The most important element in the social structure of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was the infamous songbun system. This system was established in the late 1950s and came into full power somewhere around 1967. It divides the population into groups, according to the actions and status of their paternal ancestor (and themselves, depending on their age) during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. Songbun determined, among other things, whether one was allowed to live in the capital or in special cities like Kaesong and later Rason, the workplace one is allocated and what kind of education one can receive.
While there have been some academic works related to songbun, they are, sadly, either outdated, incomplete or, usually, both: Academics do not have access to North Korean documents and instructions related to songbun are always classified. Fortunately, I have a friend who served in the North Korean police and had to deal with these documents often. Thanks to him I can now explain how songbun operates.
BRAHMINS AND UNTOUCHABLES, NORTH KOREAN STYLE
According to this system, all North Korean society is divided to five groups, from the best to the worst: “special,” “nucleus,” “basic,” “complex” and “hostile.” Previous works usually mentioned three strata, because the existence of a “special” class was largely unknown and the “complex” one was only introduced in the 2000s. “Nucleus,” also known as “core,” is the de facto standard. “Special” is very rare and acts as a huge bonus, while “basic” (also known as “wavering”) subjects you to slight discrimination which can, potentially, be overcome, while people with under the “complex” and especially the “hostile” classification face substantial discrimination.
A possible exception from this system would be blood relatives of the Kim family who are seemingly excluded from all official documentation, although this remains to be verified.
Songbun is calculated from two factors: ancestry songbun and social songbun.
The capital of the revolution is not for the descendants of traitors
The first comes from the social position and actions of one’s paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. Did he fight with Kim Il Sung and later remain close to the Great Leader? Congratulations, your ancestry songbun is as good as it can be. Or did he work as a clerk in the colonial administration, or worse, was part of a faction in the independence movement that later proved hostile to Kim? Well then, your ancestry songbun is very bad and you’re unlikely to advance to any meaningful position in society are unlikely to ever see Pyongyang. The capital of the revolution is not for the descendants of traitors.
The second – social songbun – is a place occupied by a person in North Korean society, such as worker, farmer, military man, teacher, policeman, etc. There is, however, one variation of social songbun which overrides all others – “party member” – and another– “awarded with an audience” – which overrides even “party member” status.
The latter status sounds a little strange and should be described in a greater detail. Being “awarded with an audience” means that a North Korean talked to the Leader for 20 or more minutes of took a picture with him. That’s why commemoration photos in the Rodong Sinmun may include thousands of people. The songbun of all these people has just increased – truly a cause for jubilation.
Songbun influences many things in a life of a North Korean. First, if one’s songbun is not good enough, you cannot live in Pyongyang. Second, people with bad songbun as a rule cannot enter good universities, so matter how smart they are. Third, you cannot be employed as, for example, a teacher or a policemen with bad or even average songbun. And if you want to join the ranks of the secret police (many North Koreans do) not only you, but all you relatives up to the sixth generation must have a good songbun – or you do not qualify.
However, quotas of food and other goods distributed by the state were always related to one’s workplace and thus had no direct connection to songbun.
CAPITALISM VS THE CASTE SYSTEM
Can one alter his or her songbun? When it comes to ancestry songbun, the answer is almost always no, even regardless that corruption level in the DPRK is very high. Records of one’s songbun are kept in four locations: with the local administration office, ordinary police, secret police and the organization one is a member of (i.e. the Party, Women’s Union, a labor union, Peasants’ Union or Kim Il Sung Youth League). So it would be very risky for North Korean bureaucrats to take a bribe and not get caught. And even if they do take money and alter ones songbun, one should be aware that any inspector can find a discrepancy – why this one is marked as a “nucleus” class while his sister and father are both of “complex” origin?
Finally, some North Korean officials started to simply ignore songbun, reasoning that punishing one for the sins of his/her grand grandfather would be unfair and unjust
When it comes to social songbun, the situation in the Kim Il Sung-era was relatively the same: a person of bad ancestry could not have a good job, so his or her songbun remained bad as well. However, many things have changed since the Great Leader finally left us, and the role of songbun is one of them. First, a person who worked in a workplace for three years gets a new social songbun by the decision of the local Party Committee. Second, immediately after joining the Party one’s social songbun is altered to that of the party member and now, unlike in the times of Kim Il Sung even people of questionable ancestry can join the party. Finally, some North Korean officials started to simply ignore songbun, reasoning that punishing one for the sins of his/her grand grandfather would be unfair and unjust.
Social songbun can be reduced as well. This can happened with people released from a prison, their relatives and relatives of North Korean defectors. However, it may not have the effect the North Korean authorities would desire and the newly attached stigma can be a decisive factor in stimulating a person to defect from the DPRK.
As we can see, the role of songbun is gradually reducing, as the country is becoming more and more capitalist: In North Korea money now hold more power than even the state. And if Kim Jong Un really desires to proceed with reforms and establish a real market economy in North Korea, one of the necessary things to do would be to abolish songbun, at least in practice.
The most important element in the social structure of Kim Il Sung's North Korea was the infamous songbun system. This system was established in the late 1950s and came into full power somewhere around 1967. It divides the population into groups, according to the actions and status of their paternal ancestor (and themselves, depending on their age) during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.