Social Strata

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Who is the best choice for a spouse in North Korea? Someone with equal or better “songbun,’’ of course! And who can get a good job? Someone with an appropriate songbun! And who will never be allowed to reside in Pyongyang? Someone with bad sogbun!

But what does songbun mean? Essentially, this is a hereditary group to which every North Korean belongs. The first attempts to classify the entire population according to the people’s origin and, thus, perceived political reliability took place in the late 1950s, but the current system was developed between 1964 and 1969, when specially appointed groups undertook painstaking research of every adult North Korean’s family background and origin. With some minor changes, this system has been functioning to the present day.

The whole population of the DPRK is divided into 51 groups, which, in turn, forms three strata or classes: the “main’’ (kibon kyechung), the “wavering’’ (tongyou kyechung), and the “hostile’’ (choktae kyechung).

In order to make the readers feel better about North Korean bureaucracy, I’d rather name some of the groups that are included in these strata.

Let’s start from the top. The main stratum includes 12 groups: 1) workers who come from working families; 2) former farmhands; 3) former poor peasants; 4) the personnel of state organizations; 5) KWP (Party) members; 6) the family members of deceased revolutionaries; 7) the family members of national liberation fighters; 8) revolutionary intelligentsia (that is, those who received their education after liberation); 9) the families of civilians who were killed during the Korean war; 10) the families of soldiers who were killed during the Korean war; 11) the families of servicemen and 12) heroes of the war.

The “uncertain’’ stratum includes nine groups _ whose descriptions I probably omit. But as one might expect, the enemies make the longest list. The bad ones are: 1) workers of complicated origin, that is, people who had formerly been entrepreneurs and officials; 2) former rich peasants; 3) former small or medium merchants; 4) former landlords, that is, people who before the reform of 1946 had more than 5 hectares of land; 5) people who participated in pro-Japanese or pro-American activities; 6) former officials in the Japanese colonial administration; 7) families of people of good social origin who fled to the South during the war; 8) families of people of bad origin who fled to the South during the war; 9) Chinese Koreans who returned from China in the 1950s; 10) Japanese Koreans who returned from Japan in the 1960s.

I’ll stop here _ the complete list of the “recommended suspects’’ is way too long. Among others, it includes practicing Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists, descendants of shamans or courtesans, families of prisoners, and the like.

There is considerable variation in rights and privileges not only between strata, but also between different groups within each stratum. Of course, it is not as bad to be a grandson of a rich peasant than the son of a political criminal. The position of Korean Japanese is even more controversial: the authorities keep them away from some sensitive jobs and watch them closely while courting them in order to extract money and expertise from the friends and relatives they once left behind in Japan.

A person’s fate is determined by his group, by his songbun. It influences his chances of getting a good job and higher education, of being allowed to live in Pyongyang and other major cities, and, hence, his standard of living, punishment in case of a criminal persecution, and many other things. Thus, members of the “hostile stratum’’ normally have no chance to study in prestigious Pyongyang colleges.

It is sometimes possible to improve own station: say, an exemplary military service will vindicate a lad who was unlucky enough to be the grandson of a Protestant minister. These things happen, but the songbun often lasts for generations.

It is impossible to determine the number of people in each group _ even approximately. The existing (and oft-cited) estimations are often patent nonsense. Perhaps we will never learn the truth until the collapse of the DPRK. Nonetheless, it is clear that the economic turbulence of the last decade greatly damaged the system. But that is another story…


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