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Matthew McGrath (@mattmcgr) is a Seoul based contributor for NK News.
On June 6th, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea partnered with the American Enterprise Institute to present their newest report on North Korean human rights, entitled “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System.” Author of the report Robert Collins was the featured speaker while AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt moderated the event with Andrew Natsios and Marcus Noland sitting on the panel as discussants.
After some introductory remarks from HRNK’s Executive Director, Greg Scarlatiou, Collins began by describing the Songbun system as a “tool of oppression used by a single individual to further his gain.” This was a reference to Kim Il-sung who in the 1950s began implementing Songbun as party policy. As a result of this, Collins explained that Songbun remains “above [North Korea’s] constitution,” adding that since 1973 the elite have refined how to use it as a “tool of oppression.” He then proceeded to describe the social system in greater detail, noting that the system “is designed to make sure that those who are deemed trustworthy get what is best… [and] whatever is left over trickles down.” Collins continued to illustrate this by showing how Songbun permeates almost every aspect of a North Korean’s life including housing, food rations, employment, and clothing.
Collins made the interesting point that although Songbun “enters into everything… it is not something that the average North Korean has a [good] understanding of.” He continued by explaining that as North Koreans move through life “they begin to see, I’m not of the right background,” as the state uses their social background against them in every aspect of life. Collins said that the biggest hope for the average “Ma or Pa Kim” would be to join the Worker’s Party which is precisely why so many in the wavery class choose to do so. He explained that the mentality for a North Korean in this situation would be, “if I get into the party I will be successful and my family will have a better life.”
If Collins were to use one word to describe the Songbun system, it would be “insidious.” While providing the reasoning for this, he explained to the audience that in the last year of high school in North Korea at the young age of 17, every student submits a resume comprised of family relatives to the Ministry of Public Security – which goes back three generations. The resumes are given to an investigator who takes them to the local party representative where a life determining decision is made for each person based on the people listed in their family histories.
The “insidious” nature of this system surfaces when decisions are made based on the Songbun level assigned to each person after this process in completed. Collins provided several lucid examples. His first was that of a pregnant mother in a lower Songbun class who is suffering from malnutrition. For that mother, if she is denied access to sufficient amounts of nourishment both she and her unborn child will suffer from malnutrition. Collins added that North Korean’s begin to understand this when there is denial of opportunity for their children. As parents they would be overcome with “regret” and would “feel as if [they] are a failure.” He shared another story of a North Korean family where their daughter had aspired to be a teacher and was fully capable of doing so, but as punishment for something her grandfather did, she was assigned to construction work.
Collins closed his remarks by saying that in North Korea there are “two different worlds.” He noted that if you just go to Pyongyang “you’re not going to know North Korea” and that you “have to go to the countryside to see how the vast majority of society lives…[and] how the vast majority of society suffers.”
Andrew Nastois, continued the discussion by suggesting that the information from this report would be valuable in re-thinking how “the international community distributed food during a famine.” He explained that the Songbun system “had a profound effect on who ate, who did not, and [ultimately] who died during the famine.” Nastois referred to Stalin’s use of “food as a weapon” to kill off undesirable ethnic groups when speaking about North Korea’s treatment of its three most Northeastern provinces. He explained that historically, that region of North Korea “was regarded as a more seditious area.” Nastois likened this practice to “triage” noting that during the famine “no one was allowed into the Northeastern region” until permission was demanded by the highest levels of the organizations supplying the food aid. Once granted access, he explained that observers saw conditions were “much worse than anywhere else.”
Building on these bits of information, Nastois recognized that the songbun system is yet another tool for totalitarian control and noted that some sense the aid effort was “reinforcing the oppressive totalitarian control of the country.” His advice was to use the knowledge gathered from the songbun report to better guide future aid initiatives. Nastois firmly noted that if North Korea does not agree then we [the international community] shouldn’t distribute the food.
Marcus Noland began his remarks by saying that “a person’s life is defined by the choices they make but you don’t choose your parents,” drawing attention to the “insidious” nature of the songbun policy that Collin’s spoke about earlier. He continued to note that the system is “essentially static across generations,’ and there appeared to be “little movement” in terms of occupation between generations.
Another aspect of the report he mentioned was the “nuanced response” in attitudes among members of the core class. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the core class would be “more likely” to admit they “benefited” from changes North Korea has gone through in the previous decade because this group is the “best positioned” to take advantage of the “opportunities and growing graft” that has taken hold of the country. More interestingly, Noland added that the core class is more likely to complain, which he says is likely a result of higher income and access to outside sources of information. Noland suggested this predicament is the reason why the regime has “acted assiduously to gather key support,” and that there are “fissures” even within the so-called “core class”. His final remarks were that Collin’s report was “truly informative” on a “critical topic that is little understood.”
Following remarks from the panel, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Dave Maxwell from Georgetown University asked Collin’s what advice he would give to strategists on how to use the report in the future, working towards reunification. Collin’s responded that national planners “have to understand concepts,” and that “if North Korea collapses people need to have an “understanding of the consequences of songbun.” He continued to say that in order to assist North Koreans planners need to know what “they are suffering from.” Collin’s said that understanding this information will determine “what you do to help them” and “what you need to prioritize.”