter, Kim Ju Ae, have led to speculation about a future North Korea ruled by a woman. This is an intriguing development worth monitoring, given the North Korean regime’s history of patrilineal succession. However, ordinary North Korean women may have a greater role to play in the future of the country.

Women waved artificial flower bouquets as a group of activists passed during their rally calling for peace and reunification in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 22, 2015. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)
Women waved artificial flower bouquets as a group of activists passed during their rally calling for peace and reunification in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 22, 2015. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

These women are typically out of the spotlight but always present in the background, working for the Kaesong Industrial Complex, applauding Kim Jong Un or his military parade with flowers, or dancing to songs in front of respected guests. They have never received significant attention, but they might have the potential to empower themselves and create positive dynamics in contemporary North Korea. Accordingly, the international community should focus specifically on increasing those women’s access to opportunities and resources and their ability to effect change in North Korean society through various multilateral engagements.

Women in the Kim Family: Evidence of Women’s Empowerment?

The recent repeated appearances of Kim family women at North Korean political events have garnered the attention of many Korea watchers. The public appearance of first lady Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s daughter raised as a potential heir apparent and his sister’s emerging voice are all new phenomena in North Korean politics, marking a departure from the norms of Kim Jong Un’s predecessors. International scrutiny appears fair because female leadership in a male-dominated regime may undermine the stability that three generations of male Kim leaders have fortified. It is also possible that Kim Yo Jong or Kim Ju Ae could successfully grow in politics and make an impact, providing more diverse perspectives and solutions in male-led politics as female political leaders around the world have done in their respective countries.

While some hope exists, there is little evidence to suggest that female leadership in North Korea would be empowered to develop more inclusive political dynamics; quite the opposite. First, their authority is solely endorsed and justified by the Kim family, rather than by their own leadership qualities or capabilities. Second, they have not taken any significant actions to promote inclusiveness, including gender diversity. Their behavior mirrors that of their male counterparts, demonstrating unwavering loyalty to Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. While Kim Yo Jong occasionally expresses her own views on external affairs, experts interpret them as being completely aligned with that of Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader, who appears to utilize her as his most effective spokesperson.

Furthermore, the presence of women in high-level political positions in North Korea remains scarce, which undermines the case for women’s empowerment in Pyongyang’s politics. Choe Son Hui, the first female foreign minister, is an outlier. North Korea's report submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women indicates minimal female representation in influential roles within the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Women constituted merely 10 percent of divisional directors in government bodies, 11.9 percent of judges and lawyers, 4.9 percent of diplomats and 16.5 percent of officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2016.

Potential Capabilities of Ordinary Women in North Korea

On the other hand, ordinary women in North Korea may possess distinctive attributes that, given the right conditions and opportunities, can help them find their values in society and achieve self-development. According to Seoul National University professor HaeRan Shin, who has conducted extensive interviews with North Korean women, they have contributed to and engaged with North Korean society as much as men, encouraged both by North Korea’s ruling system and the Arduous March (the North Korean famine from 1994 to 1998), which inadvertently allowed women to become more enterprising over generations.

As part of North Korea’s efforts to control its population, every demographic, including women, participates in social groups. Since its fifth congress in 1983, the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea (SWUK) has been open to nonparty members and full-time housewives over the age of 30 who are not working. In other words, there are few women in their 30s or older who do not participate in any nationally organized social activities. Additionally, mothers have the opportunity and time to work since children are raised by the state from an early age. The North Korean regime established public childcare as early as the 1960s, and the Law on the Nursing and Upbringing of Children of 1976 stipulates that all children shall be raised at the expense of the state and society in day care centers and kindergartens, thus legally aiming for a free national childcare system.

Men — the head of households or patriarchs in a socialist and militarized country — have been occupied with duties that don’t pay the bills, such as serving in the military or working in official positions to receive rations. This situation has made it challenging for men to contribute significantly to the household economy, leading women to seek opportunities to earn money. Moreover, in a country with a military force of 1.28 million troops, every individual aged 17 is mobilized for compulsory military service. While the duration of service varies from five to 13 years depending on gender and the type of force unit, approximately 20% of North Korean males between the ages of 16 and 54 are enlisted in the military at any given time. Female conscription is a relatively recent development, initiated during the Kim Jong Un era, and, as a result, women comprise approximately 20% of the military, according to some estimates.

The Arduous March significantly impacted North Korean society, and women’s lives were no exception. With the formal economy ceasing to function and rationing becoming prevalent during this period, many women assumed the role of breadwinners for their families by participating in the informal market economy. This dire situation led to more North Korean women becoming independent, somewhat liberated from patriarchal norms within the family. However, this also represented a setback in terms of women’s living conditions, as they were burdened with multiple responsibilities without adequate institutional support. This experience enabled North Korean women to become more adept at coping with and enduring difficult circumstances.

North Korean women may already be well prepared for empowerment. They are likely to be socialized, capable and strong, which enables them to navigate life as competently as men, or even better. What is necessary to further empower them is the provision of favorable conditions and opportunities.

