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Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950

  • Suzy Kim (a1)

Women today are struggling with all their passion and all their strength day and night for the creation of a new history of a democratic country. Today in the streets, men, women, the old, the young, everyone stops to listen to the women.

———Nam Hyǒn-sǒ, “Women of a New Country,” January 1947

In Korea from ancient times, the master of the home was thought to refer to the husband … we now realize that the master of the home must be the woman, that is, the wife or mother.

———Chang Chǒng-suk, “The New Home and Housewife,” October 1947
All social revolutions in modern history, from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Cuban one of 1959, have attempted to address the status of women as a critical element of social change.1 North Korea was no different. With Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was liberated from its thirty-five-year colonial rule, and as in many postcolonial nations after the war, revolution was in the air.2 When the Cold War came early to the peninsula, Korea took two divergent paths. Divided at the 38th parallel into separate occupation zones, with the United States in the south and the USSR in the north, social reforms were carried out swiftly in the north, aided and abetted by the Soviets, while in the south, the American occupiers saw most Korean political movements as too radical and suppressed them. In what follows, I focus on the formative years of early North Korean history, the five-year period between the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950. I show how North Korea from the outset attempted to meld the old and the new through the figure of the revolutionary mother as a uniquely feminine revolutionary subjectivity. This sets the North Korean case apart from other historical examples of social revolutions and their handling of “the woman question.”

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1 Here I adopt Theda Skocpol's definition, which states that a social revolution is a “combination of thoroughgoing structural transformation and massive class upheavals.” States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

2 For a full account of this history, see Cumings, Bruce, The Origins of the Korean War, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981, 1990), and for the revolution in North Korea, see Armstrong, Charles K., The North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003). All primary sources I use in this article come from the “Records Seized by the US Military Forces in Korea” during the Korean War (1950–1953), which was declassified in 1977 and is now held in the National Archives, in College Park, Maryland, under Record Group 242.

3 Hyŏn-sŏn, Pak, “Policy on women during the anti-imperialist anti-feudal democratic revolution,” in Nam-sik, Kim, ed., Haebang chŏnhusa ŭi insik [Understanding pre- and post-liberation history] (Seoul: Han'gilsa, 1989), 425.

4 “Hwanghae Province P'yǒngsan County Prosecution Statement,” 18 Mar. 1947, G 242, SA 2010, box 5, item 4.

5 Gilmartin, Christina Kelley, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 45.

6 Kyeong-hee Choi argues that women managed to gain greater visibility in publications during the colonial period as male writers were subjected to harsher surveillance and censorship, in “Chendǒ yǒngu wa kǒmyǒl yǒngu ŭi kyoch'ajǒm esǒ [At the intersection of gender research and censorship research],” in Ilchae sikminji siki saero ilki [Re-reading of the colonial period in Korea], Yonsei University Korean Studies Center (Seoul: Hae-an, 2007); Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

7 Copies of Chosǒn Yǒsǒng from the post-Korean War period of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have been the primary source for past studies of North Korean women. This has led to arguments that the construction of North Korean women as mothers began in the postwar period with the cult of leadership and the exaltation of Kim Jǒng-suk (Kim Il Sung's wife) as the “Mother of the Revolution,” and Kang Ban-sǒk (Kim Il Sung's mother) as the “Mother of Korea.” See Ryang, Sonia, “Gender in Oblivion: Women in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea),” Journal of Asian and African Studies 35, 3 (2000): 323–49.

8 Past studies of North Korean women can be roughly divided into three broad camps. One sees the breakdown of the traditional patriarchal family through communist policies as having had a negative effect on the uniquely Korean sense of morality and virtue. Another group is critical of North Korea's policies on women for its maintenance of patriarchal relations, exacerbated by what they call “totalitarian state patriarchy” through women's mobilization as workers as well as housewives, increasing the double burden on women. The third camp attempts to understand the North Korean gender policies through the standards set by the government itself, and thereby tries to maintain a critical stance while giving credit for some improvements in women's lives. For a representative example of this last position, see Park, Kyung Ae, “Women and Revolution in North Korea,” Pacific Affairs 65, 4 (Winter 1992–1993): 527–45. For a full bibliographic list, see Suzy Kim, “Politics of Empowerment: Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950,” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2005, ch. 4.

9 Ryang, “Gender in Oblivion”: 323. Ryang claims that “debate on the ‘woman question’ was almost non-existent,” and that the legal measures for gender equality were pushed top-down without participation from North Korean women. But when the question became a source of heated debate in North Korea in the post-liberation period it involved North Korean women from all strata, as shown here. This often revealed the enormous challenges faced by reforms in gender relations.

10 See Hoffmann, David L., “Mothers in the Motherland: Stalinist Pronatalism in Its Pan-European Context,” Journal of Social History 34, 1 (Fall 2000): 3554.

