Kim Jong-un deployed his 'Army of Beauties' at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the cheerleading was not so chipper...
The 2018 Winter Olympics were a much-discussed topic, but not all the points of interest focused on the athletes who participated. Sharing the spotlight was a large squad of young North Korean women in uniform, dancing perfectly synchronized choreography in front of the audience. At first glance, the video footage seems very cheery and fascinating, as the women dressed in uniform dance and chant in unison. However, after a few more times of viewing these clips, it becomes uncanny.
Who are these women?
These women are members of Kim Jong-un’s now infamous ‘Army of Beauties.’ They are college students who have been chosen by the government to represent North Korea abroad. Suki Kim, a Korean-American author, stated in a recent interview that it’s similar to being in a beauty contest, but not quite, since they have been forced to take their position. As North Korean citizens, they don’t have another option but to participate if chosen. Unlike the other cheerleaders that we’re used to seeing, these women did not come on their own will.
Being beyond the country’s border at a special event means that they’re under even more scrutiny. A past delegation dispatched by Pyongyang showed off their moves at the Asian Athletics Championships in the South Korean city of Incheon in 2005, and 21 of the squad members were reportedly dispatched to a labour camp for having talked about their Southern neighbours after they returned to the famine-plagued “workers’ paradise”. (“Kim’s ‘army of beauties’ high-step south for a cold war dance-off” 2018)
What about North Korean women’s rights?
When it comes to women’s physical integrity, violence against women is too common. Sources, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, report that women in prison camps are subject to sexual abuse and forced abortions. (OECD, 2010) The US Department of State had also provided evidence of the trafficking of women and young girls into China. (OECD, 2010) Additionally, according to CEDAW, grandparents have been known on some occasions to demand continued childbirth until their own children deliver a grandson. (OECD, 2010)
Women in North Korea supposedly fare a little better with ownership rights, as they are not subject to gender-based discrimination in the realm of financial autonomy. (OECD, 2010) Individual property rights in North Korea derive from socialist distribution according to work carried out, and that the law makes no distinction between men and women in this respect. (OECD 2010) Within marriage, both spouses have equal rights to access to land and to property. However, they separately own and control property of a personal nature or, alternatively, share joint ownership of any family property. (OECD, 2010) Additionally the women can have independent control over their finances and are able to conclude various contracts. (OECD, 2010)
As for civil liberties, North Korea has no legal restrictions against freedom of movement for women, however certain regulations prevent them from “dangerous and harmful labour” and prohibit pregnant women or women with infants from working at night. (OECD, 2010) Women have also been subject to bans that forbid smoking, driving and riding a bicycle. (OECD, 2010) Female modesty has always been encouraged and this extends to how women are expected to dress. (OECD, 2010)
A more recent video released by Asian Boss interviewed two North Korean defects who shared their observations and experiences while growing up and working under the oppressive regime. Unlike what was reported by the OECD, they point out that North Korea is a very patriarchal country, where women must be submissive to their husbands. Although women can have an economical upper hand, that does not mean they are not subject to abuse. The majority of the North Korean market is based on illegally imported goods, which forces women to bribe government officials and be treated like second-class citizens in return. Sexual abuse, rape and violence is rampant in the home and in the public sphere as well as the army, but they do not get reported because the blame is oftentimes veered towards the woman for provocation in the first place, and also for fear of society’s prejudice against them.
North Korea’s history of propaganda has always been a façade, perpetuating false beliefs specifically on the backs of women. It comes as no surprise that their leader wants to showcase the best of his all-female arsenal. Although being at the center of the world stage has its perks, being a part of that group comes with a heavy price. One wrong move such as mistakenly clapping for the wrong team can land them in serious trouble. Therefore, be careful and try to not be fooled by the cheers and chants; the human rights situation in North Korea is severely weak, and with that, the issue of women’s oppression remains dire.
A video of the Army of Beauties in action can be viewed here.
About the Author: Dana Fan is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa in the Juris Doctor and Honours Bachelor of Social Sciences with Specialization in Political Science combined program. Her research areas include international women’s rights, social justice and environmental law and policy. She hopes to pursue a career in the public service that will allow her to explore these interests.