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SONGBUN | Social Class in a Socialist Paradise

December 17, 2019

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes...

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

So begins Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels and published in 1848. If we take the last paragraph, and change a couple of labels, it perfectly describes North Korea today:

The North Korean society that has sprouted from the ruins of the division of Korea and the Korean War has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

In fact, the North Korean regime has established 3 new classes divided into 51 categories, and has created what is widely recognized as the most oppressive society in the world. Maybe Marx rests easier now that his portrait no longer adorns Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang; it was taken down before Kim Il-sung’s centenary celebrations in April. The North Korean regime has been extremely intentional at creating and enforcing social classes based on political loyalty and this system, known as songbun (성분), is key to understanding North Korean society as a whole and specifically and the system of oppression which the ruling elite uses to maintain political control. So a new report on Songbun by our colleagues at HRNK, Marked for Life, is a great addition to the literature on NK.

The report describes songbun as a state-directed system of discrimination based on hereditary classes determined by perceived loyalty to the regime. It decides your prospects in almost every area of life, including education, occupation, military service, Party membership, treatment by the criminal justice system, housing, medical treatment, marriage, and even food supply. The individual has no control over this system, their songbun being decided by their family line, making it analogous to discrimination along racial lines. The whole system can be described as a political apartheid, reminiscent of the racial apartheid in South Africa that attracted such international criticism until it ended with the election of Nelson Mandela.

CREATION OF SONGBUN

The songbun system was devised in the early years after the formation of North Korea out of a motivation to protect the Kim regime by isolating and controlling perceived internal political threats. It did this by categorizing every single North Korean resident according to how politically safe or risky they might be. The key factors considered were your ancestors’ socioeconomic background at the time of liberation (1945), their activities during the Korean War (1950-1953), and whether you had relatives in South Korea or China (being connected to the outside world is bad for your songbun).

North Koreans were split into three broad classes:

  • Core (핵심), 28% of the population. Includes professional revolutionaries, descendants of ‘war heroes’ who died working or fighting for the North, peasants or those from peasant families.
  • Wavering (동요), 45%. Includes people who had previously lived in South Korea or China, those with relatives who went to the South, families of small-scale merchants, intellectuals, practitioners of superstition, etc.
  • Hostile (적대), 27%. Includes descendants of landlords, capitalists, religious people, political prisoners, those who had assisted South Korean forces during the Korean War, or were otherwise judged anti-Party or associated with external powers.

The regime keeps a file on every single person above the age of 17 (before that age your details were registered on your parent’s file), and an incredible amount of work goes into creating and regularly updating these records. The data is now managed using the software system “Faithful Servant 2.0.” This digitization makes it easier for authorities to access any citizen’s songbun file from any Ministry of Public Security computer terminal from provincial to county levels.

EFFECTS OF SONGBUN

Songbun is deeply entrenched in North Korean society and affects nearly all aspects of a North Korean’s life, including (see HRNK’s full report for further details):

Occupation:

In NK, you do not choose your job. The regime chooses it for you, and it is heavily influenced by your songbun. Simply put, if you have low songbun, you will be put into gruelling manual work, whereas if you have high songbun, you might expect a relatively cushy Party cadre position. There is no element of meritocracy here and ability does not factor in much, meaning that it is quite possible that more able workers are placed in less important roles while less able workers are given positions of responsibility. This failure to efficiently utilize their national talent-pool is yet another reason why North Korea’s state-controlled economy struggles so much.

Education:

Again, this is not meritocratic. If your parents have good songbun, then you are allowed to progress. Otherwise, no matter how hard you study, you will not advance academically. As you can imagine, this can cause resentment (although that resentment is sometimes aimed at the parents, not the regime). This system also ensures that “elites play together.” Those with good songbun go through the same schools and the same colleges, and they network within this pool for their future mutual benefit. Those with bad songbun are of course denied such opportunities. The importance of personal connections in North Korean society compounds the importance of songbun.