11 Davin, Anna, “Imperialism and Motherhood,” History Workshop Journal 5, 1 (1978): 966.

12 Aya, Kawamoto, “Ideology of Good Wife Wise Mother and the Theory of ‘Women's Emancipation’ in Japan,” Yoksa Pip'yong [History criticism] 52 (Fall 2000): 353–63.

13 Yang-hŭi, Hong, “Theory of Wise Mother Good Wife in Korea and the Making of the Colonial ‘Citizen,’Yoksa Pip'yŏng [History criticism] 52 (Fall 2000): 364–74. Japan was also a source of Western feminist ideas; works by Henrik Ibsen, Ellen Key, August Bebel, and Alexandra Kollontai were often translated first into Japanese, leading to the rise of the New Woman in Korea, as elsewhere. But the brief period in the 1920s of radical alternatives to traditional married life, as practiced by New Women, is beyond the scope of this article.

14 Park, Hyun Ok, “Ideals of Liberation: Korean Women in Manchuria,” in Kim, Elaine H. and Choi, Chungmoo, eds., Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism (London: Routledge, 1998), 229–48.

15 Chizuko, Ueno, Nationalism and Gender (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2004).

16 Kasza, Gregory, The Conscription Society: Administered Mass Organizations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 93.

17 Sang-kyŏng, Yi, “A Study of the Korean Women Mobilization and the Image of ‘Militaristic Mother’ under National General Mobilization System by Japanese Imperialism,” P'eminijŭm Yŏngu [Feminism research] 2 (Dec. 2002): 206–7.

18 Kyoung-ran, Lee, “Rural Society and Peasants' Life in Choson during the Japanese Wartime Regime: With the Village-Society Network as the Central Figure,” in, Kie-chung, Pang, ed., Japanese Fascist Policy in Korea and Korean Life (Seoul: Haean, 2004), 396–98.

19 Myoung-A, Kwon, “The Gender Politics of the Wartime Mobilization Regime in Korea,” in Kie-chung, Pang, ed., Japanese Fascist Policy in Korea and Korean Life, (Seoul: Haean, 2004), 304–5.

20 Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 427.

21 Chǒng-suk, , “Statement to the Democratic Women of the World,” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Feb. 1947): 915. All Chosǒn Yǒsǒng citations are from the National Archives, Record Group 242, Shipping Advice no. 2005, box 2, item 34.

22 The population figure for women is from Hǒ Chǒng-suk, Saegae Minju Yǒsǒng Undong kwa Chosǒn Minju Yǒsǒng Undong [World democratic women's movement and the Korean democratic women's movement] (Pyǒngyang: Kongyangsa, 1947), cited in Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 434–35. Chosǒn Yǒsǒng's June 1947 issue gives the June 1946 North Korean population as thirteen million.

23 Chŏng-ae, Pak, “1947 Nyǒndo Pukchosǒn Minju Yǒsǒng Tongmaeng Sa'ǒp Ch'ongkyǒl [North Korean Democratic Women's League overview of work for 1947],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Jan. 1948): 47.

24 Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Sept. 1946, inaugural issue). In the copy of the platform in the January 1947 issue, another item was added: “Urge women to protect the nation.”

25 These articles are 14 through 17 of the Labor Law. Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 416–18.

26 Yun-dong, Kim, “The Law on the Equality of the Sexes in North Korea,” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (July. 1947): 1824.

27 Goldman, Wendy Zeva, “Women, the Family, and the New Revolutionary Order in the Soviet Union,” in Kruks, Sonia, Rapp, Rayna, and Young, Marilyn B., eds., Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989), 5981.

28 Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 422.

29 Mi-ryang, Yun, North Korea's Policy on Women (Seoul: Han'ul Publishing Co., 1991), 75.

30 Ch'i-ok, Hong, “Ssoryǒn Yǒsǒng ŭi Sahoejǒk Chiwi [Social status of Russian women],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Sept. 1946): 5054.

31 Goldman, “Women, the Family, and the New Revolutionary Order,” 74.

32 Goldman, Wendy Z., Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 340.

33 Chatterjee, Choi, Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910–1939 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), 30.

34 Un-chuk, Kim, “Chosǒn Yǒsǒngsa Saǒpe Taehan Poko [Report on the work of the Chosǒn Publishing Company],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Nov. 1947): 4042.

35 In North Korea immediately after liberation, 2,300,000 people were illiterate, and 65 percent of them were women, comprising 90 percent of all women. See Kyǒng-hae, Ri, Nyǒsǒng Munje Haekyǒl Kyǒnghǒm [Experience of solving the woman question], (Pyongyang: Sahoekwahak Ch'ulpansa, 1990), 33.

36 Kyoung-il, Kim, “Tradition and Modernity in the Formation of Modern Korean Society: On the Ideas of Family and Women,” Sahoe wa Yŏksa [Society and history] 54 (Dec. 1998): 31, n. 32.

