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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

Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea

December 16, 2022

To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.

The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.

A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.

When North Koreans first arrive in South Korea, the culture shock can be overwhelming

Resettlement Process

When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society. 

Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:

  • Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
  • Job and vocational training
  • Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
  • The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
  • The history of the Korean peninsula


After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.

North Korean refugees go through a three month adjustment program when they first arrive

South Korean Culture Shock

Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.

One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.

Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.

Modern South Korean society. Photo Credit: Diego Mariottini and Getty Images.

New Challenges

While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.

“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”

– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008

Geumju, a North Korean refugee who resettled in South Korea

At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.

In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.

Adjusting to South Korean life can be difficult for many North Korean refugees

Finding Community & Onward

Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.

Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.

Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.

Impact of the Pandemic

During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.

The number of North Korean refugees who have resettled in South Korea


On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.

Agents of Change

Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.

Resettled North Korean refugees

Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.

North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.

The Support of a Movement

Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:

  • Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
  • Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
  • Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
  • Providing a community of ongoing support and resources

A North Korean Refugee who has resettled in South Korea
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”

– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021

We’re only able to provide this crucial support with your help. Donate today to keep these programs running.

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