Earlier this month, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a U.S.-based human rights group, released a study outlining the “Songbun,” or social caste system, in the DPRK. The report, entitled “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” was based on extensive interviews with North Korean defectors. For those that don’t have time to analyze all 133 pages of this fascinating document, HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu did a recent interview with Voice of America on the subject.
When asked to briefly summarize the study’s findings, he said:
At birth each North Korean is assigned a social classification status, a Songbun status, by the government based on the perceived political loyalty of one’s family to the regime … all North Koreans are classified as loyal, wavering or hostile and face discrimination on the basis of this classification in terms of food distribution, housing, residential location, employment, education and all aspects of a person’s life. In North Korea the so-called wavering and hostile classes are estimated to total about 72 percent of the population or more than 60 million North Koreans. Basically only the small politically loyal class is entitled to live in Pyongyang and benefit from extensive privileges.
Examples of these “extensive privileges” read more like a list of basic human rights afforded to residents of developed countries: access to food, housing, electricity, employment, education, etc. And the sorts of acts that can land someone in the wavering or hostile classes sound like examples of “thought-crimes” from George Orwell’s 1984. These “treacherous” acts can range from “supporting ideas that do not conform to official ideology,” to “failing to take adequate care of a picture of a North Korean leader.”
In fact, the classification can come down to bloodline or relations. For instance, if someone has had a grandparent who was a political prisoner or a member of the hostile class, then they too could be categorized as hostile simply by being related, as “guilt by association” can be applied “up to three generations.” And while dropping in status can be remarkably easy and seemingly arbitrary (many former political prisoners “don’t know why they are there”), upward mobility, on the other hand, can be nearly impossible for members of the wavering and hostile classes, which make up the strong majority of North Koreans.
Ironically, the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, would technically be assigned to a lower caste due to his own bloodline:
His mother was a Japanese Korean. She was a dancer, a member of a dance troop who Kim Jong-il fell in love with. And certainly descendants of Japanese who returned to Korea where classified as lower Songbun in North Korea’s classification system.
Almost everything about this classification, from the hypocrisy to the blatant human rights abuses, is appalling. However, even more disappointing, as Scarlatoiu notes, is that Kim could have an excellent reason to dismantle the Songbun system, technically being from a “lower class.” Instead, he will most likely use this as an excuse to tighten his iron grip and conceal this information from the North Korean people. This system is well rooted in the ideology of the North, and it is difficult to see how change will come quickly or willingly from within the DPRK regime itself.