News / Asia

    Study Details North Korean Caste System

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (file photo)North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (file photo)
    x
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (file photo)
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (file photo)
    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.

    You May Like

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Ben from: USA
    June 12, 2012 12:42 PM
    Unless you ment "of more than 24.5 million" not "or more than 24.5 million"

    by: Salim from: Seoul
    June 07, 2012 9:50 AM
    North Korea has a population closer to 25 million, not 60 million as the article states.

    by: Ben from: USA
    June 07, 2012 9:25 AM
    Whoever wrote this cant use google. "72 percent of the population or more than 60 million North Koreans....." The entire population of north Korea is not even 25 million(see CIA world factbook another US government source). That number will put the total population north of 80 million. This basic error makes me wonder if an editor even read this.


    by: Anonymous
    June 06, 2012 7:39 PM
    You are a cult member or you are not a Korean (North).

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora