Suzy Kim, a professor of Korean studies at Rutgers University, visited Boston College last Monday to present a lecture discussing the significant but relatively unknown role of women in North Korea.
The lecture, titled “Behind the Iron Curtain: Cold War Women in North Korea”, was the first lecture in the Asian Studies Distinguished Lecture Series. The series is jointly sponsored by the Asian Studies and the International Studies programs and is made possible through the donations of Daniel Morrissey '88 and his wife Chanannait Paisansathan.
An advocate for Korean peace and women’s rights, Kim has traveled around the world for her research and is an executive committee member of Women Cross DMZ. In 2015, she participated in a peace walk across the border between North and South Korea to promote peace and unity between the two nations.
Kim began by connecting the historical lens through which she views North Korea to current events, specifically recent military parades and the ongoing summits taking place between South Korea, North Korea, and the United States.
“I think a lot of what gets said about North Korea in the mainstream media, and even by those that claim to be experts on North Korea, is rather uninformed,” remarked Professor Kim. “I certainly hope that policymakers take an interest in historical works because it does inform our understanding of why North Korea does what it does.”
Kim proceeded to discuss the history of women's involvement in North Korea and the greater socialist bloc, which is not often recognized because of ideological differences that arose during the Cold War.
“In the same way that North Korean women are not recognized,” she explained, “basically the entire history of socialist and communist women has been completely hidden from view.”
One specific organization that was paramount in Kim’s lecture was the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Founded as a response to World War II, the WIDF was a private organization created by women from 40 predominantly socialist countries. The organization had three main tenants: peace, women’s rights, and the status of children.
In 1951, during the Korean War, the North Korean branch of the WIDF invited the organization to send a delegation of women to observe the devastation and war crimes occurring as a result of the war. This delegation consisted of 21 women, some from organizations besides the WIDF, who represented 17 countries. After observing the horrific aftermath of the ongoing war, the delegation released a scathing report against the U.S., which led to the labelling of the WIDF as a communist organization and its subsequent removal from the U.N. as a consultative organization.
As part of her research, Kim visited Moscow last May after hearing about the existence of a nitrate film documentary captured by a U.S.S.R. filmographer that documented the delegation’s investigation throughout North Korea. After the long process of getting a copy of the film digitized, Kim received the short documentary about three to four weeks before her lecture at Boston College.
“These are the moments, I think as historians, that we live for,” she explained. “You go through this meticulous process of seeing things that are sometimes really mundane and then you find this kind of gem.” Kim showed parts of this film to the audience, the first time she had shown it to any group. It showed the delegation visiting mass grave sites and barren fields where villages used to be.
Kim also discussed the role women have played within North Korean media, using examples of incredibly popular movies and plays that feature mothers and maidens as heroines.
Kim concluded by explaining that even in today’s society, women are involved in North Korean society and are a prominent part of the military parades in the country.
Kim also reiterated her hope for peace between the two Koreas: “Hopefully the U.S. can play a positive role in the reconciliation of the two Koreas, instead of a negative one.”