Archive for the ‘Songbun’ Category

Songbun rears its head again…

Friday, June 29th, 2012

UPDATE: Read here about increasing numbers of North Korean workers legally taking up work in China.

ORIGINAL POST (2012-6-29): Robert Collins recently published a report with HRNK on the DPRK’s songbun system. Previous posts on Songbun here.

Though some argue that the “Arduous March”, grassroots marketization, and the rise of official corruption has diminished the importance of songbun within the North Korean system, this article in the Daily NK  (which never uses the word ‘songbun”) makes the case that it is still important in one highly visible sector: overseas workers.

According to the Daily NK:

A North Hamkyung Province source told Daily NK on the 27th, “The process of choosing expatriate workers is very sensitive, even though the only target is Pyongyang-based factory and enterprise workers.”

According to the source, backgrounds are checked thoroughly, and single people may not take part. Married workers also need to obtain permission from the National Security Agency affiliated to the enterprise with which they are registered.

Prior to sending the workers abroad, the People’s Safety Ministry also checks each individual’s origins, the whereabouts of his or her direct family and if anyone in that family has spent time in a detention facility and why. They also check the marital status and criminal records of more distant relatives.

Despite the hard nature of the work that waits in China and the difficulty of obtaining a position, the number of applicants is huge, the source went on. And with single people ineligible as a measure to decrease the risk of defection, the source even commented that “single workers are rushing to get married,” adding also, “Pyongyang has caught marriage fever.”

“Competition is fierce because they would prefer to go away to a place where factories are running and they can get paid,” he pointed out. “Cadres and NSA agents in charge of the process are doing well out of the bribes. Some people are even borrowing money to bribe the authorities, saying that they will pay them back when they return from China”.

Commenting on the situation, Kim Seung Cheol, a defector who heads North Korea Reform Radio, said it is no surprise. He explained, “This is the only way working people can make any real money. It is similar to the American dream.”

Read the full story here:
Workers Face Fierce Fight for China Role
Daily NK
Choi Song-min


North Korea’s new class system

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

It is often overlooked how much North Korea has changed over the past 20 years. Its Stalinist and militaristic facade is carefully maintained by the state, but in the new circumstances it is increasingly misleading. Behind this official veneer of militant posters and goose-stepping soldiers, the society itself has changed much.

In a nutshell, the past two decades were the time when the state was steadily retreating from the private life, and also was losing its ability (perhaps also its will) to control the daily activities of its subjects as well as how they made a living. One of many significant changes has been the steady decline in the significance attached to family background (known as songbun in North Korean parlance) – once the single most important factor that determined the life of a North Korean.

Family background did matter in other communist countries as well, but to a much lesser extent. For example, in the Soviet Union immediately after the 1917 communist revolution, scions of aristocrats, descendants of priests, and merchants faced many kinds of discrimination. It was more difficult for them to enter a college or to be promoted, and they were more likely to be arrested for alleged political crimes. However, this discrimination had disappeared by the late 1940s, so in the days of my youth, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had become quite normal in the USSR to boast about real or alleged aristocratic family roots.

North Korea is very different. In 1957, the authorities launched a large-scale and ambitious investigation of the family backgrounds of virtually all North Korean citizens. As a result of this and subsequent investigations, by the mid-1960s the entire population was divided into a number of hereditary groups, somewhat akin to the estates of medieval Europe. Career chances and life prospects of every North Korean were determined, to a very large extent, by his membership in one of these strictly defined groups.
The major criteria of classification were quite straightforward: the songbun (origin) of the North Korean was largely defined by what his or her direct male ancestors did in the 1930s and 1940s.

The official songbun structure was quite elaborate and changed over time. However, at the first approximation, there have been three groups in North Korea, usually known as “core”, “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Every single North Korean had to belong to one of these groups.

The “hostile class” included people whose ancestors in or around 1945 were engaged in activities that were not to the regime’s liking. Among others, this group included descendants of clerks in the Japanese colonial administration, Christian activists, female shamans, entrepreneurs, and defectors to the South. Members of the hostile class faced the greatest number of restrictions: They could not live in Pyongyang or other major cities and they could not be admitted to good colleges or universities. People whose songbun was exceptionally bad would not even be drafted into the military.