In Need of Ordinary Women Dedicated to the Regime

The declining birth rate in North Korea may have its women on the verge of gaining better conditions and opportunities. While estimates vary according to investigators, North Korea’s fertility rate stands at somewhere between 1.38 and 1.81. Additionally, as of 2023, the sex ratio in North Korea is estimated at 0.95 males/female, while the global ratio is 1.01 males/females.

Kim Jong Un publicly acknowledged the declining birth rate for the first time in 2023 and has expressed greater concern about this demographic issue than his predecessors. He also recognizes the value of women in tackling this problem, seeing them as both reproducers and crucial human resources. While highlighting women as birth givers can be demeaning, policies that promote higher birth rates may indirectly result in increased policy attention toward women and foster cooperation beneficial to women, thereby advancing women’s rights. This is because the policy focus aims at improving the quality of life for children and the parents who raise them.

In recent years, the North Korean regime has urged women to dedicate themselves more to the regime by reproducing and parenting, particularly through women-related events. Since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, events engaging women increased in North Korea, including the National Conference of Mothers, the annual International Women’s Day and SWUK meetings. While Kim Jong Il failed to hold a single women’s union meeting, his son, Kim Jong Un, reorganized the women’s union by changing the name of the Democratic Women’s Union of Korea to SWUK, holding elections for its leadership and revising its laws.

These events have focused on potential or current mothers. Kim Jong Un’s speech at the 5th National Conference of Mothers in 2023, titled “On Duty of Mothers for Their Families and Society,” emphasized that “stopping the decline in birthrates and providing good childcare and education are all our family affairs that we should solve together with our mothers.” On International Women’s Day in 2024, a Rodong Sinmun editorial noted that “Mothers should … [keep] in mind that from the first step of raising the future of their country, the gap left behind cannot be filled or compensated for by anything.”

The regime also intends to guide women as professionals contributing to the state’s development. News outlets often praise women playing key roles in all spheres of society. In a January 2024 Korean Central News Agency article titled “Patriotic Women in DPRK,” the regime distinguishes women as patriots who contribute to strengthening the national defense capability, filling the country’s granary and sending aid materials to construction sites. Local North Korean media often describe talented girls and women who have “progressive spirit and keep challenging themselves,” which is different from traditional perceptions of women. Although the North Korean regime has historically regarded women as members dedicated to mobilization for their country akin to men, the current phenomenon is new because the recent emphasis is on appreciating women’s roles in professional, and not just labor-intensive or domestic, functions. Since Kim Jong Un assumed power, professional women have been hailed as miraculous and innovative creators committed to the nation’s prosperity, and praised for their active participation in fields previously considered exclusively for men, such as fighter pilots.

The regime’s efforts to support women in reproduction and employment include institutional and legal measures. Despite evidence suggesting that the reality may differ from claims by state-run media, North Korea nominally expanded maternity leave to 240 days — 60 days before and 180 days after giving birth — through revisions of the Socialist Labor Law and the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights in 2015. During this period, mothers receive prenatal and postnatal subsidies equivalent to 100 percent of their basic living expenses, regardless of their length of employment. While these policies ultimately aim to increase the birth rate, they also contribute to enhancing female workers’ fundamental rights to health and welfare.

How the International Community Can Help

Although the international community should be wary of North Korean policies that utilize women only as a means to bolster regime stability, it can support the government in advancing women’s empowerment and recognizing the importance of women to the country’s future.

In the past, North Korea has been willing to engage internationally on development matters, particularly on issues concerning women, children, seniors and people with disabilities as vulnerable groups. The regime has been remarkably proactive in international cooperation to enhance the conditions of these groups, as evidenced by its increasing acceptance of recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in 2019 and its first submission of a Voluntary National Review (VNR) in 2021 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. North Korea has also engaged multiple times in a Women in Business (WIB) program offered by Choson Exchange, a Singaporean nongovernmental organization, in which 20-40-year-old North Korean female professionals learn about business, economics and entrepreneurship.

Achieving women’s empowerment in North Korea will be incremental. The country lags significantly in adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and commits numerous severe human rights violations, with ordinary women among the most deprived. Expecting the North Korean regime to allow women to have full-fledged rights to make choices and determine their own lives would lead to disappointment. However, achieving gradual progress is realistic for both North Korea and the international community.

Therefore, the international community should acknowledge North Korea’s gradual measures to engage women and recommend that the regime take steps that are slightly more progressive, such as granting more women access to higher education. This could involve funding the establishment of a women's university or encouraging the awarding of more Ph.D. degrees to women. Furthermore, providing specific self-development programs or educational resources to empower women can facilitate ordinary women in North Korea to find avenues to foster their own development. Drawing lessons from the Chosen Exchange’s practices and continuing support for its WIB program can be an initial step. Educational efforts could potentially be expanded beyond business to encompass fields such as the arts and earth sciences (the latter including disciplines such as agriculture and forestry). Simultaneously, the international community should maintain mechanisms to track the conditions of ordinary women’s lives in North Korea, including encouraging more VNR reports, to ensure that the North Korean regime remains committed to its efforts to engage ordinary women.

Kyung-joo Jeon is a visiting expert at USIP and a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

PHOTO: Women waved artificial flower bouquets as a group of activists passed during their rally calling for peace and reunification in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 22, 2015. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).