The North Korean regime has reportedly ordered border guards to stop all women from traveling on railways and roads to the North Korea-China border. The order, which targets all girls and women between 10 and 60, came recently from the powerful National Defense Commission.
Since it was issued, many women who hail from the border areas have been suffering because they cannot get permits to travel to hometowns for family events. "You quite often see women arguing with guards on trains or buses in the border areas," said a defector who crossed the border in March.
The regime is apparently alarmed by reports that many middle-aged women whose children are grown are taking the initiative in fleeing the Stalinist country.
There are several reasons why women are leading the exodus. First, since elements of small-scale capitalism were introduced in the early 2000s, women have become more active earning money for their families in the open-air markets and as a result found themselves with more power. But after a botched currency reform in 2008 that aimed to quell small-scale capitalism, these women gave up on the regime that tried to destroy their livelihood.
"It was women in the markets who strongly resisted the regime after the currency reform," said a defector who used to be a senior official there. "Women no longer have any hope for the regime" despite an ongoing generational change in the leadership.
Second, North Korean women have been influenced by increasing information about South Korea, which spreads through clandestine videos of South Korean soap operas and films. From watching them, many come away with the impression that women are more respected and independent in the South.
These soaps often portray women as more powerful than the bland male characters in domestic settings and often show men helping with the household chores.
It is also easier for women to flee the North than for men. Human traffickers are readier to smuggle women into China because they can sell them into various kinds of indentured servitude there.
Women defectors mean a continuous stream of income for brokers, as women who cross the border and make it to South Korea often pave the way for dozens for their family members to follow, saving up their earnings in the South to pay the brokers' exorbitant fees. The latest crackdown suggests the regime has woken up to these developments.
"Since early this year, the number of North Korean women crossing the border into China has soared," a Korean-Chinese man who helps defectors in the border region said. "The number of phone calls from brokers in the North hinting at the possibility of defections has doubled."
More than 400 defectors arrive in South Korea every month, and about 80 percent of them are women.