Members of the “core class” included those whose direct male ancestors contributed toward the foundation and strengthening of the Kim family regime. They were descendants of anti-Japanese guerrillas, heroes of the Korean War, or party bureaucrats. For all practical purposes, over the past half-century, only these people could be promoted to key positions in the North Korean state and party bureaucracy. They constituted the hereditary elite.

In the days of Kim Il-sung’s rule, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, songbun was of paramount significance. It determined where people lived and worked and even what they ate. Most marriages were also concluded between people of the same or similar songbun.

It was also important that the songbun was, in essence, unchallengeable. It was inherited from one’s father and was then bestowed on one’s children. The mother’s songbun did not matter. I know a couple where the husband’s songbun was bad (he was a “landowner’s grandson”), but the wife had the best songbun imaginable, being a descendant of a family that once was involved with the anti-Japanese guerrillas of Kim Il-sung. Frankly, such a marriage was rare and unequal – in most cases women of such standing would be as reluctant to marry a man of low origin as, say, a European noble lady from the 17th century. However, in this particular case the marriage did take place, much against the resistance of the girl’s parents.

In due time, though, the spouses discovered that the wife’s songbun did not really matter. Their daughter, a promising athlete, could not be sent for further training, since her songbun was bad: the great-granddaughter of a minor landlord could not compete on the national level and, for that matter, could be accepted only to a junior college.

In Kim Il-sung’s era – that is, before 1994 – the state was in near-complete control of an individual’s life. The only way to achieve high status and affluence was to climb the official bureaucratic ladder. As a North Korean friend put it in the late 1980s: “I hate officials, but I want to become an official, because in our country, only officials can live well.” Indeed, in Kim Il-sung’s North Korea all material goods were distributed by the state and almost all income was derived from work in state industry or the state bureaucracy.

But things started to change dramatically in the early 1990s. The state sector, suddenly deprived of Soviet subsidies, collapsed. North Koreans suddenly discovered that food rations were no longer forthcoming and their official monthly salary would only buy 1 or 2 kilograms of rice. Predictably, mass starvation followed, killing at least a half-million people.

To survive, the North Korean people literally rediscovered capitalism. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that over the past 10-15 years, the average North Korean family has come to draw most of its income from what can be described as black-market activities. Actually the so-called black market is not particularly black, since the government – in spite of occasional crackdowns – has tacitly tolerated its existence since the mid-1990s. Nowadays North Koreans work on individual fields on steep mountain slopes, they establish private workshops to produce garments and assorted consumer goods, and they smuggle and trade.

The new and increasingly dominant unofficial economy is in essence capitalist. As such, it rewards those who are sufficiently industrious, greedy, intelligent, ruthless and disciplined – and in some cases, it rewards them handsomely. Social inequality is growing and many a successful merchant or workshop owner lives better than a middle-ranking bureaucrat. A successful entrepreneur might have all trappings of luxury – including, say, a Chinese motorbike or a refrigerator, which in North Korea can be seen as roughly equivalent to a Lexus and a yacht.

The success in the emerging new economy is usually unrelated to one’s songbun. In fact, sometimes it seems that people with bad songbun tend to be more successful nowadays – perhaps because back in the 1990s they had no expectations of the state and were the first to jump into the murky waters of the emerging North Korean market economy.

Of late, the previously attractive career avenues have lost much of their allure. For example, in the past, many North Koreans were willing to do their long and tedious military service, which lasted some seven to 10 years. This popularity was easy to explain: For a person with average songbun, this would be the only way to get into the bottom tiers of the bureaucracy. As a North Korean told it, recalling the time of her youth, the 1970s: “The only way to become somebody was to go into the military, join the Korean Workers Party while on the active service, and then come back to become an official.”

