Class Divergence on the Rise as Market Economics Spred in DPRK

Institute for Far East Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 07-9-21-1

The recent growth in the private-sector economy in DPRK markets and other areas of society has brought with it some significant social changes worth noting. According to most defectors from the North, following the massive famine suffered in the mid 1990s, the biggest change to emerge in the DPRK was the reshuffling of the social class structure. In North Korean society, there are reportedly five identifiable social classes.

The first of these classes is the ruling class, made up of those elite surrounding Kim Jong Il. This class survives off of Kim Jong Il’s government funds, aid sent from South Korea, and from exploitation of the general public.

The second class is made up of business traders with access to foreign capital. A portion of money earned through foreign currency exchange businesses is turned over to the Kim Jong Il regime, while the rest can amassed in order to lead a relatively comfortable life.

The third class is made up of organized thugs who make their money through public trading and markets. These people control regional markets and local trading by using money and violence to employ extortion tactics much like the Russian mafia

The fourth class scrapes by on government rations. This mercantile class comprises an estimated 20~30 percent of the North’s overall population.

The fifth distinct class in North Korea is made up of commoners who support their way of life through farming private plots and selling goods in markets. An overwhelming majority of the population falls into this class; more than 60 percent of the people in North Korea live hand-to-mouth each day on the fruits of their own labor.

The remainder of the population falls beneath even these classes, because they either lack labor skills or are feeble elderly, handicapped, hospitalized, homeless, or wandering from city to city.


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