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)
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

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.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid