Many dictatorships like to divide their citizens into several categories. Nazi Germany, for example, had Aryans and non-Aryans, and apartheid South Africa had Whites, Blacks, Indians and colored people. However, when such a classification theory was applied in practice, officials were in trouble, as in many cases they did not know to which class a certain citizen belonged. If the state instructs you that a true Aryan is a blond person with blue eyes, would you say that the Führer himself is of pure blood? If only whites are considered to be “real people,” how shall one deal with Germany’s Japanese allies? Finally, who should be considered legally Jewish? All these questions were debated in Germany in 1930s.
Communist countries had similar problems. The symbol of the USSR was the hammer and sickle, which symbolized the union of workers and farmers. Yet the Soviet Union proclaimed that apart from workers and farmers, some Soviet citizens are considered “civil servants” and some form the “layer of intellectuals.” And even this extended scheme failed to describe the whole society. One example: Who were officers in the Red Army? A usual answer was “civil servants,” but then why was the army called “the Red Army of Workers and Farmers?”
Fortunately for the Soviets, these discussions soon started to become purely theoretical, as from the late 1930s the role of one’s class origins started to decrease significantly. In late Soviet times, there had been even a case when a person wrote “Origins: royalty” in his application and was allowed to teach in school, since no one bothered to look.
In North Korea, things were much different, as the DPRK treated social origins as a matter of state security. Recently I got access to a classified North Korean document which deals with this issue. It is marked “top secret,” the second-highest level of classified information in the country, was published by North Korean police in 1993 and is named the “Reference Book on Registration of Residents.” In this article, I will introduce this unique document, which sheds light on the infamous songbun system and provides some information about the North Korean police’s paperwork regarding, among other things, concentration camps.
WHAT SONGBUN MEANS
Songbun literally means “component” or “constituent” and in North Korean context, “the part of society you belong to or come from.” Speaking simply: your job and ancestry.
Your place in it defines whether you would be allowed to live in the capital, as well as quality of education you would receive and job you will get
This system began to take shape when the DPRK became politically independent from the Soviet Union, i.e. from late 1950s. Your place in it defines whether you would be allowed to live in the capital, as well as quality of education you would receive and job you will get. People with bad songbun would probably be forbidden to live in Pyongyang and to enter a university. Moreover, in case you would like to get a job in police or even a secret police, not only you, but also all your relatives must also be of good origin.
For many years North Korean scholars thought that there were about 50 categories of songbun, divided into three classes: “basic” (sometimes “nucleus”), “complex” (also sometimes called “basic” or “wavering”) and “hostile.” Later it was discovered that there are actually two kinds of songbun – chulsin–songbun, which is calculated according to one’s origins and sahoe–songbun, which reflects one’s social position, and that there are five classes instead of three in the country. The reference book, however, shows that the picture is different to a certain extent, thus all the previous works on songbun, including my own, may now be considered obsolete.
First of all, a North Korean has not one, not two, but three statuses. There are two types of songbun – the abovementioned chulsin–songbun and sahoe–songbun and one kyechung (“layer” in Korean). All three are given when a citizen becomes a legal adult at age 17 or, for those few who were born outside the DPRK, when a person arrive to the country.
Chulsin–songbun is determined by the job the parents of a child had been doing since he/she was born and up to his/her 17th anniversary.
Sahoe–songbun reflects the social position of the citizen himself and is usually assigned according to one’s job. Notable exceptions are the songbun status of “worker” and “military man,” assigned three years after one becomes a worker or a military man and not altered after that.
As for kyechung, it is determined through a combination of the origins, workplace and views of the citizens, and thus an official has more freedom in being assigned a kyechung than a songbun. The important and new part is that it is kyechung, not songbun, which is divided to subclasses (“basic,” “hostile,” etc.)
As of 1993, the DPRK had 25 types of songbun: from “professional revolutionary” to “military man” to “foreman” to “owner of small or medium business” to “petty bourgeois” to “religious activist” and “employee of the Japanese colonial administration.”
Those people who were of “bad” social background, but who had helped Kim Il Sung, got lenient treatment. For example, a merchant who assisted his partisan unit would be registered not as a “merchant,” but as a “merchant (assisted the revolution),” which is obviously much better. In addition, those who immediately started to collaborate with the new authorities in late 1940s also have their songbun improved: Such a person could get a songbun like “rich farmer (assisted in national construction).”
A songbun would generally be determined by police officers, but “revolutionary” and “professional revolutionary” could only be assigned with permission from the Party’s Central Committee. One should remember that North Korea had a Maoist concept of “revolution,” meaning not only the overthrow of the previous regime, but any activity of the Party. Hence, a “professional revolutionary” is a former member of Kim Il Sung’s unit who later became a statesman, and any member of other anti-Japanese guerrilla unit cannot get the status of a “revolutionary.”
Chulsin–songbun is assigned once and is permanent, but improving one’s sahoe–songbun is not very hard. For example, those who served for at least three years, get a sahoe–songbun “military man” after they return to their civilian life and if one wants to get sahoe–songbun of a worker, which is second only to revolutionaries and professional revolutionaries, one should follow one of the following conditions:
- Conduct physical labor for no less than three years in a state institution, on factory (including cooperatives), in academic, education or cultural areas, medicine, trade networks or public service.
- Conduct physical labor for no less than three years at important construction projects
- After graduation from a college or university, work for no less than three years in a Three Revolutions assistance group
HEROES AND VICIOUS RELIGIOUS ACTIVISTS
Kyechung has more categories than songbun. There were 55 of them in 1993 and they were divided into three classes – basic, complex and hostile (now they are five of them, as the readers remember).