Family:

Knowing the importance of keeping a clean record in NK society, parents impress on their children the importance of not doing anything to step outside the Party line, as it would affect the whole family. The importance of songbun also means it is one of the most important factors to consider when finding a spouse. If you marry someone of lower songbun you and your children will lose out, so people tend to marry within their songbun level, as indicated by the occupation and status of their partner’s family. (Note that these phenomena are not unique to North Korea, as people tend to marry within their own social class in other countries too. What is unique in North Korea is how this is being played out within a class system which has been systematically created according to the interests of the ruling elite.)

Internal Exile:

For decades, the regime has systematically exiled tens to hundreds of thousands of low-songbun political undesirables to isolated and unfavourable mountainous areas in the northeast of North Korea. Here they have been forced into hard labour, subject to tighter controls, excluded from population centres, and effectively removed as a potential political threat. It could be argued that the regime has not only tried to cut off the outside world but is now increasingly cutting off Pyongyang from its outer provinces, leaving those who are judged as potential political threats isolated and with no way to demonstrate their frustration without risk of complete elimination.

Food:

Songbun has a huge effect on a North Korean citizen’s food supply. Particularly at times of scarcity, the distribution of food and resources has been concentrated to the higher songbun levels - Pyongyang and central regime institutions (Party, government and military). This was particularly noticeable during the famine of the 1990s and the chronic food shortages that have blighted the people ever since. When the state-economy collapsed and there were not enough provisions to go round, the regime stopped providing food to the politically undesirable northeast regions, so the famine hit those regions the hardest. It has been reported that as many as 30% of the population died in the worst affected regions, particularly North Hamgyeong Province. It should come as no surprise then that around 60% of North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are also from that province. An issue for another post is how this demonstrates the inextricable linkage between human rights and humanitarian / economic issues in North Korea. Understanding songbun should call us to question the wisdom of distinguishing between “economic migrants” and “political refugees” when it comes to this population.

Medical Care:

The public health system all but collapsed in the 1990s, but special treatment is still available for elites in Pyongyang. People of lower songbun cannot access these facilities, even if they have independent wealth, and the best they can hope for is to buy medicine on the black market.

In short, songbun institutionalizes the dominance of the ruling elite and their descendants over all other groups in society, and as this system has been implemented over several decades, the privileges of the core class have grown while the others suffered.The operation of this system is not at all transparent but people are generally aware of it, although they may not know details, including of their own songbun. Quite a few of the North Korean refugees that I have interviewed about their songbun have not been very sure about their own level. People of higher songbun are better aware of the system, and one gentleman that I interviewed jokingly half-boasted to me that his family was “totally red, the core of the core.” To him it was clear that he had good songbun because so many of his relatives held positions of responsibility within regime institutions, and some members of his family had also been granted considerable educational opportunities.

It is worth noting that while it is extremely difficult to improve your songbun, you can easily drop levels if you get in trouble through committing criminal or political offenses, or fail to cooperate with regime officials, or if a family member gets into such trouble. The implementation of songbun therefore creates considerable fear and forces people to obey the regime, and in reality it is an effective tool used by the regime to maintain control and power.

As we might expect, the changes inside North Korea over the last 15 years have affected the implementation of this system, albeit without being able to overturn it. The interaction between marketization and songbun (both mitigating and exacerbating effects), songbun’s effect on anti-regime sentiment, and the extent to which the songbun system can constrain change in North Korea will be covered in the next blog post…

Red_Line

SOKEEL J. PARK  | Research & Policy Analyst

How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home

August 4, 2022

It may seem like North and South Korea are completely cut off from each other, but even after decades of separation, channels of communication persist. Defectors who have made it to freedom are bridging the gap, connecting people inside North Korea to the world beyond. Through extensive broker networks, they send back money and information, accelerating change in the world’s most authoritarian country.

Through this process known as remittances, millions of dollars are sent into the country every year, representing huge spending power. Here’s how they do it!

North Korean refugees can send money to their families back home


Reconnecting with Family

To send money back home, North Korean refugees must first contact their families. They hire brokers to find their relatives and arrange illicit phone calls close to the border with China, where smuggled Chinese cell phones can connect to international networks. In North Korea, people are often wary of such brokers, so they may have to be convinced with codewords or childhood nicknames that only the family would know, or recognizable handwriting and photos.

To avoid being caught, contact is often made from the mountain at night, or using a series of text or voice messages sent through apps like Wechat and quickly deleted. When the call finally happens, it can be emotional for both sides.

“You hear someone say, ‘Okay you’re connected, you can speak now.’ But no one says anything to each other. You just hear a high-pitched tone, and silence. Could this be real? You’re just crying, and can’t even speak.”

– Miso, escaped North Korea in 2010


How Remittances Work

There are different ways to send money to North Korea, but a simple version involves three parties: A North Korean resettled in South Korea, a remittance broker in North Korea, and the recipient in North Korea.  

  1. A resettled North Korean, makes a request to a remittance broker to arrange a transfer. They wire money to a Chinese account controlled by that broker. 
  2. The remittance broker in North Korea uses a smuggled Chinese phone to confirm receipt of the funds.
  3. After taking a hefty commission, they give cash to the refugee’s family. The family can confirm receipt of the money by sending a photo, video, or voice message back, so the sender can be confident that they’ve not been scammed.


With this process, the remittance broker in North Korea occasionally needs to replenish their cash on hand. This could happen through the physical smuggling of cash, but oftentimes money from their Chinese bank account is used to buy goods in China that are then sold in North Korea, generating cash. In this way, physical money never actually has to cross borders.

How North Korean refugees send money back into the country


The Power to Change Lives

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, whereas South Korea is one of the richest. Therefore remittances from relatives in South Korea or elsewhere can be absolutely transformative. The money is spent on almost everything, including food, clothing, shoes, medicine, housing, transport, and bribes to keep the family safe.

“I’ve sent money back to North Korea ever since I resettled in South Korea. I send an average of $1,500 a year. My parents used the money to buy a house! They’re also going to use it to help my younger brother escape and come to South Korea.”

– Jeonghyuk, resettled North Korean refugee

With new resources also comes new opportunities. North Koreans who never had the means before can now think about starting a business at the Jangmadang, or market. Since the collapse of the regime’s socialist economy in the 1990s, the markets have become essential to making a living. The flow of remittances is increasing trade, food security, marketization, and entrepreneurship, empowering ordinary North Koreans to gain autonomy.

North Koreans engaging in market activity and entrepreneurship. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.


A Ripple Effect

Along with money, North Korean refugees send back news and information from the outside world. At first, family members back home may not want to hear about life beyond the border. Decades of propaganda villainizing the outside world can be difficult to overcome, and if caught in communication with defectors, they could face serious punishment.

But as money continues to flow in, many people can’t help but be curious- what do their relatives outside do to make a living? What kind of house do they live in? Is life there like the K-dramas smuggled into North Korea? Conversely, defectors ask their family members, what they can do with the money in North Korea? This exchange of information is incredibly valuable, providing a glimpse into the most closed society on earth.

Resettled North Korean refugee, Geum Ju, living in South Korea as a florist

The flow of information into North Korea erodes the regime’s propaganda and changes worldviews. As the people learn more about the wealth and opportunities of the outside world, some may also risk their lives to escape. Money sent from remittances can also be used to fund this dangerous journey.

“When I first contacted my family back in North Korea after I resettled in South Korea, they didn’t believe that I was doing well here. My parents even resented me a little for leaving. But after I sent them money and told them more about my life here, their views changed. Now they realize that the regime has been lying to them and they’re not as loyal anymore. I have become a pioneer of freedom to my family back in North Korea.”

– Jo Eun, rescued by LiNK in 2017

Jo Eun, resettled in South Korea



Agents of Change

Remittances are about more than just the movement of money. Refugees who have been separated from their families aren’t able to go back home themselves, but can still care for their loved ones in some way. Every phone call into the country and every dollar sent back represents one small step towards the day when the North Korean people finally achieve their freedom. 

More than 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it to freedom, and although it has become more difficult during the pandemic, surveys report that 65.7% have sent money back to North Korea. At LiNK, we’re committed to working with and building the capacity of North Korean refugees so they can succeed in their new lives and make an even bigger impact in their communities and on this issue. 

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