37 The term kajǒng (家庭 ) was a neologism that began to be used at the beginning of the twentieth century to denote the modern home. It incorporates the Sino-character for household (family lineage) with one denoting garden or courtyard. The term can be translated to mean both “home” and “family,” but I have used “home” uniformly as being closer to the original meaning. The issues involved in this change from the family conceived of as a household to being based on the physical space inhabited by the nuclear family are too complex to discuss here.

38 Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Feb. and Apr. 1947).

39 “Round-table Discussion of Working Women,” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Feb. 1947): 54–60.

40 Ok-rae, Ahn, “Namsǒngeke Tŭrinŭn Malsŭm [A word to the gentlemen],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Sept. 1946): 95.

41 Pyǒng-ji, Yang, “Yǒksasang Yǒsǒng ŭi Chiwiwa kŭ ŭi Kwaǒp [The status of women in history and its lessons],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Jan. 1947): 1720.

42 “8.15 Haebang i Chunyǒn Kinyǒm Yǒsǒng Chwatamhoe [Roundtable discussion for the second-year anniversary of the 15 August liberation],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Aug. 1947): 24–30.

43 Chǒng-suk, Chang, “Saero'un Kajǒngkwa Chupu [The new home and housewife],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Oct. 1947): 3336.

44 Chǒng-ae, Pak, “The Labor Law and Women,” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Sept. 1946): 3334.

45 Ham-kwang, Ahn, “Hŭisaengchǒgin Pongkongsim: T'ŭkhi Yǒsǒngeke Chunŭn Malŭl Kyǒmhayǒ [Sacrificial public service: Especially a word to women],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Mar. 1947): 1418.

46 Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 43738.

47 “Mosǒnge Taehan Ssobaet'ŭ Chǒngbu ŭi Koryǒ [Considerations of the Soviet Government on mothers],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Oct. 1947): 21–22.

48 Waters, Elizabeth, “The Modernisation of Russian Motherhood, 1917–1937,” Soviet Studies 44, 1 (1992), 123–36.

49 Po-hae, Ku, “Nongch'on Purak Omokdong [Rural village Omokdong],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Apr. 1948): 2831.

50 Hyǒn-sǒ, Nam, “Saenara ŭi Yǒindŭl [Women of a new country],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Jan. 1947): 33.

51 Yun Mi-ryang, North Korea's Policy on Women, 76.

52 The revised Socialist Constitution was enacted on 27 December 1972. Its Article 63 states, “Marriage and family are protected by the State. The State pays great attention to consolidating the family, the cell of society,” Yun Mi-ryang, North Korea's Policy on Women, 81, 102.

53 Kim Il Sung says, “Our ideal is … a society where all people live united in harmony as one big family.” In “The Duty of Mothers in the Education of Children (Speech at the National Meeting of Mothers, 16 November 1961),” in On the Work of the Women's Union (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1971), 4, quoted in Halliday, Jon, “Women in North Korea: An Interview with the Korean Democratic Women's Union,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 17, 3 (1985): 4656, 52 (n. 28).

54 Kil-sǒng, Chang, “Ssoryǒn Saehwajuŭi 10wǒl Hyǒkmyǒngkwa Ssoryǒn Yǒsǒng ŭi Chiwi [The Soviet Socialist October Revolution and the status of Soviet women],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Nov. 1947): 1014.

55 Engels, Friedrich, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (New York: International Publishers, 1972).

56 Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 450.

57 Advertisement in Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Apr. 1948), inside front cover.

58 Pak Hyŏn-sŏn, “Policy on women,” 461, n. 72.

59 Ko-song, Shin, “Myǒn ri inminwiwǒn sǒnkǒ e issǒsǒdo yǒsǒngdŭlŭn ssaunda [Women fight for the elections of the township and village People's Committees],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Feb. 1947): 2426.

60 Hyŏn-sŏn, Pak, “Policy on women,” 421–24; Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (July 1947 and Jan. 1948).

61 Sǒk-yang, Kim, “Yukawǒn Pangmunki [Visit to an orphanage],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Oct. 1947): 5557.

62 Yun Mi-ryang, North Korea's Policy on Women, 203.

63 Yong-kǒn, Ch'oe, “Chosǒn yǒsǒngdŭlege chǒngch'i munhwa kyoyang ŭl kanghwahara [Strengthen the political and cultural education of Korean women],” Chosǒn Yǒsǒng (Sept. 1946): 9.

64 Scott, Joan W., “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 773–97, quote p. 793.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the anonymous CSSH reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, as well as the editors of CSSH. I am grateful to Albert L. Park and Yoon Sun Yang for their critical feedback at various stages of the writing. Research for this article was funded by the Fulbright Program and the Korea Foundation. A much shorter version was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in 2009. All translations are mine. I have used the McCune-Reischauer Romanization system, placing last names first as is Korean convention unless the author has his/her own Romanized name.

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