The basic class was composed of the following categories: “revolutionary,” ” family member of a revolutionary,” “orphaned family member of a revolutionary,” “war veteran,” “wounded in the war,” “awarded with an audience,” “hero,” “person with merits,” “retired military man,” “relative of a person killed in the war,” “relatives of (civilian)” and “relative of a patriot who suffered for the socialist motherland.”
Two of these statuses, of “revolutionary” and “awarded with an audience” – must be approved by the Central Committee. The nature of the “revolutionary” strata in the previous part, and “awarded with an audience” has the following explanation in the reference book: “Those people, who were honored by meeting the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung or the Beloved and respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il in person and were thus provided with great political trust and care. Also people who, although were not honored with personally meeting the Great Leader of the Beloved and respected comrade Supreme commander, were recommended by them to be granted the title of hero or the membership in the Party.”
The next strata was a complex layer, which contained the categories including “conscription evader,” “deserter from the KPA,” “former prisoner of war,” “hero, who defected to the North,” “completed a sentence for political crimes,” “religious activist,” “family member of a person who defected to the South,” “family member of an enslaving capitalist” and “family member of a pro-Japanese element,” “family member of a pro-American element” and “family member of a vicious religious activist.”
The most enigmatic of these categories were those classified as “related to the area 10” and “related to the Kumgang academy.” These are people related to Pak Hon Yong, the former head of the Communist Party of Korea that had operated underground during the Japanese colonization period, who was later declared spy and executed. “Kumgang academy” is the old name of the Kim Jong Il Political Military academy and the Area 10 is the name of one of the regions in South Korea, where Pak Hon Yong’s people were conducting some guerilla activities.
… the state would trust a refugee from the South to the same extent it trusts a former convict
It is also quite fascinating, although not very surprising, that the state would trust a refugee from the South to the same extent it trusts a former convict. If a North Korean used to live abroad, he is not be completely trusted again.
Finally, as the reference book says, there were very few hostile elements left in the country. These were “landlord,” “rich farmer,” “enslaving capitalist,” “pro-Japanese element,” “pro-American element,” “vicious religious activist,” “factionalist,” “factionalists’ collaborator,” “spy,” “village foreman,” “businessman” and “trader.”
It should be noted that “enslaving capitalist,” “pro-Japanese element” and “vicious religious activist” are people who were actively collaborating with the “imperialists,” i.e. with the Japanese or the Americans, while “businessman,” “employee of colonial administration” and “religious activists” are those who either did not collaborate at all, or were not very active in doing so.
The important thing about both songbun and kyechung is that, according to the reference book, there is no category of “party member” in any of them. Previous works did mention it as a part of the top layer, and it probably did exist in some of the earlier editions of the system. However, in the early 1990s this was no longer so and improving one’s songbun should have been done by joining the military or working in a factory instead of joining the WPK. However, there was one important regulation concerning the party members: Their songbun would determined by a local party committee, not by the police.
THE SYSTEM OF INHERITANCE
The most important part about songbun and kyechung is that they are inherited. Your chulsin–songbun is usually the sahoe–songbun of your father. When can songbun be revised? The reference book gives us four examples:
- Demobilization from the army of border guard
- End of imprisonment term in a camp
- In case when wrong songbun or kyechung was previously assigned
- Cancellation or nullification of accusation of crime
Apart from the third case, only your sahoe–songbun is revised and your chulsin–songbun and kyechung remains the same you got at the age of 17. That was the system in 1993, but now, when there are five types of kyechung instead of three, the system is different. As a former North Korean police officer told me, now once in a lifetime your kyechung may be upgraded as a special dispensation from “wavering” to “basic” or from “basic” to “nucleus.” However, one cannot become a member of a “special” group not by birthright, no dispensation can elevate one from the hostile class, nor the kyechung of those who were purged and downgraded to hostile, of course.
Apart from songbun and kyechung, the reference book also provides information about North Korean concentration camps for political prisoners. Officially these are called “administrative centers for resettlers” and as of 1993 all of them, except one, were administered by the Seventh department of the Ministry of Protection of State Security. The exception was camp 18, which was reporting to the Ministry of Public Safety, i.e. to the ordinary police. An Myong Chol, who used to serve as a guard in North Korean camps, gave similar testimonies and now we have documental proof of his words.
The reference book also explains several aspects of the North Korean system of code names, which is extremely useful for researchers, since otherwise it is easy to misunderstand DPRK documents. For example, if a North Korean document says “State Security department of the Korean People’s Army unit 963,” this is, in fact not a department at all, this is rather the Bodyguard Command, i.e. the personal guard of the Leader himself. Likewise, “Korean People’s Border Guards’ unit 2209” is, in fact, the Seventh Department of the secret police, which manages concentration camps. Officially, by the way, the Seventh Department is called “the Department of Farm Works’ Guidance”; even the official name is also misleading.
(The book) has no instruction on songbun and kyechung of the Fatherly Generalissimo and of the Dear Leader themselves
Another interesting part is what information is absent from the reference book. It has no instruction on songbun and kyechung of the Fatherly Generalissimo and of the Dear Leader themselves, which may seem like another proof that the royal family of the DPRK is not documented at all: These norms are for subjects, not for kings
Second, the document has plenty of references to Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese units, but none to the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army. This organization, invented in the DPRK is, according to North Korean state history, the one that defeated the Empire of Japan. Of course, since it never existed in reality, there are no members of this organization in the country as well.
Finally, the most important thing we can get from the book is that our image of the modern DPRK is mostly true. Now we see North Korea as a person with myopia sees the world without glasses: the general picture is clear, but some small details are blurred, if you are not standing close to them. When the academic community will get access to North Koran archives, our image of the North will become much more detailed, although it is unlikely that it would be radically different.
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Featured Image: Kim Il sung mosaic - Pyongyang North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2011-09-09 04:13:21