Recently, however, military service has lost much of its popularity. Few people would be willing spend 10 years in a squalid barracks so as eventually to become a minor official in the city administration. Such a job is still attractive, to be sure, but it seems preferable to become a smuggler or a merchant, whose income far exceeds that of a petty bureaucrat.

Still, on the very top, songbun is important, since the key administrative positions are held by those with good songbun, and a mid- or high-level official can make a nice income by milking the private economy. Hence people with good songbun still often think about capitalizing on the real or alleged contribution of their ancestors to the establishment of the North Korean regime. However, for a majority the emergence of markets opened a new, faster and more attractive (but also more risky) avenue of social mobility.

North Korean society has become defined by one’s relationship to money, not by one’s relationship to the bureaucracy or one’s inherited caste status. Money talks, and for better or worse, in North Korea, money talks ever louder. As a female refugee in her early 40s put it recently: “Under Kim Il-sung, songbun was very important, it decided everything. Under Kim Jong-il, things are different – your family background still matters, but money nowadays is more important than social background.”

Read the full story here:
North Korea’s new class system
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


Celebratory rations issued for Kim Jong il’s birthday

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 09-2-26-1

It has been reported that 2-3 day’s worth of special rations were issued to parts of North Pyongan and South Hwanghae provinces, including to those North Koreans working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, to mark the February 16 birthday of Kim Jong Il.

For families with more than four members, 2 kilograms of rice and 2 kilograms of noodles, with corn making up the rest of the rations. Smaller families received a kilogram each of rice and noodles, in addition to corn. Recently, rations have been in very short supply, even on farms, so North Koreans have been very much looking forward to these special rations.

Since last year, the number of guards stationed at farms was increased sharply, along with increasingly more intrusive house searches, as the theft and consumption of food by those living on the farms was banned. Over the past few years, as the state failed to provide steady rations to the farmers and families on the agricultural plots, these farmers began stealing rice from the cooperative farms as a means to maintain their lifestyles.

However, in November and December of last year, inspections were carried out in cities and districts as grain management on farms was strengthened, leading to an increase in theft of foodstuffs. Those caught stealing would be dragged in front of labor authorities and often sentenced to confinement.

The districts receiving these special rations were all specifically chosen by North Korean authorities. Hweryong City, in North Hamgyong Province, is the hometown of Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Sook, while the Samjiyon district, in Yanggang Province, is where Kim Jong Il claims to have been born. Kaesong was thought to have been chosen in order to propagandize the rations to the outside world.

One source reported that in 2006, an anti-socialist group emerged in the city of Hweryong, and that leaders of citizen groups were appealing, “It is difficult to live in our mother (Kim Jong Sook)’s hometown…Let’s all flee to China,” and since Kim Jong Il became aware of the uprising, special rations have been given on holidays and other special occasions. That said, currently, Kim Jong Il’s practice of gift giving continues to be aimed at the leading class in the North, with city and district Party secretaries also receiving gifts, along with central Party authorities. Gifts are also provided to state heroes and model laborers.

See previous posts on Kim’s birthday rations here.

See photos of Birthday rations from the Daily NK here.


North Korean Revolutionary Merit Competition

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Daily NK
Lee Sung Jin

North Korea, since December 3rd, has been holding a “Competition for Revolutionary Descendants” in each province, over two days. The competition is the third of its kind, following on from 1998 and 2002.

A source confirmed in a phone conversation with the Daily NK on the 21st, “In Hyesan, Yangkang Province, from December 3rd, there was a “Competition for Revolutionary Descendants.” This competition took place simultaneously in each province.”

Another source said, “There was a competition in Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province in early December and many gifts, including clothing, were given out to the participants.”

The competition was held to stabilize the volatile state of affairs, spurred by rumors of Kim Jong Il’s illness, issues of food shortages, and the distribution of flyers in North Korea, by intercepting in advance any possible unrest among the core class.

(* North Korea categorized the population into the “core class (3,915,000),” the “unstable class (3,150,000),” and the “hostile class (7,935,000)” in 1971)

The Yangkang-based source said, “The competition was held with participation from the Party Chief Secretary of the province, the key officials in the province, city and county and chairpersons of the Peoples’ Units, descendants of revolutionaries and war veterans were invited to the competition.”

