Print options

June 06, 2012

Study Details North Korean Caste System

by VOA News

A U.S.-based human rights group has released a report detailing how North Korea ranks its citizens based on their family's loyalty to the Kim dynasty in what it says amounts to an oppressive political caste system.

The study released Wednesday by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea says all of the country's citizens are divided into three heredity-based classes: loyal, wavering, or hostile.

The report argues that "inequality is assigned at birth," and that citizens have little control during the course of their lifetime over their socio-political classification, known as "songbun" in Korean.


Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of group, said the so-called wavering and hostile classes total about 72 percent of the population of more than 24.5 million North Koreans.

He says loyalists enjoy perks such as being able to live in the comparatively modern capital city of Pyongyang, and preferences in access to food, housing, medical treatment, education and employment.

However, those in the hostile class are forced to live in the most impoverished northeastern provinces, and are often assigned to hard labor positions at mines and farms.

Scarlatoiu says the classification of hostile can follow a family for up to three generations. He says under the system a person can be confined to these lower rungs for offenses such as being on the losing side of an argument within the Korean Workers Party, failing to take adequate care of a picture of a North Korean leader or supporting ideas, religious or otherwise, that do not conform to official ideology.

The report was based on interviews with 75 North Korean defectors.  the report says the government keeps a file on each North Korean from the age of 17 that is updated every two years.

It says the "Songbun" system has largely escaped the notice of the Western world, who have instead focused on North Korea's vast camps of political prisoners, public executions, extreme information controls, and nuclear weapons program.
----------------------------------
VOA's Amanda Scott talks with Greg Scarlatoiu, the group's executive director of the group, for more information on this political caste system.

This week your organization released a report detailing North Korea’s Social Classification System also known as “Songbun” can you summarize this report?

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. North Korea is a U.N. member state and it should abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity rights. However, 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.

Can you tell us a little more about the privileges afforded to those in the loyal class compared to those living in hostile class?

Being part of the loyal class the core loyal class means first and foremost better access to food, better access to housing, better access to residential location and most of those living in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea actually belong to the core loyal caste. So basically this involves better access to employment, the best jobs available in North Korea are made available to those of higher songbun, belonging to the loyal class. Also access to education is also based on the social classification system. So pretty much songbun governs all aspects of life in North Korea.

Is it possible for a person to move within caste, either being downgraded or upgraded to a higher caste?

It would be nearly impossible to move up for one who has been classified as a member of the hostile caste, by the way, in instances where members of the hostile class have been confined to political prisoner camps in remote areas of North Korea, guilt by association is applied up to three generations.

In the case of those belonging to the wavering class, under exceptional circumstances it may be possible to be promoted to the loyal or core class if one is perceived as having done deeds that prove extraordinary loyalty to the regime. If one did extraordinary things that tremendously helped the Kim regime.

How in particular do your actions affect the classification of your family members?

What we hear from North Korean defectors who once were political prisoner camps detainees is that one of the questions often asked by many of the political prisoner camp detainees is that many of them don’t know why they are there.

These are all perceived associations, so basically one might end up in a political prisoner camp for wrong doing, wrong thinking, wrong knowledge, wrong association or wrong class background. This is a feudal practice going back to the days of the Joseon dynasty which preceded the 40 years of Japanese occupation that in turn preceded Kim Il-sung’s regime in North Korea.

Are there any signs that this system will change now that Kim Jong-un has taken over as North Korea’s leader?

Kim Jong-un’s story is a very interesting story. 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. So Kim Jong-un himself is the son of the former leader of North Korea and the grandson of a former leader of North Korea and his mother comes from what would strictly perceived from a North Korea viewpoint as a person of lower songbun.

Does this mean he would take greater interest in dismantling the songbun system?

Probably not and on the contrary he might feel tempted to hide and restrict access to information about his mother and her background.

He is very unlikely to shake things up so soon in the process even if he wanted to. Let us remember the reason why he was selected to be his  father’s successor was not that he was seen as a potential reformer, but that he was seen as the one of the three sons who  was most likely to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The North Korean regime rely so much on the songbun social classification system that it would be difficult to change things overnight. That being said, it is imperative that North Korea, the North Korean regime take immediate steps toward the full counting of those who are being held at the political prison camps it is of the essence that North Korean begin considering the dismantlement of these political prison camps.