Carnations for North Korean mothers, wives -- and tutors


Pyongyang (AFP)

International Women's Day is a full public holiday in North Korea -- and a busy time for florists.

A steady stream of customers arrived at Flower Shop No. 5 in a central Pyongyang square, paying 10,000 won (around $1.25 at market exchange rates) for bouquets of roses or carnations ?- a traditional gift for mothers in the North.

Although the small orange shop looks indistinguishable from others of its kind, it has established a reputation in the capital for the variety and freshness of its blooms.

Most of the clientele were buying for their wives or mothers, but port official Nam Song Hak's carnations were destined for his university engineering tutor.

"She did her best to teach us to be excellent men," said the 37-year-old -- who had already bought flowers for his wife and mother the previous day.

"Thanks to her efforts and under the warm love of the respected marshal comrade Kim Jong Un, now I have grown up to make a big contribution to our society," he added. "We cannot forget our teachers."

Ordinary North Koreans consistently express complete loyalty to the authorities when speaking to foreign media.

Another customer was Russian ambassador Alexander Matsegora, who bought a bouquet of orchids for his wife.

Women's role in North Korea "does not differ greatly from other societies", he told AFP.

Many household jobs fell on their shoulders, he said, and they played crucial roles "strengthening the links within the family".

- 'Indomitable revolutionary woman fighter' -

The North's founder Kim Il Sung once said: "In our country women are in charge of one of the wheels of the revolution."

In North Korean dictionaries, sample phrases include "an indomitable revolutionary woman fighter" and "If women are confined to their homes and remain away from labour and organisational life they cannot be revolutionised."

Even so North Korean society remains conservative and patriarchal in many respects, campaigners say, with traditional attitudes to gender roles holding sway, along with deference to authority.

At the same time, in practice North Korean women often have much greater freedom of movement than men, as males will have formal jobs from which their absence would be noticed.

As a result, most of the traders at the informal 'jangmadang' markets that have sprung up in recent years are female -- and they make crucial contributions to their families' livelihoods.

Women also make up the vast majority of defectors to the South.

US-based Human Rights Watch issued a report last year saying that police and other officials prey on women with near-total impunity, highlighting captured or returned defectors and smugglers and traders as at particular risk of rape or other abuse.

Pyongyang was infuriated, with the official KCNA news agency carrying a statement calling it "the most despicable false document on earth, a patchwork of pointless words made by a handful of human scums" and saying it "insults the sacred dignity of the Korean women".

In Kim Il Sung Square on Friday, Han Hye Sun ?- who had already been given flowers by her husband -- sat waiting to take pictures of visitors with her Canon camera.

"In our country women are respected by the people," she said, "but even on holidays we are working to serve the people".