He then said, “Rather than being a real competition, it was a gathering to provide meals and distribute gifts. On the morning of the third day, after a flower-basket presentation ceremony at the Kim Il Sung memorial at the Bocheonbo Combat Victory Monument, a meeting was held at the Kim Jong Suk Arts Theater.”

He further noted, “At the meeting, there was a political lecture given by the new Propaganda Secretary of the Party in the Province Kim Bong She, after the congratulatory address by the Chief Secretary of the Province. Kim closed the event with a speech urging emulation of the lofty example of the first generation of revolutionaries, who devoted everything to the General.”

According to the source, after the event wrapped up its main events on the afternoon of the 3rd, it continued until the evening on the 4th with a special performance by the Yangkang Provincial Performing Arts Troupe, a special banquet, a visit to the Yangkang Province Revolutionary Historical Site, and a ceremony for presenting gifts.

The source said, “The authorities put in a lot of preparation for the event. They even brought beer, luxury alcohol and cigarettes from Pyongyang for the competition participants. Also, there were special performances at the Yalu Restaurant, a famous restaurant in Hyesan, at the Hyesan Shopping Center restaurant, and at restaurants in various train stations.”

The source explained, “The officials went out of their way to shake hands with the competition participants and urged, ‘In such difficult times, we have to submit to the guidance of the General.”

He said, “At the competition, the issue of the Party’s active support for the children of deceased revolutionaries and needing to look after their needs was raised more than once. In particular, the provision for and subsistence of the descendants, due to difficult economic conditions, had been neglected, but the promise was made that, from now on, the Party in Yangkang Province would take an interest in and resolve the issue.”


The Common Perception of North Korean Society among Youths

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Daily NK
Sohn Kwang Joo

It was in Yanji where I met the 25-year-old defector, Kim Soo Mee. She was born and raised in the mountains that separated her village from larger towns in Hamkyung Province.

Because of her mother’s ferver for educating her children, Kim Soo Mee was able to attend the First Senior Middle School, a specialized school for gifted students, following her timely graduation from primary school.

When she was 12 years old, the national famine greatly affected her town. People scattered about the streets looking for food, and dead bodies could be seen everywhere. Many students stopped going to school and instead spent their days searching for food. However, Soo Mee’s mother urged her to continue with her studies. With her mother’s encouragement, Soo Mee gained acceptance into a prestigious university in North Korea.

She received good grades at the university and had high hopes of working in a well-established company in Pyongyang. However, due to her family background, she was forced to remain and work in the small rural town.

The living conditions in North Korea’s capitol are surprisingly different compared to the local cities.

Kim Soo Mee explained about the corruption surrounding university admissions in North Korea. “Only children who grow up in rich families can be admitted to the universities in Pyongyang, as huge sums of money are needed to bribe institution administrators. For example, if a student wants to attend Kim Il Sung University, often times a family will pay upwards of 1,000 dollars just to afford the child a chance of getting accepted. Pyongyang Medical College and Kim Hyong Jik College of Education usually require approximately 500 dollars in bribes.”

I was curious to ask, “Can a student bribe their way into a school even if he or she does not have good grades?”

She explained that such students are instructed to leave certain indicating marks on their test paper at the college entrance examination as a way for evaluators to discern whether the student offered a bribe or not. The evaluators rank the students by the amount in bribes their families have paid, and then rank them according to their family background.

Her college life was unbearable because she had no financial power or a strong family background to support her.

385 days out of her college years were spent practicing for the 40 seconds of the military parade it would take to pass by Kim Jong Il’s podium. The average student spends almost two and a half years preparing for national events such as military parades and agricultural support activities that take place in the Spring and Fall. These hardships led Soo Mee and many of her fellow students to dream of going abroad.

The most popular jobs after graduation include diplomatic posts and working in foreign currency-making companies. She went on to explain that it is now undesirable to work as a discharged soldier or a member of the Party.

