SONGBUN | Social Class in a Socialist Paradise
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):
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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…
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Policy Analyst
Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.
In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.
Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!
Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly
The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.
The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:
- Restricting movement across borders and within the country
- Random house searches
- Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
- Sophisticated digital surveillance
- Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
- Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files
The Spread of Foreign Media
Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.
With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.
Information Technology in North Korea
Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.
Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.
Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.
How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions
Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.
As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”
- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011
Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.
Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.
The Regime’s Response
During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.
While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.
Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change
Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.
Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.