Women in North Korea are not usually in the spotlight but the birth centenary of “war heroine” Kim Jong-suk is currently being celebrated in a big way there.
Kim is no ordinary woman though, but the first wife of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung and the grandmother of current leader Kim Jong-un.
She is believed to have been born to a poor farming family on Christmas Eve in 1917, and is said to have fought with guerrilla forces against the Japanese in the 1930s.
She died in 1949, aged just 31, and official accounts ascribe her death to the hardships she endured as a guerrilla fighter.
To mark her birth centenary, North Korean media have been describing her wartime exploits in typically hyperbolic language.
Kim is not just an “outstanding woman revolutionary” and “the sacred mother of the revolution”, “her marksmanship was so marvellous that even her comrades-in-arms used to guess the number of killed enemies by counting empty bullet pockets of her cartridge belt after battles,” says a report in the state-run KCNA news agency.
North Korea says it has released new postage stamps, minted new gold and silver coins, and held cultural performances in her honour.
One report says “more than 300,000 servicepersons, working people from all walks of life, youth and students, overseas Koreans and foreigners” visited her birthplace this year.
Putting on heirs
However, the warm veneration of Kim Jong-suk is not reflective of the average woman’s life in North Korea.
The country is considered to have a highly patriarchal society and a woman’s role there is often viewed as nothing more than to produce a male heir.
Perhaps tellingly, local media note that Kim Jong-suk’s “greatest exploit is that she brought up leader Kim Jong-il as the rising sun and thus gave the people the highest honour and happiness of being blessed with the illustrious leaders generation after generation”.
The proportion of women occupying senior roles in the communist country is almost negligible. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the current leader, is the only female member of the ruling party’s Politburo.
In 2015, the government reportedly made military service compulsory for women until the age of 23, and a former soldier has described conditions for women there as appalling.
Reporting by Pratik Jakhar
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