As for the common perception of Kim Jong Il among North Korean youths, she maintained that “through propaganda, the people are made to believe that the General (Kim Jong Il) ‘s meals consist of only a few rice balls and salted radish. However, I was shocked to find out that preparation of the General’s meals costs 1,000 dollars.” This information was told to her by a researcher from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s Longevity Institute.

Most of the intellectual students have an unfavorable opinion about Kim Jong Il, but the general public does not see the truth behind his lies.

“In the movie, ‘Geumjin River’ (2004), there is a line that states, ‘We are poor because the heavens took away our Supreme Leader (Kim Il Sung) in wrath because the people did not respectfully take care of him.’ The authorities are currently insisting that our country is now poor because of imperialistic pressures and economic sanctions imposed on us by America.”

I asked, “What do the Pyongyang citizens think about the future of North Korea?”

“Most think that we should open and reform our state, but they can never mention the words ‘open’ and ‘reform’ in public,” she replied. “The authorities often proclaim that we can attain wealth by properly following the Military-First Policy and by establishing a strong economic society. But the problem is they do not tell us how to do so. The only people not doing business in the jangmadang are cadres of the Party, generals of the Army and National Security or Safety Agents; they maintain favorable living conditions by collecting bribes from the citizens.”


North Korean Citizens Are Differentiated into Six-Levels

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Daily NK
Lee Kwang Baek

The expansion of Jangmadang’s private economy

Several years ago, I met a defector from North Korea and is currently residing in Japan. He frequently meets people coming and going from North Korea.

The change he relayed regarding North Korea was interesting and vivid. Although hundreds of people are not dying from starvation as in the past, transformation brought about by the expansion of the private economy, such as the Jangmadang (markets).

I asked him what the most significant change in North Korea was after the mass starvation of the mid-90s.

It was the reorganization of North Korean society’s class system. According to him, there are currently six levels of classes forming in North Korea.

First is the top privileged class based on Kim Jong Il. It is the class that feeds and lives on Kim Jong Il’s administrative funds, all kinds of support coming in from South Korea, and extractions from civilians.

The second is the power class engaging in the area of foreign currency earning activity. A portion of money gained from the foreign currency earning business is offered to the Kim Jong Il regime and the rest are accumulated as their own wealth.

The third is the “moneybag” class who has earned money from exchanges with the products from Jangmadang and China. They use “violence” and “money,” like the Russian mafia, to secure the commercial rights of each region via the Jangmadang.

The fourth is the class whose sustenance depends on provisions. It can be deduced that people in the middle-class take up approximately 20~30% of the civilian population.

The fifth is the common class who depend on Jangmadang and individual patches. Approximately 60% of the total population falls into this class. They live day to day on their labor power.

The lowest class is the elderly, the handicapped, Kotjebi (begging children), city migrants, and diseased patients.

The most outstanding class is the 5th class. They are a class who has started living independently without depending on the Kim Jong Il regime and counts as 60% of the population.

South Korean administration believes that there is a need to seek a North Korean policy while considering the size and characteristics of the lower class.

That is, direct support or loans to the North Korean government should be reduced and a direct commercial transaction with North Korean citizens should be increased. Gradually, Kim Jong Il regime’s political position should be weakened and the status of self-sufficient lower-class citizens have to be elevated. This can become an important foundation for North Korean society’s move towards a market economy.

The second eye-catching element is the most venerable people in the lower class. Approximately 10% of people who fall under this class are humanitarian aid recipients of our government and international society. The latter two have steadily continued their support to them.

Despite this, according to a recent North Korean source, a significant amount of people are suffering from malnutrition among those who have been admitted to hospitals, long term reeducation camps, and concentration camps for beggar children. Why are such events occurring?

The defector said that when the rice that the South Korean government sends arrives at the North Korean harbor, North Korean authorities or organizations immediately sell them for money.

Similar testimonies have come forth from North Korean civilians. Rice which is sold at the harbor can only be bought with foreign currency. People who can purchase rice by paying foreign currency are “moneybags” for a portion of bureaucrats who have accumulated wealth. Moneybags and corrupt officials hand over this rice to the Jangmadang and collect the enormous balance.

