Most countries have identity cards for their citizens. While some people see them as an instrument of state control, most aren’t too concerned. Like a knife may be used to cut bread or to murder, ID cards can be used to make people’s lives easier, or to monitor and control them.
In the case of North Korea, it is mostly the latter. All citizens have to bear IDs issued by the police – or for those who reside abroad, by a consulate.
Unlike many things in North Korea, the classification of these documents is actually quite well documented in open-access documents. There are three types of documents for citizens, three for foreigners, and one for stateless persons.
Let us start with citizens’ IDs. As Article 7 of the Law on Registration of Citizens says, the documents which confirm that one is the citizen of the DPRK are a birth certificate, citizen identity card, and, in some cases, Pyongyang resident identity card.
The birth certificate
A birth certificate is – like any other – issued when a North Korean is born. It looks like a booklet with several pages.
The document contains the citizen’s name, birth date, sex, ethnicity, parents’ names, and place of birth. Records of one’s residence are also done inside the booklet.
Ethnicity is probably the strangest of all of this criteria, as the overwhelming majority of the DPRK citizens are ethnic Koreans.
This tradition is mostly a legacy of the Soviet Union, as the USSR was a multinational state.
Interestingly, despite some claims that “inner track” North Korean publications are supposed to shore up the allegedly racist nature of the DPRK regime, none of the secret instructions I managed to get my hands on showed anything that resembled racism.
A birth certificate is – like any other – issued when a North Korean is born
Rather, they directly acknowledge that the country’s citizens can belong to different ethnic groups and see nothing wrong with it.
This is a standard identity document for a North Korean citizen, issued when one reaches the age of majority. Unlike most countries, in North Korea this age is not 18, but 17 (in South Korea it is 19).
The document used to look like a booklet – similar to the old Soviet ID, but now North Korea issues ID cards instead.
With the issue of the identity card, the police open a citizen’s personal file, which will also have records on his/her both songbunsand kyechung. Of course, these are secret classifications and are not in the identity document.
Capital dwellers are issued a different ID, called “Pyongyang resident identity card”
A citizen identity card lists a person’s name, sex, birth date (often written according to the Juche calendar, calculated from birth of Kim Il Sung), ethnicity, place of birth and residence, marital status, personal number, date of the document being issued and also the bearer’s blood group (per Asian tradition, the Rhesus factor is not shown, just the group itself).
Pyongyang resident card
Capital dwellers are issued a different ID, called “Pyongyang resident identity card.” It looks very similar to the citizen’s identity card, just with a different name.
This photo of naturalized North Korean citizen Joseph Dresnok (former American soldier who defected to the North) features him holding his Pyongyang resident’s ID.
These two types of ID emerged in roughly the late 1990s, and their purpose is migration control: an outsider needs a permit to visit the capital, so if they have a different type of ID, police would have much less trouble catching them.
It should be noted that an honorary Pyongyang resident certificate is a completely different document. It is not an ID, but a rather a certificate among many honorary titles conferred by North Korea.
ID for tourists
When it comes to foreigners in the DPRK, there are three types of ID. The first and the most common one is a tourist card (actually, more like a leaflet), issued to an individual or a group visiting the North.
A “foreigner’s identity document” may not sound like a big deal, but it really is
The card features the tourist’s ID, name transliterated to Korean (sometimes wrongly, as workers in North Korean consulates may be unfamiliar with some foreign languages), citizenship, ethnicity, birth date and home address. Normally, if one has such a card, your passport is not stamped over during the border check.
Permanent stay certificate
Those who have a long-term visa are issued a “foreigner’s permanent stay certificate.” The official translation is bad – the Korean word sangju, which is written on the document, means “residence” and has nothing to do with “permanent stay.”
A “foreigner’s identity document” may not sound like a big deal, but it really is. This is a certificate of a permanent resident of the DPRK. Hwagyo – Chinese citizens who live in the North – must have one.
In most countries, permanent residents can be stripped of their rights in two situations – if they continuously reside outside the country for a long period (usually a year) or if they violate the law.
In North Korea, only the first rule applies. To my knowledge, there has not been a single case of a DPRK permanent resident being named a persona non grata – as though Pyongyang does not even know it has the right to do it.
The rarest of all North Korean IDs is a stateless person’s identity document. Statelessness itself in a rare thing in the modern world, and in the case of North Korea it is even more so.
However, there has been at least one time when the DPRK suddenly found itself with thousands of stateless persons within its borders.
It was the early 1970s, when North Korea once again befriended China after a quarrel between Beijing and Pyongyang during the Cultural Revolution.
One of the consequences of this quarrel was the annulation of the North Korean Chinese diaspora. The people were given a choice – to naturalize and forfeit their Chinese passports, to leave for China, or to starve to death.
The rarest of all North Korean IDs is a stateless person’s identity document
However, after Zhou Enlai visited the North in 1971, the two countries quietly agreed that the former Chinese citizens would be allowed to reinstate their citizenship.
Those who wanted to do it were to first renounce their North Korean citizenship, and thus became stateless for some time, before the PRC reinstated them as Chinese citizens. During this period, they were issued stateless persons’ identity documents.
Now that we’ve covered this ground, some readers may wonder what Kim Jong Un’s ID card looks like.
While I cannot answer with 100% certainty, it seems that the young Kim does not have any ID whatsoever. As far as we know, the Kims are not registered at all: the royal family should not be in the same register as its subjects are.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Most countries have identity cards for their citizens. While some people see them as an instrument of state control, most aren't too concerned. Like a knife may be used to cut bread or to murder, ID cards can be used to make people’s lives easier, or to monitor and control them.In the case of North Korea, it is mostly the latter. All citizens have to bear IDs issued by the police – or
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.