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
Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**Warning: Contains plot spoilers
Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.
One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.
Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.
The Perils of Defecting
Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.
If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp.
This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.
Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.
“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”
- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013
Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.
Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.
In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.”
While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.
“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”
- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013
Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.
Working with Brokers
Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.
With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.
This is Not Where the Story Ends
Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China
LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.
When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”
- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018
Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.
When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea.
Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.
→ Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.
→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.
→ Donate to make rescue missions possible.