The humanitarian aid provided by the outside, before they are even relayed to the lowest class who should be receiving support, are flowing into the hands of moneybags and corrupt bureaucrats. If such defectors’ testimonies are true, the South Korean government’s humanitarian rice support has lost its original function.

The solution regarding this is two-fold. First is directly relaying medical products and rice to North Korea’s lowest class. Through civilian and organizational efforts, a humanitarian support team jointly based on South Korean civilians and government should be formed and they should initiate humanitarian aid activity by directly going into North Korea.

Further, a large-sized South Korean humanitarian support activity inspection team should observe the activities of the North Korean Red Cross and raise the transparency of distribution. If this is difficult, there is a need to simplify the window through the support of international society whose monitoring is much ahead of our government’s monitoring of formality.

The government should urgently restore the original capacity of humanitarian support in order to avoid falling into a policy of failure geared only towards a dictatorship regime.


Architecture for Immortality of Leader

Monday, May 21st, 2007


The architecture in the DPRK has entered a new phase of its development in the Songun era.

The leader-immortality architecture reflects the unshakable will of the Korean people to attend President Kim Il Sung as the eternal image and to glorify his revolutionary exploits.

The Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the sacred temple of Juche, is a symbol and pattern of architecture for the immortality of the leader.

The Kumsusan Assembly Hall where President Kim Il Sung had conducted indefatigable activities for the Korean revolution and the global cause of independence was named Kumsusan Memorial Palace and built as a sacred temple more than 10 years ago, with the result that a new history of architecture for the immortality of the leader was created.

All structural elements and detailed decorations of the palace from the formation of the elevation to the palace square and stone gates mirror the faith and will of the servicepersons and the people to hold the President in high esteem forever.

Towers of immortality have been erected in different parts of the country. Inscribed in them is the slogan of faith “The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us”.

Typical of them is the tower of immortality built in the entrance of Kumsong Street in Pyongyang.

The tower built across the street has two arch-type openings in the foundation. Inscribed in relief are the immortal slogan on the front and back sides of the tower body flanked by magnolia flowers, the national flower.

The Monument to Party Founding and the Monument to the Victorious Battle of Musan Area, grand monumental edifices in the Songun era, are also associated with the revolutionary exploits of President Kim Il Sung.

The Monument to Party Founding depicts the emblem of the Workers’ Party of Korea in a unique way. A hammer, a sickle and a writing-brush tightly grasped in the hands of a worker, a peasant and an intellectual are vertically erected, surrounded by a girdle. The body of the Monument to the Victorious Battle of Musan Area is a vertically standing rifle, the main theme, unlike other monuments. The monuments depict well in a symbolic method the exploits of the President who founded the WPK and pioneered Songun.

The architectural edifices for the immortality of the leader will be handed down long in accordance with the noble moral obligation of the servicepersons and people to attend President Kim Il Sung as the Sun of Juche and eternal leader.


The Transformation of Class Structure and Class Conflict in North Korea

Friday, July 8th, 2005

International Journal of Korean Unification Studies
Vol. 14, No.2, 2005, pp 52-84.

PDF Here: transformation of class structure.pdf

This study examines how North Korea’s class structure transformations influenced the social transformations, and seeks to understand the structural characteristics of North Korea by examining in detail the existing shape of each social class. This study found that North Korea’s socialist transformation was the process of dismantling every social class, such as the landowners, farmers, commerce and industry, and intelligentsia classes, etc. The 1946 land reform dismantled the landowner class, the 1958 agricultural collectivization dismantled the farmers class, and the 1958 nationalization of commerce and industry did the same to the petty bourgeoisie. The only class remaining in North Korea is the managers of the governing class. There was no class differentiation, only dismantlement. Thus, with social classes dissolved, the governing class remains as the monolithic class monopolizing social, economic, and political power in North Korea, with no other social power to act as a balancer. This type of class structure may constitute the social conditions of political dictatorship in North Korea.

