September 20, 2019
September 20, 2019
Ask a North Korean: What is the ‘songbun’ system like under Kim Jong Un?
Ask a North Korean: What is the ‘songbun’ system like under Kim Jong Un?
"The songbun system exists in name only for many"
September 5th, 2019

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Greetings NK News readers, and welcome back to Ask a North Korean — the feature where you send in your questions and have them answered by our North Korean defector writers.

This is Tae-il Shim’s third piece for NK News — you can read his first here and second here.

Today’s question is from Michael from Los Angeles, who asks: “Has Kim Jong Un relaxed the songbun system and if so to what degree?”

Songbun refers to the North Korean social classification system where one’s status is determined by the actions of their paternal ancestors during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War — you can read more about songbun here.

Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.


Is everyone’s fate in North Korea totally bound to their songbun? | Photo: DPRK Today


There are three categories of songbun in North Korea based on your father’s occupation: Laborer, office worker, and soldier. These classifications have existed throughout the decades of Kim family rule and continue to exist to this very day.

In a way, one’s fate can be determined by their father’s songbun. For example, two of my subordinates during my ten-year military service went on to university, one becoming a Party worker (당일꾼) and the other a law worker (법일꾼) in accordance with the Central Party’s Cadre Fostering Principles (중앙당간부양성원칙), thanks to their good family backgrounds.

On the other hand, money can get you a good deal of clout these days, to the extent where your songbun doesn’t really matter.

According to the law, you can actually become a ‘labor hero’ (노력 영웅) if you donate a certain amount of foreign currency to the government. Even the government respects you if you’re rich enough.

“Money can save socialism — the Dear Leader can only rule when he has a fat wallet”

I would say that this status as a labor hero was quite an enticing purchase until around 20 years ago, but nowadays few people are interested in becoming a hero or a cadre.

Maybe those with high-ranking positions, like a chief Party secretary (책임비서) of a province or the central government, may still be envied by some people. But low-level cadres sometimes even try to get themselves dismissed from their posts, not only so they don’t have to bribe higher-ups but also so they’re no longer hated by the subordinates they have to control.

A number of people have gone as far as to give up their beloved homes to avoid the incessant and unjust demands for money and the control of the party and administering organization — they would rather live a secluded life farming in the mountains.

One’s songbun doesn’t necessarily determine the average North Korean’s life | Photo: NK News on Flickr

The most powerful or wealthiest ‘ordinary’ people are those selling drugs, who have seemingly earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from trading opium and meth.

The majority of ruling elites in North Korea, those who work for the Party, ministry of state security, or prosecution authorities, are drug users. This claim might sound a little out-there, but you will hear the same thing from the accounts of others who have escaped within the last 5 years.

All these so-called cadres are drug addicts and have links with the drug smugglers. Their financial backers too, of course, are drug criminals. North Korea is a country strung out on drugs.

Second to the drug dealers in terms of affluence are the people living on the remittances of their family living in South Korea. The amount of money these people receive varies, but I have seen people who get as much as between 800-1,600 U.S. dollars per month.

There is a stark contrast in their standard of living compared to their neighbors’, who struggle to live on about 5 RMB, the equivalent of 0.7 USD, a day.

Although they’re not starving to death, those living on such a meager amount live in extreme poverty. I would say that they consist of at least 40 percent of the population.

Even the government respects you if you’re rich enough

Money allows you to bend the rules whenever you need to. The families of defectors have the means to buy the favor of law enforcement officers, so they’re hardly intimidated even by judges nowadays.

However, the wealth and improved quality of life of some does not trickle down to the deeply impoverished.

In short, the songbun system exists in name only for many. How much you own is what determines your socio-economic status.

The ‘jangmadang‘ is now said to be the most important party (‘jangmadang,’ which means ‘marketplace’ in Korean, has the last syllable ‘Dang,’ which on its own means ‘Party’ — as in, the ‘Workers’ Party,’ North Korea’s ruling political power).

Some also say that “money can save socialism — the Dear Leader too can only rule when he has a fat wallet.”

Translated by Jihye Park

Edited by James Fretwell

Featured image: Morsky Studio

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