(FILE PHOTO) Women washing clothes on the Yalu River. Household work, childcare, and the livelihood of the family are the responsibility of women. Taken from the Chinese side of the border in September 2019. ISHIMARU Jiro

<Investigation>Why aren’t North Korea’s women having babies anymore? (1) The fertility rate is already severely low…It’s rare to see anyone carrying babies around

North Korean authorities are struggling to cope with the country’s declining birth rate. The regime touts its various policies through events such as a mothers' convention and lectures, but the response from the population has been lukewarm. In the third installment of this series, we'll take a look at women's reactions to Kim Jong-un's childbirth promotion policies. In February and March of this year, ASIAPRESS spoke to three women in the northern part of the country. (JEON Sung-jun / KANG Ji-won)

◆ Government criticizes older women without babies for being influenced by capitalism

The Kim Jong-un regime has been actively touting its childbirth promotion policy since a mothers' convention held in Pyongyang last December, promising a range of support and calling on women to create “revolutionary families” to combat the phenomenon of marriage avoidance among women, the reporting partners said.

"They promised that the state would provide food (for childbearing households), and that women's league branches and organizations would exempt such families from non-tax burdens and provide support for pregnant women." (Reporting Partner "A")

Kim Jong Un speaking at the Fifth Mothers' Convention. Rodong Sinmun, December 2023

Alongside this, propaganda regarding childbirth has also been intensified.

"They keep giving lectures, emphasizing that women should fulfill their roles as mothers, that it is a capitalist idea to live well on their own (without children), and that families that have only one child are unpatriotic." (Reporting Partner "A")

However, this propaganda does not seem to work well with women.

"There is dissatisfaction among women who live alone because they are secretly criticizing older women without kids, saying that they only care about themselves, and that they have been imbued (colored) with capitalist ideas and only know how to make money," said Reporting Partner "C.”

"The lecturer's talk was a bit sketchy, too, because it didn't really make sense." she added.

◆ “We’re not stupid,” women say. “We just don’t want our kids to become homeless on the streets”

Women are apathetic to the government’s ineffective and disingenuous policies and propaganda, according to another reporting partner in Ryanggang Province.

"The mothers' convention was just a formality, and no one actually thought that they should have a baby after the event. Everything that is shown in the newspaper and on the TV is propaganda, and it is meaningless to a woman who is having a baby." (Reporting Partner "B")

Reporting Partner "C" in Ryanggang Province told a similar story.

"When a woman who belongs to the women's league says that she is pregnant, organizations make her chicken soup and collect money to support her, and (the authorities) ask the organizations to voluntarily support her, but it's not like the child will grow up on that (kind of support) alone."

The reporting partner was even more critical about policies aimed at promoting multi-children families that have been a focus of propaganda since the mothers' convention last year.

"They're giving lectures, they're talking about national support, and nowadays I hear (around me) that they're pregnant, but that's because they're stupid people, and smart people don't want to get pregnant. If they have one child, they'll raise it well, and if they have two, they get treated like they're stupid. People call poor people who try to have just one child stupid, asking whether they want their kid to wind up as homeless on the streets." (Reporting Partner "A")

(FILE PHOTO) A small child basks in the brief early winter sun, barely propping himself up on a table in an empty marketplace. Will he live to see the next spring? Photographed by ASIAPRESS in Hyesan, November 2012.

◆ Government accuses women who get abortions or live with their lovers without getting married of non-socialistic behavior

But when this policy failed to gain traction due to how women actually feel about childbearing, the authorities pulled out the "non-socialist" card to increase the fertility rate, one reporting partner said.

"There was a meeting held about cohabitation and abortion, and they said that cohabitation is an act of shirking marriage and disrupting public morals. They also said that not registering a marriage is an non-socialist act and should be actively reported and cracked down on." (Reporting Partner “B”)

※ In North Korea, if a man and woman who have not registered their marriage live together, they are subject to legal penalties for having committed “non-socialistic behavior.”

◆ Intense crackdown on abortion

The reporting partner went on to say that the regime is particularly tough on abortion.

"The most intense crackdown is on early-term and mid-term abortions, but everyone involved in the abortion is considered a problem by the government. Women who pay others to do an abortion are being threatened with prison time.”

In December of last year, a midwife from Hyesan Hospital who performed an early-term abortion at her home was sent to a forced labor camp, and although the woman who had the procedure was not punished because she was still young, she was humiliated by the organizations she was affiliated with.

◆ Women who give birth because the government tells them to are considered idiots

The government’s fear-mongering is not changing women's minds. Rather, it's creating a backlash, one reporting partner said.

"If (the state) told you to give birth, would you do it? And even if you're pregnant, why would you give birth to a child? Why would you give birth just because you have (a child)? No matter how much it costs, you'd rather have an early-term abortion, unless you're a fool." (Reporting Partner “B”)

Another reporting partner described women's reaction to the government’s policies as follows.

"(After a women’s league meeting) they were saying negative things like, ‘How can I have a child when I am starving,’ and, ‘I don't want to have a child, so why should the state say anything about it?’”

Participants respond to Kim Jong-un's speech at the Fifth Mothers' Convention. Women's League cadres from across the country were sent to Pyongyang to participate in the event. Rodong Sinmun, December 2023.

The reporting partner went on to say that there are also many cases of women having clandestine abortions or using unsafe methods to get rid of their fetuses to avoid punishment from the authorities.

"The crackdown has gotten so bad that some women go to other areas to get treatment for their illnesses and stay there for a few days after the operation. They don't talk about it because they don't want to offend each other, so they rarely get caught unless someone reports it." (Reporting Partner “A”)

"Nowadays, people use acupuncture needles to kill a fetus. The government is cracking down on this and arresting people, but I've seen women going around looking for someone who knows how to do it." (Reporting Partner “B”)

Editor's note: This seems to refer to the forced abortion of a fetus by stabbing it to death with a needle. It's an extreme method that's hard to imagine, but it illustrates how North Korean women feel about childbirth.

There is a need to further investigate the health of women undergoing abortions in secret given the seriousness of the issue.

In the meantime, the only people who are excited about the situation are the people who are secretly performing abortions, one reporting partner said.

"No matter how much they crack down on illegal medical practices, the women who work in obstetrics and gynecology departments make a lot of money by performing (illegal) early-term abortions at home. No matter how much they crackdown on the practice, the women still conduct abortions…" (Reporting Partner “A”)

North Korea's low fertility rate is no longer surprising when viewed in context. The current decline in fertility is the result of a covert, powerful, and long-running offensive by women who have rebelled against anachronistic authorities and patriarchal men.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with its reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.

<Investigation>Why aren’t North Korea’s women having babies anymore? (2) Women increasingly avoid marriage to protect themselves...Men are considered a burden to women in N. Korean society