In North Korea, the fundamental ownership relations of the traditional class structure were dismantled in the name of socialist construction. The victims of this construction were the traditional classes of landowner, petty bourgeoisie, farmer, and intellectual.

When the 1946 Land Reform Law was passed, it was enacted in a month.  The law provided for government confiscation of land properties over 5 chongbo (1 chongbo=2.45 acres).  When completed, 1,000,325 chongbo of 1,982,431 under cultivation at the time.  At the time, land owned by the Japanese state, Japanese people, and religious organizations was barely 4%.  the remaining 96% was in the hands of Korean landowners and tenants.  It affected 405,603 of the 1,121,295 registered farming households.  4 in 10 households had land confiscated in part or whole.  Ten years after land reform, many were again prospering, and theor political influence became noticeable.  Kim il Sung sought to reassert control over them.  In 1958, land reform was reversed and farms were colectivised.

Nationalization of industry, traffic, transportation, communications and bank finances, including over 1034 important factories and businesses.  In 1947 80.2% of industry was held in state control.  Private commerce made up the rest.  After the Korean War, private enterprise production consisted of small-scale mills, metal workshops, rubber factories.  by May 1957, the number of private industrial enterprises was 633.  By August 1958, this activity was completely eliminated.

To purge the intellectuals (who were educated in the old ways) Kim il Sung proposed, “we have to speed up the construction of socialism, and fo rthat purpose, we have to fight against the conservatism of the intellectuals.” This started with technicians and economic managers.  Then dissident writers.

All social powers were ousted: Landowners, farmers, businessmen, and intellectual classes.  All menas of production were nationalized and socialiazed, so all became employees of the state, and the state became the sole employer.  North Korea’s new system consists of the rulers and everyone else (two groups).

To prevent remanats of the past from gaining influence, North Korea classified each individual according to their family background, and discriminated on this classification (starting in 1957).

Yunan and Soviet factions were purged in the August Faction Incident in 1956.  Cabinet Decision 149 mandates that ousted individuals be put in area 20km from the sea coast and demarcation line, 50km away from Pyongyang and Kaesong, 20km away fro mother cities and limited residential areas.  These individuals received a special stamp on their ID cards and were registered with the social security agency.

The North Korean managerial (ruling) class is an exclusive group which has institutionalized a system so that it may keep its privileges.  Only the sons and daughters of the core class can become promoted within the managerial class.  Children of Cadres only marry children of cadres.

Core class is 3,915,000 people in 870,000 households.  Wavering is 3,150,000 in 700,000 households.  Hostile is 7,930,000 in 173,000 households.

In the workplace, all indivduals are obliged to be part of one of three organizations: the party, the Youth League, or the Workers Union.

Supplies are divided into special numbers.  1,2,3,4, etc.  Those in higher positions are afforded higher rank in distribution.  “How could Party Secretaries, who don’t do anything,obtian objects of a 4 level?”

Private relationships are only possible through the party.

Self-criticism sessions are carried out every week.  Since these are routine, people know each other and act accordingly.  Becuase everyone has to criticize each other they tend to do so in a modest way.

Peasants most angry.  Laborers and office workers have time to do business on the side, but peasants do not.  Some bright peasants do tend private plots.

People complain openly now.

While the core class focused on inner-systemic solidarity when faced with a crisis, the wavering and hostile classes were the first to enter the black market.  After business expanded in the country side like wildfire the government brought the businesses into the open in July 2002.  The marginalized societies led the change in values.  Reportedly the collude with the regulatory authorities and security guards, borrow and rent vehicles for biusiness.

Only those sub-classified as Manyongdae line (Kim Il Sung’s lineage), Baektusan line (Kim Jong Il’s lineage), and Ryongnamsan line (People who graduated with Kim Jong Il from Kim Il Sung University) are able to receive official government posts.

Of the total population, 10% makes up the power-holding ruling class.  Another 40% make up a lower social rung doing business and making deals.


Social Strata

Tuesday, April 12th, 2005

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…